Tournaments are about stack preservation
One of the most important concepts in tournament poker is stack preservation. When your stack begins to dwindle, all of the hands you get in the future are actually worth less. If we were to get a hand like pocket aces and double up with them, we'd rather have our 5,000 chip starting stack than have called several bets and let our stack fall to 3,500. In the first case, we'd have 10,000 chips. In the second, just 7,000. That amounts to a significant chip difference, as tournaments require us to double up five or ten times in order to win the game. It's important in an MTT to have a stack that's as big as the other stacks at the table, and stack preservation goes a long way to ensuring this is the case.
What does stack preservation mean? Simply, don't risk chips that won't earn you a return, and prefer a high-frequency return over a high-value return. For example, if you have the nuts on the river, and you have the option to make a small bet that will be called more often or a large bet that will be called less often, it's often more valuable to make the small bet. It also means not calling before the flop, but raising or folding instead. Calling before the flop, especially shorter than 100BB deep, leaks chips. At the early levels of small stakes tournaments, you often see players calling before the flop. Don't fall into the trap of saying "everyone else has called, so I have odds to call." In higher stakes tournaments, or at the final table of medium-stakes tournaments, you see very little calling before the flop. Players who make this mistake go broke.
Master the pre-flop and flop game
In poker tournaments, the hand often ends before the flop. If it doesn't end before the flop, it often ends after the flop. Very rarely do tournament hands go to the river. For this reason, we recommend mastering the early streets of poker play. Understanding continuation bets, understanding play between 15 and 30BB, and knowing when to steal blinds will go a long way to improving your winrate at poker tournaments.
Understanding positional play is simple: early position is bad, late position is good. The later you are, the more options you have for playing your hand. For example, when you're on the button, you know that you're going to be in position throughout the entire hand, and this allows you to control the size of the pot. As a result, the closer you are to the button, the more hands you can play, the more you can raise, the more often you can raise, and the more options you have for reraising or calling before the flop. It lets you set the pace of the hand after the flop, too: will you play slow for a small pot or fast for a big pot?
When you're in a position like the small blind, the worst position on the table, you can't really dictate that. When someone else bets, you have to decide whether or not you want to play, and let them control the hand, or fold.
In the blinds, you're going to be in the worst position, but you already have some money invested. If you're allowed to check (from the BB) or simply call (from the SB) to complete the blinds, that's usually the right play. So you will play some hands from the blinds that you wouldn't play from any other position, simply because you have a little money invested.
On the button, you're going to be playing a lot of hands, especially hands with two high cards or hands that make straights or flushes. So while you'd be happy to play a hand like , a hand like is really not good enough to even call with.
The reason we would fold this hand is that, if we catch our king, anybody with a better king has us dominated with a better kicker. But you can play more hands on the button than in any other position. I tend to play about 40% of my hands from the button, whereas from early position, I only play about 10% of my hands. As my position moves around the table, I play more and more hands.
That's the basic strategy that every poker professional uses. No poker pro plays more hands from early position than they do from late position and makes money doing it. That's a losing strategy and you won't survive very long if you do that, because position is so important on the table.
If you fail to take your position into account, you're going to be playing hands you shouldn't. One of the first things I look at before deciding whether or not to play a hand is the position I'm in. That's going to dictate whether I'm going to raise or fold and how much I'm going to raise. For example, in early position in a cash game, you typically want to raise four to five times the blind. (This isn't the case in tournaments. More on that in our Tournament series.) Because you're going to be playing such a strong range of hands but have to deal with being out of position for the rest of the hand, you probably want to raise a little stronger from early position. From late position, though, I might raise two or three times the big blind. If I have a hand like , I might want to raise two times the big blind (a minraise) as a pot sweetener.
One important thing to note is that other players in the hand are considering these things too. Where a player is positioned when he raises can help you determine whether or not you're going to play a hand. If an under the gun player raises, and I've got something like , I'm most likely going to fold it. Raising under the gun, the player has indicated he has a very strong hand, and absent further reads, I have to take him at his word that he does. I'm most likely just going to fold and wait for a better hand to play.
A lot of players use a starting hand chart to help them get an idea what hands they should be playing from different positions. I don't want you to follow this chart for very long, just until you get used to the game, because it does change depending on a lot of different factors. Depending on the players at your table, you can play more or fewer hands than the starting hand chart dictates. Nonetheless, you will always play more hands in late position than in early position because it lets you control the pot.
Controlling the pot from late position
When I'm in late position, I can choose how many "bets" I want to put in the pot. I can bet the flop, turn, and river and force a player to call me each street to continue playing. I can bet the flop and then sneakily check the turn if I want to limit the size of the pot or induce a bluff on the river. Or I can bet the flop and the turn to show strength, and if I don't want to put in a river bet, I have the option of checking behind. That's really what it comes down to. The river bet is such a significant bet in a poker hand. It's the largest bet that's going to go in. The option to make or decline that bet is a huge advantage, and that is why we take care to notice our position when we're playing poker.
How should you play this hand? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, from the players at the table to the cards that you hold. When all variables are in alignment, the opportunity to play a hand will be obvious to you. A bad player has raised, I am in position, and I have a decent hand. It's not hard to decide how to play this hand.
It depends on your cards.
When we said "your cards don't matter," it doesn't mean to play any two cards. Your cards are just one variable of five that can help you determine whether or not to play a hand. The strength of your cards is obvious from the first time you look at them. Even strong cards, when the other variables are against you, are an easy fold.
It depends on their cards.
It's important to understand that their cards can be anything. People play bad hands, and that's okay. We love people who play bad hands. We make more money off them. You don't need to know their cards to decide whether to play against them, but you should know whether or not you have the skill and information to deduce their cards by the end of the hand.
It depends on the community cards.
This is where poker gets very, very complicated. The game here introduces tons of variables we can't predict or control. All we can do is make estimations. Because our opponents can have anything, you should respond, not react. Listen, don't talk. Think, don't assume. Your opponents will react. They will telegraph their hands. Any action or non-action they make will narrow their range. The more they narrow their range, the clearer the decision of whether or not you should play becomes.
It depends on your stack size.
It depends on the opponent.
What is your opponent's goal? Why is he playing poker? Is he here to make money, to blow off steam, to gamble, to be the "alpha" at the table? If we start to understand these things about our opponents, we can start to intuit how to play against them. The important thing here is that you should avoid playing hands against opponents who "win" by taking your chips. These opponents are often tricky. Try to play against someone who "wins" when he has a night of running over the table, because you can let him run over you and still win more chips than you lose. You both win.
It depends on the table.
The table is a two-variable combination: the location of the button and the seating arrangement of the players. Do you have good players to your left, bad players to your right, bad players in the blinds? Are you in early position or late position? These things come together to form the "table."
Range – Equity – Maximum, or REM, was a concept created with the first printing of Professional No-Limit Hold ‘em: Volume I. It's a terrific way to evaluate your plays in no-limit holdem and think logically about your decisions.
Playing winning poker is the process of getting information and then using it to make the most profitable play. The REM process is one of the easiest ways to execute this. The three steps in the REM process are “Range, Equity, Maximize.”
The first step in REM is defining your opponents range. There are over a thousand possible poker hands, but based on your opponents decisions throughout the hands, we can narrow this range down to something more manageable. To properly execute the Range step, there are a number of sub-steps to consider.
Know Thy Opponent – Everything about your opponent will affect whether or not certain hands are in the opponent's range. A tight player, under the gun, will not raise garbage. I've made a list of the things you can know about your opponent that will help you gain the most information: Preflop Standards, Betting Patterns or Amounts in Various Situations, Particular Actions on Specific Streets or with Specific Hand Types, Physical Tells, Betting Pace. (Read More: all of these categories are fleshed out in the book, Professional No-Limit Hold ‘em: Volume I)
Reevaluate What You Know – Every street should involve a reassessment of your opponents range based on each new action on each new street. This should also involve reassessing previously eliminated hands. Opponents are capable of and willing to mix up their play by raising hands like eight-five suited.
Things to remember: put your opponent on a range of hands. Eliminate hands you are fairly sure they don't have. Narrow their range further by observing specific things about a player, like betting patterns and timing tells. Pay attention even after you've folded. Reassess on each new action.
The second step in REM is to analyze the information that we got during the first step. This is simply calculating your equity against your opponents range. Off the table, this step can be outsourced into PokerStove, but on the table, you need a few additional skills for estimating your equity on the fly.
To estimate your equity on the fly, think about your opponents hands that you are a big favorite over and those hands you are a big underdog to. If your opponents range primarily consists of hands that you are a big underdog to, your equity is probably bad. If your opponent primarily holds hands that you are a big favorite to, your equity is probably good.
Never overlook folding equity. Sometimes, against an opponent range, using your fold equity will be the most effective way to win the pot.
Maximizing means making the best decision given your equity in the hand. Your choice of actions is always to check, fold, bet, raise, or call. Your goal is to maximize your winnings by selecting the highest EV action.
Checking – You benefit from checking behind when you have a weak hand and little folding equity, and there is a chance that you will improve to the best hand. A weak gutshot draw to the nuts is a great example of when to check behind. If you are first to act, checking to your opponent works well if your opponents are aggressive and you want them to bet.
Betting – Betting is appropriate when you want to extract profit, punish draws, or make others fold. The first question to answer is whether you want your opponents in the pot or whether you want them out of the pot. When you want them to stay in, you execute a bet that is sized to extract value. When you want them to go away, you should execute a well-sized bluff.
Folding, Calling, or Raising with Drawing Hands – With a weak draw with poor pot equity, choose between folding and calling. Call with good implied odds and fold with bad. With a strong draw and good pot equity, choose between raising and calling. Call with good implied odds, and raise with bad.