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Tips for Lower Buy-In Events

by Matt Matros |  Published: Jan 21, 2015

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Matt MatrosTournament players—the era of big guarantees, multiple starting days, and multiple re-entries is here. This development isn’t going to reverse itself any time soon, as many, if not most tournaments, will continue to allow re-entries into 2015 and beyond. They’ve become a fact of tournament life. So where, then, are the opportunities? What can re-entries, and the enormous guaranteed money that often comes with them, do for us?

When I first started out in poker, I played low buy-in tournaments all the time. For a few years in fact, I don’t know if there was a $300 buy-in hold’em tournament on the East Coast that I didn’t enter. As I’ve moved through the ranks as a poker professional, the travel expenses, high rake, and relatively limited upside (compared to bigger events) made low buy-in tournaments less attractive, and I mostly stayed away. But now, thanks to re-entries, there are $400 and $500 tournaments with seven-figure prize pools! The upside is now there, and so, in recent months, I’ve found myself playing some of these enormous events. And I’ve noticed a lot of players who seem capable of playing strong poker, but who usually have one or two leaks holding them back. Here, then, are three recommendations for typical low buy-in (brick-and-mortar) tournament players who are looking to burst through and find success.

1) Play your own stack size without regard to the average stack size.

It’s typical, in events that have thousands of entrants and levels that are less than an hour long, for almost everyone to get short-stacked. The average stack often sits in the 15-20 big blind territory, which means that players with 30 blinds think they’re sitting pretty, and players with 10-12 blinds still feel they have plenty of room to maneuver. While it’s certainly true that you should never panic no matter what your stack size, and while it’s also true that professionals learn to be confident and expect great success with just 30 blinds, the fact is that short stacks demand to be played as short stacks. It’s no use to pretend your stack is bigger than it is. Many low buy-in players seem to think they shouldn’t take what they view as an unnecessary risk when they’re near the chip lead. But until you get to the final table, a chip lead is basically irrelevant—and it’s especially irrelevant if you only have ten blinds. It doesn’t matter if you’re second in chips at your table—your only play with ten blinds is to either move in preflop or fold. There is no room to raise and then fold, or to “wait for a better spot” (something else I always hear), and that’s true even if you have more chips than 75 percent of the field. Low buy-in players who nurse their short stacks may end up lasting a while, but they almost never hit a big payday. In Event One of the Borgata Poker Open, I busted very deep as one of the chip leaders when I reraised all-in with 18 blinds and a bad hand. People were flabbergasted. What they didn’t realize is I had gotten very deep as one of the chip leaders by playing in exactly this way. If you don’t accumulate chips, you’ll never have a chance to win.

2) Don’t tilt.

This advice obviously goes for all players, but I’ve definitely seen more than the usual amount of tilters in lower buy-in events. What’s funny is that these tilters often seem like level-headed people. I can’t tell you the number of times a player has chatted with me on the break, mild-mannered and logical, and then when we return to the table he takes a bad beat and proceeds to light the rest of his stack on fire in a fit of rage. Poker is a hard enough game when you’re playing your best. If you’re actively making bad plays even five or ten percent of the time, then I believe it is impossible for you to win in the long run. I don’t have a secret formula to stop tilt, but if you’re a tilter, you need to be very aware of what exactly sets you off, and you need to work on removing tilt from your game as soon as possible.

3) Know your absolute hand strength.

Quick, how good are pocket nines? Better than 90 percent of hands? 93? 95? There are 1,326 combinations of hold’em hands and only 46 of them (six each of pocket tens through pocket aces, plus 16 combinations of ace-king) should be considered “better” than pocket nines. That means pocket nines are better than 96 percent of all possible hold’em hands, and worse than only 3.5 percent. Pretty strong, huh? No-limit hold’em players are often taught to view a hand like pocket nines as “vulnerable,” or “tricky,” or “not worth your whole stack,” and depending on context, all of those things can be true. But, if the button opens, and you three-bet from the small blind, and then the button four-bets, you can’t fold a top 4 percent hand. If you raise from middle position and get three-bet, you can’t fold a top 4 percent hand. And most important of all, if you’re short-stacked late in an event with antes in play, you can virtually never fold a top 4 percent hand. Unless you hold the nuts, there is always some risk involved in committing to a hold ’em hand. But knowing just how a rare a hand like pocket nines is might help some players realize that they have to either relax their standards, or forever get blinded away.

In today’s tournament scene, many low buy-in events have windfall potential. Apply the above advice to your game, and maybe you can experience a little of that windfall for yourself. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player, and a three-time WSOP bracelet winner. He is also a featured coach for cardrunners.com.