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Five Observations About No-Limit Tournaments

by Ed Miller |  Published: Aug 22, 2012


Ed MillerI’m primarily a cash game player. I don’t like the large time commitments tournaments require, nor do I like the variance.

I do play tournaments from time to time, however, and I find that I approach the things differently than most of my opponents. It may be my cash game background coming through. Take these for what their worth – a fresh perspective from a relative stranger to tournament poker – but here are five observations I’ve made about no-limit tournaments. In all cases, I’m referring to multi-day, slow-structured tournaments.

Observation No. 1. Theoretically, the early levels should play almost identically to a cash game.

When you play a cash game, your goal is to accumulate chips by making a long series of plays with a positive expectation. You grind out a profit the same way any casino does – make lots and lots of bets where you have a small-to-medium edge.

In the early stages of a tournament, your goal is exactly the same: to accumulate chips. If tournaments were structured as winner-take-all affairs, then accumulating chips would be the only goal, and theoretically tournament play would be identical to cash game play all the way to the very last hand.

Since traditional tournaments award cash prizes to some of the losers, however, strategy changes from a cash game. But in the early stages, you don’t need to worry about the prize structure. You won’t be getting any prize unless you accumulate some chips, and you can treat the thing as a cash game.

Observation No. 2. There’s nothing wrong with making high variance plays early in a tournament.

Much tournament wisdom suggests you avoid high variance gambles because “you’ll get a better spot for your money later.” If you’re a good player, the theory goes, you’re better off avoiding gambles to try to hang around as long as possible to wait for that donk to spew off his chips.

I think this wisdom, at least early in the tournament where things still play like a cash game, is essentially bunk. Say you enter the WSOP main event and, because of your prowess at playing tournaments, your expected return on your $10,000 buyin is $13,000. If you somehow were able to play the tournament repeatedly, your average cash over repeated trials would be $13,000.

The moment you sit down, fresh-faced, with your 30,000 in tournament chips, your stack is worth $13,000.

Let’s say you happen to double up on the first hand. Lucky you! Now you have 60,000 in tournament chips. What is your stack worth now?

It’s worth very close to $26,000. By doubling your stack on the first hand, you have essentially doubled your expected cash and therefore doubled the cash value of your stack. If you started selling shares of yourself after that first hand, you could very fairly double the price you charge.

This relationship breaks down with repeated doubling. As soon as your stack becomes large enough that you can start worrying about the prize structure, chips you own become worth more than chips you might accumulate.

But early on, because the cash value of your stack roughly doubles when you double up, variance is not the enemy. Put another way, you’re doubly able to exploit the donks when you double your chips.

Observation No. 3. Most players are too risk-averse early in a tournament, and this is exploitable.

A lot of my cash game profit comes from applying pressure to opponents who are psychologically unprepared to lose a big pot. Rather than play the big pot and possibly lose, they fold.

In tournaments, many players are extremely loathe to lose a big pot early in the tournament, even more so than in cash games. Maybe it’s because they buy in to the variance-avoiding theory, or maybe it’s because they are playing to survive rather than win a prize.

Regardless, in the early stages of tournaments, many players make constant one-third pot bets and fold far too often to a small raise. If you’re the one making the raises, you will more often than not clean up.

Observation No. 4. Overbet bluffing, when used judiciously and with some accompanying hand reading skills, is a very powerful weapon.

I make overbet bluffs with regularity when I play cash games. Say there’s $200 in the pot. I’ll bet up to $400 as a bluff. To some it looks crazy to risk so much to win so little, but the bluff needs to succeed only 67 percent of the time to break even. If you choose spots well – using hand reading skills to avoid bluffing into the near-nuts – you’ll get folds well over 80 percent of the time. It’s because most cash game players don’t bluff like this, and therefore very few players are willing to hero call one of these overbets with just a one pair hand.

In the early stage of tournaments, overbetting can be even more effective. Again, players don’t want to lose large pots, and so they won’t call unless they have a near lock hand. At my day one table during this year’s WSOP main event, I watched someone accumulate the largest stack at my table through repeated overbet bluffing.
I did get a good bit of it at the end of the day when I set him up to bluff twice into me holding top two-pair. He was reckless with the overbetting, but it does work, and if you pick your spots well, it’s quite effective.

Observation No. 5. Call liberally from the big blind, intending to bluff frequently postflop.

Tournament players frequently offer very attractive odds for the big blind to call preflop. Let’s say the level is 200-400 (50). Players will frequently open raise to 850 or 900 at this level. Say someone open raises to 900 and it’s folded to the big blind. There is 2000 in the pot (600 in blinds, 500 in antes, and the 900 raise), and it’s only 500 to call. That’s 4-to-1.

Frequently the raiser will have a relatively wide opening range that includes hands like 5-5, Q-9 suited, and A-8 offsuit. Also, because most players at this stage are risk-avoiding, your opponent is very unlikely to bluff three postflop streets.
Many players will routinely bet the flop and, if called, give up. If your opponent opens a wide range and plays this limply postflop, I believe you can profitably call preflop with any two cards getting 4-to-1.

The plan is to check and fold the very worst flops (for example, 5Diamond Suit 2Diamond Suit on a JSpade Suit 9Spade Suit 8Club Suit flop), but to float or check-raise most flops whether you hit or not. Since your opponent will usually tell you clearly by the river whether he’s got a hand worth going to the mat with or not, you can linger in these pots and steal them almost at will.

Final Thoughts

Mine are the thoughts of a cash game player who occasionally plays tournaments. I don’t claim to be an expert on tournaments, but I hope my observations have given you some food for thought. ♠

Ed’s brand new book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at Find Ed on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.