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Poker Pros Weigh In On Short-Handed Tournament Adjustments

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Dec 29, 2021

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The Pros: Aaron Massey, John Gorsuch, and Brian Frenzel

Craig Tapscott: When the table begins to get short-handed as the tournament inches toward the final table, what adjustments do you make in regard to your preflop play? 

Aaron Massey: The adjustment I make is that I start praying even harder for premium hands, such as JJ+ and A-K. The later position I am in the more likely I’m just going to go all-in for any amount of chips because there are less people that can call such a big bet. If they wake up with a hand, then I still have 20-30 percent to win a huge pot and be in a great spot if I hit. Also, my opponents will be really tilted and will make bad decisions or be out completely.

John Gorsuch: In general, as the final table approaches and tables become short-handed for a longer duration, stack size becomes more critical. If I’m short, then I’m tightening up my opening and shoving ranges and looking for spots to put pressure on fellow short stacks. If I have more than 40 big blinds, then I’m probably going to be opening a wider range compared with under 20 big blinds. 

This would include opening with smaller suited connectors to balance my premium hands from early position. Unfortunately, I will mostly fold those same suited connector hands if I have a shorter stack. The exception would be in the big blind facing a min-raise. I’m more apt to pay the additional one big blind to see a potential high equity flop with low suited connectors even if I’m under 15 bigs.  

Table position also plays an important factor. If the players to my direct left have smaller stacks, then I’m going to open more often. In particular, as I get to the cutoff and button position, I’m probably going to be shoving lesser holdings and just opening stronger hands. If the bigger stacks are on my left, then I’m probably folding most hands from UTG until the cutoff. 

I’m also going to be more deliberate with time management and paying attention to the other tables in play. Typically, one of the final couple tables will be shorter, which could lead to tanking by short stacks. So, you want to be mindful of who is tanking and use it to your advantage later during pay jump moments. If my table is shorter than the other tables and I’m chip leader, I’m going to be more aggressive taking advantage of shorter orbits for the short stacks. 

Brian Frenzel: As tournaments get closer to the final table and you have to play more short-handed poker (5-7 handed), most players tend to think they need to “open up their ranges.” This is only halfway correct.

Independent of ICM, in a normal short-handed situation, you should just play the same ranges that you would in the position you are in. The only difference is that you simply are in those positions more often. However, your range, for example, button opening range five handed, is no different than your button opening range nine handed. (If you would like to be aggressively nitpicky, you could claim you should be a hair tighter with your button opening range nine handed due to card removal from the previous six players who have folded, but for the purposes of this conversation we won’t dive too deeply into that.) So, if you have solid nine handed ranges, you can use those in five handed situations as well.

The reason I think a lot of players perceive these situations differently, especially in live poker, is that they aren’t used to having to utilize weaker parts of their range that they can comfortably, but incorrectly, fold in nine-handed play. Missing a button open with 6-3 suited isn’t as painful in a nine-max situation, because the situation that it folds to you on the button in a nine max live tournament doesn’t occur very frequently. However, it will happen much more often five handed, and thus you’ll be making mistakes more often.

This is amplified by venues, including the WSOP, that do not change the big blind ante to a small blind ante as the number of players gets reduced, meaning opening ranges must be even wider than a 10 percent big blind ante strategy would suggest. If playing five handed with a big blind ante, the effective ante is 20 percent, meaning ranges become extremely wide. Not opening/defending properly causes much larger EV loss than it would nine handed.

Again, all of these statements are ICM independent. Your stack relative to other stacks will also change the ranges you can correctly play. Additionally, you must be wary of your ability to play correctly on turns and rivers with wide ranges. Taking a small EV loss preflop to not put yourself in difficult turn and river decisions where you will be inexperienced playing with such wide ranges might be preferable if you haven’t studied the spots enough. If you feel uncomfortable playing ranges as wide as you need to, study what to do with the weak parts of your range on various textures.

Craig Tapscott: You’re at the final table, and you’re the chip leader. Share some basic strategy as to how you evaluate your opponents and crank up the aggression. What are you looking to take advantage of and what are you being cautious about? 

Aaron Massey: At the final table, I just try to evaluate who needs the money the most. If I think they are broke and need it bad, I’ll go after them. I look under the table at their shoes. Like, if they have dirty shoelaces, I know they’re a prime target. If they look rich, and are wearing Gucci loafers, I usually just fold and wait to play aggressively against the guys that are trying to hang on for pay jumps.
(Editor’s Note: We’re not sure if Aaron actually looks at people’s shoes, but his point still stands.)

If they have small stacks, I will go all-in versus them. If they have big stacks or $1,000 shoes on, I won’t feel as comfortable going all-in. This is because they can knock me out or put me at risk; they care less about the money. Then when the big pay jumps come, I tighten way up and wait for hands like queens plus and A-K. Your hourly for huge pay jumps is massive, so just surviving is key. Getting first place isn’t everything. Laddering to a top five cash is still a big win.

John Gorsuch: I’m attacking the middle stacks. I’m cautious when I open against a stack with 15 bigs or less behind me. If I open against them, I have to be able to call off the shove. I’m opening most suited aces, Broadway cards, and pairs. I want to see all five cards. If the players behind are middle stacks, then I will open my range to include almost any suited connectors, hands that can play well in multiway pots. My goal is to connect on the flop and then apply max pressure. I want them to weigh the ICM considerations and have to fold. 

If I happen to have a large chip lead like 2-3x stack of second in chips, then I’m probably opening almost any two cards. I’m playing with pure aggression at this point. Assuming each bust out is a pay jump, I want to apply max pressure on the bottom stacks, as well as the middle stacks that are looking to avoid trouble until the shorter stacks bust. My three- and four-bets will be a bit tighter though. I’ll respect the stack. If they are willing to open or three-bet, then I’ll be a little more cautious.

Situations where the player second in chips is within 15 bigs of my stack, I’ll tighten up when out of position with him and apply opening pressure in position to see how he reacts. 

Brian Frenzel: When you are chip leading at the final table, the first thing to consider is which opponents are playing too tight of ranges and which opponents are playing too loose of ranges. Those playing too tight will be more likely to give us chips uncontested but will have stronger ranges when they play back at us. For those playing too loose the opposite is true.

Larger ICM mistakes are usually made from jamming/calling too wide than by folding too much, but we have to be aware, as chip leader, who at the table will make too wide of calls that will end up costing us chips. If we widen our bluff ranges too much and get called down by a player who can’t get away from second pair thus costing us our chip lead, it is our own fault for not recognizing that that player was not playing ICM aware and playing to their natural station-y tendencies. 

Another piece of the puzzle to consider is the size of your stack, especially relative to those second and third in chips. These are the players we can traditionally put the most pressure on. There is a large utility difference in being chip leader by a single chip as opposed to a chip leader with two times as many chips as second place. If our stack is also threatened by a large pot, we cannot be as ambitious in our attacks on second and third place. Being able to convert final table appearances into first place finishes is critical for the success of a poker player.

Aaron Massey graduated from Northern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in finance in 2008. He has captured three WSOP Circuit rings and has career tournament earnings of more than $4.5 million dollars, including a $650,000 score for winning WinStar’s The River main event in 2012. Follow him on Twitter @nevermissmassey.

John Gorsuch is a business owner turned poker pro who holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. In 2019, he won the 2019 Millionaire Maker at the WSOP, earning his first bracelet and $1.3 million. He can be found on Twitter @gorsuch00.

Brian “The Golden Blazer” Frenzel is a professional poker player with over $1.2 million in online cashes that has just started to play live since moving to Vegas. The top-ranked sit-n-go player is also the co-host of the GrindHaus Poker Podcast. Find him on Twitter @TheGoldenBlazer.