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Head Games: Three Top Pros Tackle The Early Stages Of Tournaments

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jan 12, 2022

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The Pros: Daniel Weinman, Daniel Strelitz, and Scott Ball

Craig Tapscott: What kind of information should a player look for during the first hour after they sit down at a table for a live tournament?

Daniel Weinman: The first hour of a live tournament is perhaps the most important time of the tournament outside of the final table. It’s very likely that you’ll have a mix of professionals and recreational players depending on the size of the buy-in, and it’s important to obtain and process as much information as possible from these players. This concept extends to each new day of the tournament, with the small exception of being able to do a bit of research beforehand on day two and beyond.

I tend to look for a few things at the beginning of day one of a large field MTT. The most important factor is to identify the weaker players who are going to be the source of much of our chip accumulation. Pay attention and take note of anyone playing what you feel to be a poor strategy (lots of limping preflop, poor bet sizing or very passive/overly aggressive post-flop). Then you can deviate from your baseline strategy in order to capitalize on these weaker players. I think a lot of newer players these days coming from a theory-based approach do this very poorly and miss out on a lot of easy chips in the first few levels of a tournament.

On the other hand, we also want to find out who the stronger players are and play a more theory-based approach against them. The early stages of a tournament tend to play very deep and more closely resemble a cash game. Most of the large pots will tend to be played between stronger vs. weaker players, as the stronger players can simply find better spots than battling with each other.

Tournament formats other than no-limit hold’em also present a unique opportunity in the beginning stages. Oftentimes in mix game tournaments, especially the $1,500 events at the WSOP, you will often find yourself against players who are particularly weak at one or multiple games in the mix. Some players who prefer the limit games may shy away from the big bet games, or vice versa. Pay attention to this and use it to your advantage as you see fit.

Daniel StrelitzDaniel Strelitz: First thing to do is to pay attention to how people are playing. There are stereotypes that help, such as fashion, age, country of origin, etc. But seeing a few showdowns in the early rounds can be very revealing about how your opponents are playing. Even if you don’t pay attention to any part of the hand except showdown, it will help you learn so much about your tablemates. Oftentimes seeing the under-the-gun player showdown with J-5 suited is most of the info you need to adjust versus them.

If you show up a bit late, there is more to learn right away, mainly chip stacks. There are a few tricks you can learn just from seeing peoples stacks. If someone has all the ante chips on the table, they aren’t going to be very tight. On the other hand, if a guy has all the colors of his chips lined up, they’re likely to be on the tighter side.

Scott Ball: I am always adjusting at the table in regard to what is happening moment to moment. There are a few key factors I always keep an eye out for when entering a hand. One is my own stack size. When I have a deeper stack, I’m more comfortable pushing other players around, as well as maximizing my ICM potential.

Another big factor for me is adjusting my playing strategy depending on who I’m up against. At the table against elite players, like Galen Hall (who I know is deeply steeped in game theory-based play), I am going to approach a hand differently than against someone who plays more recreationally. With a player who has less experience, I can play more exploitatively and apply more pressure, mainly because I’ve paid attention and have an understanding of my opponents.

Also with more inexperienced players, I am looking for who is overplaying hands and over bluffing. Are they playing more cautious? More exploitive? Why are they making these particular moves? This is where paying attention throughout the day becomes key in how I play in the present moment. It’s important to pay attention all of the time, every day, from day one to day five. You never know when that information will be useful in the future.

Craig Tapscott: Can you share a few of the biggest mistakes you see players make during early stages of MTTs? And what’s your goal during the early stages?

Daniel WeinmanDaniel Weinman: I think there are three major mistakes that a lot of recreational players or even some pros make early in MTTs. First is the apparent need to “profit” in chips each level. I see a ton of new players who have these mental goals along the lines of, “I need x number of chips at the end of level 1/2/3/4/5.” Your chip stack in a tournament is not going to be linear. Sure, in an ideal world we win every single pot, and our chips stack never decreases, but that’s a pretty unreasonable ask. Instead, we need to just try to maximize our EV with every decision in the tournament and live with the results.

The second big mistake ties in with the first in a way. A lot of times I will see players just completely give up when their stack isn’t what they feel it should be at a certain point of the day. Most tournaments these days start with 40k or so in chips, and it’s fairly common for newer players to just send it in if they find themselves left with 10-20k chips in the first few levels. What they fail to realize is their stack still has significant real money value and even 10k chips at an early level like 150-300-300 is a totally workable 33 big blinds. Later in the tournament, players would kill to have 33 bigs, but for some reason they find it totally unreasonable to have this stack early on day one.

The third mistake I often see is a fear of going broke in the early levels of an MTT. A lot of players have the mentality that they should completely avoid big pots and big decisions early for fear of going broke, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The first few levels offer great opportunities to pick up a ton of chips if you are willing to take some risks. Whether you bust a tournament on hand number one or are the bubble boy on day three, you get the same exact payout. 

Early in tournaments, my opponents dictate my style of play. As mentioned above, I have no “goal” per se, but I simply want to make the best decisions possible at every opportunity. At a very passive table, I will play like a maniac and try to win as many pots as possible. On the other hand, at a very tough table I’ll play a more theory-based strategy and try to win whatever chips the table allows me to.

Daniel Strelitz: The biggest mistake people make early in tournaments is playing too many hands. Often people feel like they have so many chips, and it’s so early in the tournament, they can splash around as much as they want. In reality they are just bleeding chips while trying to get lucky. Then when they go deeper, they start playing more “seriously” and end up playing too tight.

My strategy is generally to play the opposite of the table, if everyone is playing super loose, then I tighten up and wait for good hands. If the table is playing scared, then I take advantage and try to steal as much as they let me.

Another of the biggest mistakes people make is not showing up on time. You miss all the deep stack splashing around when you wait too long to register.

Scott BallScott Ball: One of the biggest mistakes players make is they try to win the MTT on day one; they don’t understand what a marathon a tournament can be. You can’t accumulate all the chips on day one. I talked about this in my previous answer, they don’t pay enough attention in the early stages. They are on their phones or laptop, scrolling Twitter or something. Generally lackadaisical.

Also, when people aren’t focusing, they give away so much information. Their behavior will suddenly change when they have a big hand. They could be focused on their phone or yapping away, and all of a sudden, they get still and focused. Hmmm… I wonder what you have now? Aces? They might all of a sudden start handling their chips differently. These tells give off so much you can pick up on. Watch for players who are not consistent with their physical actions.

I once read an interview with [online poker legend and two-time WSOP bracelet winner] Chris Moorman that has stuck with me. He talked about how he stays focused throughout the duration of an event. He stays very immersed in every action at the table from beginning to end. I’ve learned to do the same myself. I even want to know the exact count of my stack and an opponent’s, not an estimate. This keeps my mind razor sharp and very present in the moment. ♠

Daniel Weinman is a former PokerStars SuperNova Elite player from Atlanta, Georgia who made the switch to tournaments shortly after Black Friday. In 2017, he won the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open for almost $900,000, and later that year he won the WPT Tournament of Champions for another $380,000. The avid golfer now has $3 million in live tournament earnings. You can follow him on Twitter @notontilt09.

Daniel Strelitz is a top poker pro from Torrance, California who fell just one spot shy of poker’s Triple Crown. In 2017, he banked $1 million by winning the WPT L.A. Poker Classic, and two years later he picked up his first WSOP bracelet and $440,000 in a $5,000 no-limit event. In 2019, he took second in the EPT PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, earning another $950,000 to bring his career totals to $5 million. Find him @dDeoxyribo.

Scott Ball was one of the breakout stars of the 2021 WSOP, winning two bracelets and the title of no-limit WSOP Player of the Year. Ball, who was one of the key reasons why poker took off on the Twitch platform, won the $5,000 six-max event for $560,000 and then followed it up with a win in the $1,111 Little One For One Drop event for another $400,000. He can be found @EndGameScott.