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The 3 phases of tournament poker strategy

Article By: RuffPoker.com

When playing a texas holdem tournament there are 3 main phases of the game. They all have equal importance, as one leads to the next, and ultimately - hopefully finishes with you in the money positions. These 3 phases are, 1) flush out the free rollers, 2) build your stack, 3) steal and bluff.

Flush out the free rollers

In early rounds of a poker tournament it is always important to know that of the several hundred, maybe even thousands of players at the tables a considerable number are ‘fish’ (who don’t know the subtleties of a tournament game) or ‘hangers’ (who have simply entered with no clear strategy in mind). If you are playing a tournament with, say 10,000 people you can conservatively estimate that around 3,000 of these people have no real business even being sat down at a table. You then have maybe another 2,000 who don’t really appreciate how to play tournament poker. That’s half the field! Of course the higher the buy-in the better the level of ability but the norm is that in ANY tournament you can work your way into the game with a simple strategy. Play ultra tight, and very aggressive ONLY when you are dealt great opening cards/flop a banging hand. Don’t limp into pots hoping to catch something and don’t go all in unless you have someone beat. Sit tight and let the game progress. There are many hours to run in a tournament at this stage, you are in the opening gambit. Let the ‘fish’ and ‘hangers’ make their mistakes and bleed chips, let them bluff each other out. There are thousands of people at this stage who don’t really care about their chips, as such you aren’t going to bluff many out by chasing pots. Within an hour or so the field will be dramatically cut and from here on in you need to change tactics.

Build your stack

So you’ve been playing ultra tight and only when on a monster have you been going in, and now 1hr or so into the game the field has been cut dramatically. Gone are all those who play every hand, make ridiculous all in’s and chase cards all the way to the river. Now you are up against the second tier of opponent. Those who know how to play and are focused on making that final table. At this juncture it is paramount that you build up your chips so that you have some clout later in the day. Don’t be foolhardy and start making brave calls or stupid re-raises, your opponents skill level will be higher than before so you won’t scare them off so easily. Instead you need to play a little looser but only get into hands when the position allows you to, i.e. in the blinds with no raise/in late position and start to use the bluff. If you have a bad beat move on, it is the nature of the game. Analyse if you could have made bigger bets earlier to make someone pay a higher premium to see that turn/river card. If you get dealt decent cards with only a couple in the hand don’t be afraid to push chips into the pot. Show an aggressive nature, try to bully opponents out of pots, but do this with caution and do this sparingly because after a few hands the good players at the table will see what you are doing. Once you start to build up a stake you gain leverage to play real aggressive and open up opportunities to bluff.

Steal and bluff

So you are down to the final ‘money positions’, maybe even the final table. At this stage of the game you are looking good. You are in the money no matter what and now with every departing player your winnings increase. First and foremost herein lies a big problem for many tournament players. Because of the very nature of the competition they feel like they have ‘won already’. Whilst this is in a sense true, consider what you joined the game to do. Did you enter the tournament to just make the money positions? or did you intend to win it outright? If as should be the mentality you are in it to win it, then now is the time to start forcing the pace, know when to bluff and certainly know when you can steal pots. It is essential you master this art if you are to win at tournament poker. The blinds are so big at this stage that your stack will soon depreciate if you don’t win back cheap pots once in a while or take home pots with poor hands/position, simply because you could see that everyone else was nervous of the flop, showing weakness against big bets. In the final stages of a poker tournament it is never the monster hands that win, it is always the marginal stuff and rarely does a hand go to the showdown.

When the blinds are up in the thousands you can very quickly lose a lot of chips if you remain in the same passive state as you were earlier, playing tight, only making bets when you hit something. Now you are up against good players, those who spot weakness, know when somebody is limping in and can steal pots with hands that aren’t necessarily the best around the table. By playing unpredictably and with serious aggression you will not allow your opponents to gauge your style of play. What is more you will be in on pots that may ‘hit’ and you stay in the game because you are picking up key pots which you actually had no right to win, but did simply because your opponent didn’t fancy calling.

Of course following this strategy is no guarantee you will win. At any moment your all in with a flush could get beaten on the river by another’s full house… But in the big picture you stand a much better chance of progressing to the latter stages, and certainly will be a more consistent performer if you follow these rules.