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Irrefutable Southern Logic — You can’t win the tournament yet, but you can lose it.

by Bryan Devonshire |  Published: Mar 19, 2014

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Bryan DevonshireThe early stages of a live tournament are ripe with people punting their stacks. They lose way too much money with hands that aren’t quite good enough, believing incorrectly that their stack of many big blinds should be used to gamble in an effort to build a big stack. In the WSOP main event, my day one goal is to make day two. This concept is simply shrunk in time for smaller and shorter tournaments, and in this column I’ll discuss how my game is adjusted early in tournaments.

Early stages of tournaments are characterized by average stacks being deep with many big blinds. Antes are often not in play yet. The money is nowhere in sight, people may still be registering. While I’m always pursuing the ultimate poker goal of winning the most chips, the early stages of tournaments contain the most conservative facet of my poker game.

Essentially I’m playing Daniel Negreanu’s style known as “small ball” when stacks are deep. When I’m the first one into the pot, I’m opening for a raise, always. My sizing is smaller in early position than it is in later position because I want to play smaller pots out of position and bigger pots in position. When there are limpers in front of me, I increase my raise size by one big blind per limper. When I am raising from one of the blinds, I also add one big blind to my bet to punish opponents for taking the opportunity to play a pot in position against me. Playing out of position sucks, and most stacks are punted by the out-of-position player.

It is often correct to limp behind a series of limpers. I don’t think it’s ever correct to limp behind a single limper, as the advantages from playing aggressively are more valuable than those gained by keeping the pot smaller. It’s important to understand though that most limpers do not fold for a four times or five times the big blind (BB) raise, they’re usually going to call and see a flop. So while I want to put more money into the pot with a hand that is ahead of the limper’s range, it’s often counterproductive to raise a limper or two with a hand like 7-6 suited, because they’re going to call, and now you’ve put more money into the pot with the worst hand. Live players who like to limp and call are notoriously stubborn after the flop if they make a pair, and generally trying to get them to fold a pair at this point is a losing play. I’ve tried it lots. Get them to fold later. In the early stages you want them to put in more money with the worst hand.

I reraise preflop very rarely when there are no antes in play and seldomly when very deep. The last thing I want to do is get all in preflop unless I have a really good reason to, which usually means that I have aces. This doesn’t mean that I’m not reraising ever, it just means that I’m choosing my situations much more carefully. For example, I’m just flatting a single raise when in early or middle position with big pairs and A-K. Give me any one of those same hands on the button, and I’m nearly always reraising for value and because I like to play pots in position. It’s also important to note that three-bets don’t get folds in early stages as often as they should. People think implied odds make it worth a call while ignoring reverse-implied odds.

In early stages, very little of the money in stacks goes into the pot preflop, regardless of whether there were two or three-bets. Stacks cannot be played for until later streets after heavy betting, and most of the time a premium hand is still going to end up being a pair, and I don’t want to play for my stack early in the tourney with one pair. Therefore, there is greater value in disguising my hand and keeping the pot small pre because I usually won’t know until the flop if I might be willing to play for stacks, and that desire is rare.

Things get fun postflop. This is where chips should be accumulated both by stealing pots that are up for grabs and through extraction of value from worse hands. Live players generally give up on pots too quickly while not giving up on some hands that they probably should have given up on. A single continuation bet works more often that it should, while double and triple barrels fail more often than they should. Bluff and bluff often, but don’t make big bluffs because they’re probably not going to work.

The other common mistake I see made early in live tournaments is that people slow play too much. This is part of why the double and triple barrel is less effective, and it should be noted that strange bets and raises on the turn and river are more often some goofy slow play than some creative bluff. Those spots are just math problems. If a dude check/calls twice and then donks pot into me on the river, he’s gotta be doing something nefarious a third of the time for the call to be profitable. Those spots are usually player and situation dependent, but when they check-raise you on the river, they’re never bluffing.

Obviously I’m gonna have to call all river check-raises for the next year now.

Your whole goal for the early stages of a tournament should be to make it to the middle stages. That’s when the average stack starts getting shorter and people really start going busto. Antes will be in play, tables will be breaking, but there’s still a long way to the money. Next issue I’ll talk about the middle stages, but in the meantime focus on winning lots of small pots in the early stages. You shouldn’t be winning many big pots, because you shouldn’t be playing big pots, but you should be winning the ones you do play. If you lose a big pot early in a tournament, you probably screwed up. Don’t punt, instead punish those playing too loose by putting more money in the pot with the best hand. ♠

Bryan Devonshire has been a professional poker player for nearly a decade and has more than $2 million in tournament earnings. Follow him on Twitter @devopoker.