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Accumulator vs. Conservator

by Todd Arnold |  Published: Dec 01, 2005


Fundamental or conservative play will often get you into the money in tournaments as long as you are able to avoid some bad situations or beats. However, it will rarely get you in shape to win the tournament unless you get hit in the face with the deck (that is, you get great cards). Throughout a tournament, you must make many "gear changes" to accumulate chips. There are times when conservative play is correct and times when accumulative play is required. If you want to take your game to the level of a top player, you must know when and how to accumulate. Many factors determine when you need to change gears during a tournament.

Early in a tournament, for example, many players are playing very conservatively; they are fundamental and passive.

Why? Well, usually it is the correct gear, but many players don't really know why; they are playing tight just out of fear, because they don't want to get knocked out and would hate themselves if they did something unnecessarily stupid. They also go into the tourney with a plan to play tight and make it to some predetermined point before loosening up. As I always say, this is not the correct mindset. Don't have a plan like that.

Play situational poker. Here are some real reasons for playing tight early.

Image building: Build an image as a solid player, enabling you to make some moves a little later.

Observation: Watch the others at the table. What is their image? How creative or active are they? And so on.

And, most important, VALUE: This is usually the most common reason for playing tight early.

But what value is there for you to make a move?

Usually very little. Let me put it all together through an example. You know a player is not real strong with his raise (because you are paying attention) and know that you could reraise him off his hand with your 8 6. Your image is tight and the raiser has been a little more active than most, but what value is there in doing so? Usually the answer is not much at this time in the tourney. So, although you have all the ingredients to aggress and accumulate, you still choose not to because of value. It can be very easy to "chip down" during the early levels of play by trying to make moves, and more difficult to "chip up" when the table is tight early on.

So, when does it make sense not to play tight early on in a tourney? As I said earlier, we are going to play situational poker. So, if you see that your table is very tight and just waiting for cards, pressure them. Be active and pick up those small pots. Accumulation is important at any level. Remember, play your opponents more than your cards – and this is true even in the early stages. This is also an image builder, so you need to know what the table thinks of you and be able to use it to your advantage. Being active early will often loosen up your table; creating larger pots and smart play will lead to early accumulation even during low blind levels. Having this aggressive image will often lead to larger pots later, as well (future value), since many at the table will not believe you when you get a real hand later. I like being somewhat more aggressive than the rest in the early stages. Remember, know what the table thinks of you based on your actions and change gears to extract chips from them based on your ability to play off their assumptions of you.

Here are two points to think about: Playing tight will allow you to make some well-timed plays for the pot without cards, but they will usually be smaller pots. And, playing aggressively will lead to more action from your opponents and larger payoffs, but you will get called more often with a looser image, so your hands will need to hold up. There are pluses and minuses to both styles. To become an accumulator and become more aggressive, you must be able to read your opponents accurately. People will try to trap you more often and you will need to make some laydowns, so you cannot be blindly aggressive; thus, you need to practice and become an expert at selective aggression.

Accumulation throughout all parts of a tournament requires you to be aware of your image and your opponents' images, and be able to read your opponents' holecards. You need to extract chips from them based on what you think they think you have, while also knowing what hand they are playing. Get that? It may sound confusing because it is complicated, but it is critical. It is the key thing you need to learn to become an effective accumulator, so read it again.

Here is a simple example of this thought process: "I know he thinks that I am just being aggressive with an ace on a ragged flop, because that is my image and I know he is aware of it. But I have pocket queens this time and I know he has an underpair. I can use my image and understanding of what he thinks to induce him to play hard into me." Extract and accumulate.

Preflop raising and reraising are ways to accumulate once the blinds are large enough and the antes have begun, because at that point there is value in the pot before anyone has even made a bet. Rather than playing your cards to determine whether to raise, focus instead on your reads and determine what they don't have. Can you get them off their hands based on your read, what they think of you, and how committed they are with their bets? If so, reraise them. Make them doubt their hands.

Under the right circumstances, most players will doubt almost every hand, with the exception of A-A, K-K, and maybe Q-Q and A-K. Do you really want to call for what may be your tournament life with anything else? Well, neither does your opponent. Learning to reraise a player successfully preflop picks up the blinds, antes, and the original raiser's bet amount right there. Continue to attack weakness. Attack, attack, and attack some more and you will know when an opponent has strength by the way he plays back at you. Get out if the reraise is too much to call, and then just go back to attacking. Your aggression will help you read their hands, as well. By being an accumulator, your aggression enables you to have a pretty good idea of their cards, while they have no idea of your cards; they sit confused and bewildered because you have been playing a wide range of hands. When an opponent picks up a hand he is willing to play against you, he often advertises it by betting hard in fear of what you will do. So, just get out of the way.

Accumulate when most others are not. As the blinds continue to grow and you get near the bubble, a conservator tightens up, so the accumulator must apply pressure. This is not the only place, but it is an important and common one. You have often heard that you need to pick your spots. This means finding spots that make sense based on the action at your table, and this can be at any point in a tourney. Find them all.

The thought processes you should have to be successful as an accumulator or aggressor are actually mathematical. I am not talking about the common poker math of pot odds, what the percentage is of making your hand, or how many outs you have. I am speaking of a different math, the concept of likelihood. First, it is unlikely that of any 10 hands dealt, someone has a premium hand. So, preflop raises at critical times in the tourney will often pick up the blinds and antes. Second, if there is a good hand out there, the hand is likely not in position to be played or to call any raises (for example, 2-2 through 7-7, K-Q, A-J, and so on).

You may be surprised at the ranges of hands people fold in many stages of a tourney, but think back to what you have folded to a raise in a tournament. For example, you could raise with the A 6 from early or middle position and run into A-J in late position. Knowing that he must either reraise or fold, oftentimes that player will just fold, especially if reraising will pot-commit him for all his chips. Last and most important in the concept of likelihood, always remember that it is more likely that a player will miss the flop. The math says that he will miss. This allows you to make calls knowing you are behind once you have accumulated a large stack. For example, you face a raised pot and know the player has A-K or A-Q and does not have a pair. You can call that raise with the sole intention of outplaying him on the flop. More than two-thirds of the time, he will not hit his hand on the flop. You will have position on that player after the flop and betting or even raising the flop that you know missed him will usually take the pot regardless of whether you hit the flop or not. I call it "expanding your hand." You have your two cards plus every other card that you know he doesn't have. So, pick your spots and accumulate every chance you get.

Last, you need to learn to feel your table. You will feel when the table gets sick of your aggression and starts taking chances against you and others. Switch gears here and let them beat on each other a bit and play premium hands yourself. You have probably often heard the story of how a friend went out of the tournament and it has probably happened to you, too. It goes something like this. "This guy at my table was raising almost every pot. I was just waiting to catch a hand and take his chips. He raised about three and a half times the blind like he did 100 times before, and I was in the small blind. I looked down and saw 6-6 (or the A 10 or whatever marginal hand). I pushed all in and he insta-called me!! The guy had K-K and I was out. Argh!" Well, you were just a victim of aggression, the pure genius of it!

The aggressor will get a real hand like everyone else and will get paid by someone who overplays his hand based on the aggressor's image. Against a tighter player, you probably would just call, at most, with those hands, and if you missed, get out and go on to the next hand. But, the aggressor induced you to overplay your hand with his action and gear change. Don't be the victim; learn to be the aggressor, accumulate, and take your game to a higher level.

Tell the table what to think and induce and control the action you want. When you learn to become an accumulator, you will have a high expectation for a strong performance in every tournament you play. Stay tight and you know the end result – just hoping to get into the money. The choice is yours.

It's not what you have; it's what they don't have and fear you have.

Todd Arnold is the trainer and co-creator of Visit the site or e-mail Todd at