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Head Games - Strategic Plans for Chipping Up on the Money Bubble and at the Final Table

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Feb 18, 2011

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Craig Tapscott: As the money bubble and the final table approach, what are the factors that influence how you adjust your strategy?

Bertrand Grospellier: Obviously, you really want to take advantage of players with medium and short stacks who care a lot about the money. And it’s important to try to find out which players got in via a satellite, as they will usually be much more careful on the bubble, while most players who are regulars on the tournament circuit will play to win. Those are two factors to think about when you have a big stack. If you have an average to low stack, things are different. You might want to take advantage of people who are bullying the bubble and raising every hand by three-betting all in at a higher than normal frequency. Once again, it’s very important to identify your opponents’ tendencies, and depending on your stack and position at the table, to take advantage of their weaknesses, which can be too much aggression or very passive play.
Jeff Williams: My strategy for bubble play depends on three different factors: the people at my table, our stack sizes relative to the size of the blinds, and the size of the bubble. If there are good players at the table, I play a tighter range of hands than I would at a table with inexperienced players. Skilled players will take advantage of someone who is playing too many pots, and I will end up losing chips due to playing non-premium starting hands. If my stack is large and I can afford to raise, and my opponents are short-stacked, I will look to put pressure on them, mainly because no one (not even pros) wants to bust out on the bubble of a live tournament. Bubbles for large amounts of money are the best for putting pressure on other players. I have heard stories from World Series of Poker main-event bubbles where players have folded A-A preflop to an all-in shove by someone. Recently, on the EPT Vienna main-event bubble, I had Daniel Negreanu to my right and some European professional players to my left. Due to those factors, I was not able to truly abuse the bubble, but I did still raise a wide range of hands when I was in good position, and at one point, I made a call on Negreanu with ace high (which was good).
Andrew Ferguson: My play changes near the money bubble by researching all of the players at my table. I figure out which players the money will likely affect the most, and focus my energy and momentum on taking chips from them by using a low-risk small-ball style, all the while forcing them to make tough decisions for a large percentage of their stacks. I’m likely to pick on stacks that are around the same size as or smaller than mine, so that I do not have to risk my tournament life. For example, in the Full Tilt Poker $163,000-guaranteed event that I recently won, I didn’t have to risk my entire stack often. I chose to three-bet bluff players I had identified as being weak, low buy-in types, and I accumulated the majority of my stack without going to showdown.

Craig Tapscott: Once you’ve reached the final table, how do you go about formulating a game plan to win? What factors come into play and how do you use them to your advantage?
Bertrand Grospellier: At the final table, it’s a bit different, as people there will usually play for the win. But sometimes players will try to gain spots, too, so you can easily abuse that. Table flow and stack sizes are shifting more rapidly at the final table than at any other stage of the tournament, so be very aware of that. What I usually like to do is wait patiently for a good spot and then, using the image boost that it gives me, shift into a higher gear. But then again, some players will expect it quite a bit more than others. So, either be careful when you do it or be ready to increase the variance and make light four-bets or five-bets if the situation calls for it. Depending on the structure, having position on other good players isn’t necessarily a very good thing, because when stacks are shallower, they can open light, and any three-bet you attempt will commit you. It’s of prime importance to find out what your opponents are up to, in order to counter their strategy while trying to maintain enough chips to be dangerous at any time.
Jeff Williams: Once the tournament is down to nine players, the real work begins. Since the pay jumps at most major final tables are so big, they will change how people play. Most players will be looking to survive and move up the pay ladder, while some others will be making plays to accumulate chips with an eye toward winning the tournament outright. I believe that the best strategy lies in between these two extremes; I will make some moves with an eye toward winning the whole tournament, while at the same time not putting my entire stack at risk without a premium holding, so that I can move up the pay scale. If there are several short stacks at the final table, I will raise liberally, knowing that they will be folding the majority of their hands so as to preserve their chips and wait for others to bust out. The presence of other good players at the table can complicate this strategy, so when there are skilled players with big stacks at the table, I will scale my aggression back to a reasonable level. Few players will be looking to play pots out of position, so when it’s my button or cutoff, I will bring it in for a raise the majority of the time, and conversely, when I am under the gun or in early position, I will be folding the vast majority of hands. As players bust out and the table becomes more shorthanded, everyone is forced to play more and more hands. So, at final tables where people are playing very aggressively, I will play passively and wait for good hands and/or people to eliminate each other, and at final tables where people are playing passively, I will mix it up and raise wide.
Andrew Ferguson: Once I’m at the final table, I have already done my research and taken notes on all of the players who made it into the top 18. When I have a top stack at the table, I will try to establish a crazy, aggressive, and unpredictable image by three-betting and playing a lot of pots with players I have pinned as bad or average. This will induce the majority of the table to sit back and wait for people to bust out. I try not to play pots out of position, and when I’m on the button or in the cutoff, I will take advantage of my position and try to see a lot of flops, given that I have the proper stack to do so. Then, when I sense that I’m getting played back at, I will slow down and play more or less straightforwardly. And since my image has been established as crazy, I will likely get paid when I get a real hand. If nobody attempts to play back at me, I will just continue on my tear. ♠