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Head Games -- Know When, Why, and How to Switch Gears Effectively in Tournament Play

Switching Gears In Tournaments

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Sep 21, 2011


Sometimes it’s hard to get a straight answer from a professional poker player. Ask three players a question and you’re liable to get three different answers. Why? Because, the answer depends. It depends on the situation, opponent, stack sizes, table image, tilt, metagame, and so on.

Head Games will peer deep inside the complex minds of today’s top players. We’ll reveal why they do what they do in sticky situations, especially when it comes down to making a critical decision for a major tournament title, or calling a check-raise all in on the river holding only ace high for a $500,000 pot. Let the games begin.

The Pros: Steve Barshak, Scott Sitron and David Sands

Craig Tapscott: Can you share your approach to the late stages of a tournament when choosing to switch gears to apply pressure on your opponents?

Steve Barshak: A really important aspect of switching gears is to understand how your opponents perceive you. Think about how you’ve been playing and ask yourself a few questions: Have I been three-betting a lot? Have I not been playing many hands? Have I shown down a lot of bad hands? Have I shown down mostly good hands?

These are the types of questions you need to ask yourself, and once you understand your image, you can adapt accordingly. If you have a very reckless image and have been showing down a lot of bad hands, you’re probably going to be called down more lightly, so get maximum value and tighten up a bit. If you can exploit a tight image, go after your table and make yourself known. Also, occasionally you can get to that happy medium in which you’re playing aggressively but showing down almost all good hands, and then you are that guy “no one wants to mess with.” Then, just keep doing what you’re doing!

Position is another important aspect to consider. Most people understand that there is good chance a late-position raise is a steal, while most may still not understand that an early-position raise can be a steal, even though it has become much more common. Thinking about how your position affect a person’s thinking is key.

Scott Sitron: In the late stages of a tournament, it is important to be aware of stack sizes when selecting where to be aggressive. I like to be aggressive when my stack and the other aggressive players’ stacks are deeper than 40 big blinds. The reason for this is that when the other aggressive players have shallow stacks, they can profitably three-bet all in with very wide ranges against my opens and force me to make difficult decisions. When they are deep-stacked, I have room to four-bet preflop with bluffs and put them to the tough decisions. I also have the option of calling their three-bets and playing the pot after the flop. When the tighter players at the table have short stacks, I still can open a wide range of hands, because typically they won’t be shoving their 15-20 big blinds stacks without a premium hand.

This aggressive style will not only put the pressure on my opponents, but often causes them to overvalue their hands against me when I do get a premium hand. Another benefit is that it causes players to make overly aggressive and sometimes spewy plays against me when I have connected on a flop. Seeing you rake pot after pot may cause them not to want to play pots with you at all, and you can continue to run over the table. It is also important to keep in mind that this usually will force other players to adjust to our play and want to punish the over-aggressive lagtard.

David Sands: A large component of how I evaluate the degree to which I want to ratchet up my aggression in the later stages of a tournament is the relative skill level of my table versus the remaining players in the field. As an example, if I find myself sitting with six of the remaining 10 fish with 40 or so players left, I’m going to try to play basically every pot, mainly because I recognize my opponents will make more frequent and significant errors than will the majority of the remaining field. Conversely, if I have three of the better remaining players to my immediate left, I may decide it is best to open a very narrow range and instead enter the majority of pots three-betting the opens of others at the table.

While the relative skill level of my opponents is a crucial variable to consider when evaluating how aggressively to play in the middle and late stages of the tournament, my stack size is perhaps even more crucial. When I have more than 40 blinds, I generally expect to be able to accumulate chips consistently by playing a lot of pots and forcing folds from shorter-stacked opponents when they miss flops. However, if I find myself under 30 or so big blinds, I generally will be more selective with my spots, splash around less, and look to preserve my stack and find a good three-bet or four-bet opportunity in which I can leverage my chips to get folds from a high percentage of my opponents’ hand ranges.

Craig Tapscott: How do you determine that it’s time to apply the brakes and be patient?

Steve Barshak: It’s very important to understand the hands that you’ve been showing down and the way you’ve been playing, and how that affects people’s perception of you. If you’ve been showing down crappy hands after barreling a lot, you obviously will start getting called more. Just think logically about what kinds of hands you’ve been showing down, what style you’ve been playing, and how these things are affecting people’s actions toward you. If you’ve been really aggressive, most capable players will call you down a lot lighter. If you’ve been tight, you’ll get a lot more folds. Obviously, you must consider your opponent’s style, too, but that is a given. In terms of live poker, you also can use physical tells and people’s reactions to your advantage to see when people just look like they’re getting annoyed with you.

Scott Sitron: I usually apply the brakes after I’ve been really aggressive for a while and the other players at my table have decided that they no longer wish to be subject to this abuse. Often when this is the case, they will target me to push in with almost any two cards after I open a pot, or after I’ve three-bet another player’s open. They might even make a comment like, “You got a plane to catch?” or “Raising my blind?” [I also apply the brakes when] the table’s stack sizes have dropped to below 30 big blinds, and the players are in a good spot to shove against me. It is important to become aware of these changes in the dynamic early, because every small mistake late in a tournament can really hinder your chances at having a successful run.

David Sands: One of the most significant and often most overlooked signals for when it is time to slow down and apply the brakes involves recognizing your individual opponents’ willingness to get run over. Some players will fold and fold in search of a good spot and simply will not shove their remaining stack in the middle without a semi-premium hand. Other more prideful players will reach a breaking point at which they seemingly would rather risk blowing their tournament than folding a hand and feeling like they lost another battle to an opponent they perceive is giving them no respect. Body language and post-hand table talk are two great ways to differentiate between these two groups of opponents. I find that a lot of younger players are more worried about what others think of their play than they are about playing optimal poker. These are the types of players who will risk their tournament life on a light five-bet all in, even in very soft fields in which they easily could find better, low-variance spots. More seasoned players recognize that sometimes it is better to put pride aside, fold to a good/aggressive opponent in a marginal spot, and wait for the weaker players to make mistakes. Spade Suit