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Head Games: How to Go Deep In Large Field Tournaments

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jun 26, 2013

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The Pros: Kevin Saul, Kyle Julius, Ben Wilinofsky, Bryan Paris, and Mike McDonald

Craig Tapscott: How do you approach these big field events like the WSOP events strategy wise? Are you aggressive early to build a stack, patient till the antes kick in, etcetera?

Kevin Saul: The structure in these events is amazing. It might not seem that way given the small amount of chips you start with, but you have to get that out of your head from the beginning. I definitely think tight is right in the beginning, and you need to allow bad players to make mistakes and hope you have the chance to capitalize on them. The structure is amazing, which you see with how deep everyone is throughout the tournament. Once the antes kick in I would be a little more aggressive, but no need to push things too far.

Kyle Julius: When it comes to these huge fields, I generally play pretty tight early when the blinds are small and there are no antes. I don’t think there’s a huge rush to try and get chips in these things. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon and it’s all about tournament life. It is more about just letting the game come to you, and naturally the spots will come and you will be able to pick up chips as the blinds go up.

Ben Wilinofsky: My best advice for large field tournaments is to try to start accumulating chips as early as possible. The bigger the field, the further away you are from the money. A starting stack is pretty insignificant when you might need five or ten times that to make it into the money, and much more to make it deep, so don’t worry so much about protecting it. Remember: you’re there to win and, to do that, you need every chip in the tournament. So start collecting them as soon as you can.

Bryan Paris: It really depends on the composition of your table. If your table is full of weak, casual players, you definitely want to be more aggressive early and put people to the test for their whole stack, as they will likely not be willing to bust in a marginal spot. If your table has more pros, it is better to take it easy and wait for better spots later. You will get frequent table changes in these events, so it is best to play a different style depending on the strength of your table draw and adapt to the flow of the tournament. Also, bear in mind that you can’t win the tournament early, so don’t go overboard — you just want to maximize every spot that comes your way. Another thing to keep in mind is that these are ten-handed tables, so your preflop ranges should be slightly tighter as a result. It’s generally preferable to be tight preflop and aggressive postflop, rather than the other way around, as people love to splash around in pots, but don’t love to get their whole stack in early without having the goods.

Mike McDonald: I generally cater it a lot to my table. I’ve had WSOP prelim tables that are extremely loose or extremely tight. At a table where everyone is playing very tight, I’ll play quite loose and fold when I see much resistance, and at the looser tables I’ll do things primarily for value. Many people overestimate how loose you should play in these events — raising to three big blinds under-the-gun (UTG) ten-handed is essentially saying, “hey guys, I’ll lay 3-to-win-1.5 that none of the nine of you can beat me.” It just simply isn’t that profitable to play extremely loose before the antes, whereas once they come into play, and you can lower raise sizes and increase the incentive to pick up pots, you can play substantially more hands. I tend to assume most people are pretty terrible hand readers and will tend to just look at what they most likely have and try to bluff them off of their marginal, absolute value-strength hands more than I’ll actually worry about them reading when my range is strong and using that as an opportunity to bluff.

Craig Tapscott: What kind of common mistakes or blatant errors do you see players make once the antes kick in?

Kevin Saul: The biggest mistake is probably justifying a play by, “well there were antes.” Just because there are antes doesn’t mean you have to go nuts with marginal hands. Sometimes you just have to fold the 5-4 suited in early position, because you just can’t make it profitable if you are opening it every time. So a big mistake I see is over-aggression. There are a lot of good players who will take advantage of your aggression and a lot of … let’s call them “not as good” players who are looking for ways to make mistakes. To be successful you need to be finding ways to take advantage of the errors these players will make and get chips that way. It is commonly a big mistake to think you need to be the most aggressive player to chip up. I’m as laggy as they come, but preach a tight-aggressive style in these tournaments.

Kyle Julius: When the antes kick in you see a lot of people start dropping out. Everyone who plays poker gets excited when the antes hit because there is obviously more in the pot and more to play for. I see a lot of people just trying to make the hero plays early in these events when it is not necessary (I have done it countless times), but it is something to learn from. But sometimes being super-aggressive early in these events can be correct as well, it all depends on your opponents.

Ben Wilinofsky: I think the biggest thing players do wrong once the antes kick in is not playing more hands. Once there’s extra dead money in the pot, you are getting a better price to steal, re-steal, or call and see a flop, but most people play more or less the same way as they were before the antes. When the antes come into play, there are often 2.5 or 3 big blinds in the pot instead of 1.5. This means stealing preflop with the same-sized raise is twice as profitable. When defending your big blind from a raise to three times the blinds, instead of getting 2.25-to-1, you’re getting 3.25 or 3.75-to-1. That’s a very big difference, and you should be defending wider accordingly.

Bryan Paris: The biggest error I generally see is people who come from a cash-game background and don’t realize how short the effective stacks are. If your background is in online multitable tournaments, or even sit-no-gos, you shouldn’t have a problem, as the effective stacks will generally be 20 big blinds or less. However, if you’re used to cash games, you may be trying to see too many flops and not realize how much entering a pot commits you at this stage. Unless it’s a big stack versus big stack confrontation, the game mostly becomes about preflop battles once the antes kick in. Another common error I see is people panicking and getting it in too light with the first halfway decent hand they see, which is rarely necessary. As cliché as the “chip and a chair” phrase may be at this point, it carries a lot of truth. You really can come back from any stack size, and it’s far better to let yourself drop below 10 big blinds than it is to take a negative expected value spot to avoid this fate. People don’t play shortstack poker very well in these events, so patience can pay dividends.

Mike McDonald: Many players play too tight, three-bet too small out of position, raise too small from the small blind, don’t four-bet enough against regulars, don’t squeeze enough, flat too weak of a range leaving them susceptible to squeezes, and don’t defend their big blind enough.