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Head Games: Early Position Tournament Strategy as the Money Bubble Approaches

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Sep 04, 2013

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The Pros: David Sands, Adam Junglen, and Marc Andre Ladouceur

Craig Tapscott: Share your thoughts on early position strategy during the heat of the battle, as the event draws closer to the money bubble. Perhaps talk about ranges and player reads as they relate to your decisions to open.

David Sands: My early position opening strategy is predicated primarily on two factors: stack sizes and how much I respect the opponents behind me. My table image at the time, as well as the proximity to the money bubble, are secondary factors which, although they are not as important as the first two, merit substantial consideration. The first thing I look at when evaluating how wide to open from early position is how many of the players behind me have good reshove stacks. I define reshove stacks, roughly, as stacks between 12 and 22 big blinds. Since I cannot “outplay” an all-in bet, it is important that I open a relatively tight range from early position. However, the fact there are a number of shorter stacks behind me does not necessarily mean I have to tighten up my early position opening range. Certain opponents refuse to go all-in without a strong hand, even when they know I am opening light and they have a perfect stack to reshove. As such, I only find it necessary to tighten my opening range when capable players who are willing to move all-in light have the stacks to do so. If I have a big stack on or near the bubble, I will usually open pretty wide regardless of who is behind me and how deep they are. Independent Chip Model (ICM) dictates that on or near the money bubble, players with shorter stacks should take fewer risks to ensure they make the money. This means that even if good players are playing optimally, it is very difficult for them to exploit my wide opening range when we are very close to the money. 

Adam Junglen: The bubble is an excellent time to pick up chips, but it really depends on the table, stack depths and buy-in of the event (people play notoriously tight during a WSOP main event bubble compared to other tournaments naturally). Some tables play so tightly that if you have chips you could open any two or any ace or king-high. But a lot of players have caught on to this. So, if you’re at a table with experienced players who have chips, and you’re on a short stack, then it’s correct to play tight to cash. Generally speaking, whether you’re short or deep-stacked, it is a good strategy to go after the medium stacks, as they have the most pressure, the most to lose. From early position, during most tournaments approaching the money, I’m comfortable opening virtually any two with the right stack and table. If there are other skilled players there who I anticipate are capable of three-betting light, I’d still open often to try and test them. 

Marc Andre Ladouceur: It is very dependent on your stack relative to others at the table, the skill level of opponents, and your table image thus far in the tournament. As you approach the money bubble, it is very important to figure out which players are trying to cash at all costs and which are using the bubble to chip up. You want to know where you stand and what you can get away with. Taking a close look and examining your opponents can usually give you a feel for it. As a bigger stack, you’re typically going to open more, especially when you’re facing weaker players who have position. They’re likely to let you get away with opening a very large range. You must be careful about skilled players who will either apply pressure if they also have a big stack, or will three-bet shove their smaller stack and force you to fold a bunch. If you’ve been quiet so far at the table, you may get more respect and it would be a good time to take advantage of it. When you have a 30-big blind stack and lower, you usually want to tighten up some to make sure you’re not putting yourself in exploitable situations. At tough tables, you do not want to play too many hands that you’re not willing to go all-in with preflop. For example, I would fold smaller pairs and most offsuit Broadway hands unless I’m at a weaker table. If played correctly, the bubble can print you some money and set you up for a final table.

Craig Tapscott: From late position, how do you read and interpret your opponents’ early position opens? What factors determine how you will proceed in the hand, whether you have a playable hand or not?

David Sands: When evaluating how strong my opponents’ early position opening range is, perhaps the most important factor is how wide they have opened in the past. Strategies for early position play vary greatly, and, in my experience, the most accurate predictor of my opponents’ behavior is what they have done in the past. Conventional wisdom says that opening from early position with marginal holdings is unwise, as one of the many players yet to act will likely pick up a strong starting hand. When this happens, a player who is opening wide from early position will find themselves playing a pot with a positional disadvantage, against a player with a stronger holding.  A newer school of thought notes that since most players recognize the risks associated with opening wide in early positions, and thus do so infrequently, raising under-the-gun (UTG) and UTG plus one will typically be viewed as very strong by opponents, and will thus garner respect and enable one to take down a large number of pots uncontested. I have found that my opponents typically fall into one of these two schools of thought. I try to identify which school of thought my opponent subscribes to based on how wide they have opened in the past, and make decisions about how to proceed against them accordingly. Other factors I consider include, how likely am I to be able to outplay my opponent post flop? If I three-bet this opponent, is he capable of four-betting without a premium hand? How good are the players behind me and how likely are they to squeeze if I flat or four-bet if I three-bet? How good is the player in the big blind and do I want her in the pot?

Adam Junglen: In late position, if it is a good aggressive player opening from early position, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a strong hand. Depending on your perception of their four-bet frequency, you could try to three-bet as a resteal. The bubble becomes a unique cat and mouse game. In order to get the most out of it, you’ll need to do some legitimate people reading: who just wants to cash and who is there to win? Beating up on a weak bubble and winning a ton of hands without showdown is an awful lot of fun and great way to accumulate in a tournament. Facing an early position raise, if I’m holding an ace-high blocker or hand like K-J offsuit from late position, I’ll usually be pretty tempted to try and three-bet them off their hand.

Marc Andre Ladouceur: When facing an early position raise from the cutoff or button near the bubble, once again you want to play close attention to the type of player you’re facing, as well as who’s left to act behind you and their stack size. A weaker player will usually have a stronger range, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get involved. A lot of regulars like to three-bet most of their playable hands so they can isolate and put [opponents] out of their comfort zone. I personally don’t mind keeping the pot small preflop and force them to make tough decisions on multiple streets. When waking up with a monster, the lineup left to act is a pretty big factor. If there are a few short stacks, I’m a lot more likely to flat to give them a chance to shove worse hands. If you have regulars with large stacks who are likely to cold four-bet and apply pressure, don’t hesitate to play it fast versus them. When a skilled player opens in early position, I will try to evaluate his whole range so I can flat hands that are slightly ahead of him, while I’m likely to three-bet hands that are my premiums, or the ones that are behind his range if our metagame allows it. Make sure you watch every showdown so you can get as much information as possible on the strength of their openings in each situation. ♠