Tournament Tips

A key concept of tournament play is the idea that a hand has a “point of no return,” where the player has committed such a large portion of his chips that he should simply close his eyes, commit the remainder of his chips to the pot, and hope for the best. Although this is a general concept of poker, it arises far more often in the setting of tournament play than in money-game play, because there the blinds and bets can easily be a large portion of your total chips. That’s why I speak of it as primarily as a tip for tournament players.

The concept of hitting a point of no return is easy to understand. Poker is a game where the worse hand has a chance to improve by having additional cards help the hand. Sometimes we are better off sticking it out and hoping to help rather than surrendering. In practice, you usually have two chances; either your hand is good, or you get some help. So when you get confronted with a bet or raise, your chip position relative to the pot size may dictate that you play in a committal fashion. Rather than just calling, if you do decide to play, you should put the rest of your money into the pot. That way you can get some potential opponents to fold because they would have to commit more of their money, and with the certainty of having to show down the better hand to win the pot.

As a simple illustration of committing your money, let me use a hypothetical example. Suppose the game is pot-limit hold’em. You have only a small stack of $1000 in tournament chips in front of you. An opponent makes a preflop reraise to a total of $800. You hold AK. It should be obvious that to just call the bet, having the intention of either continuing or folding, depending on the flop, is a faulty strategy. You will flop a pair about a third of the time, yet will make a pair about half the time if you go all-in and look at all five boardcards. If you call the $800, are not helped by the flop, and subsequently fold, you will be losing all those hands where you would have helped on the turn or river and won. There is about a couple grand in the pot, counting what would be added from the blind money. For only $200 more, you can look at five cards. Rather than just calling the $800 with the intention of calling your last $200 if the opponent bets the flop, it is considered better technique to put the money in before the flop, so your opponent cannot get away from his hand if you buy help and bet the flop yourself.

In our hypothetical problem, it was easy to see that you should either raise the rest of your remaining chips before the flop or throw your hand away, because the money figures I used were so close to putting you all-in. Now here are a couple of examples from real play that were recently given to me by one of my students. You will see the same principle at work.

My student said, “I was playing in a tournament and had about $300 worth of chips in front of me. A player raised the pot to $75. I was in the big blind with 9-9; what should I have done?”

When holding a pocket pair, we must first see if the chip position allows us to try and flop a set. It is over seven to one against this, and a set will lose some pots, so you should never commit more than ten percent of your money to try to flop a set. If you call and try to hit the flop holding 9-9, what type of flop will you be aiming at, if you do not turn a set? An overpair? Hard to achieve with nines, and there is no guarantee of winning if you do get that flop. Only one overcard? No ace or king on the flop? These things are of some help, but why back off and give your opponent with 8-8 or some such holding a chance to win the pot when you both miss? The fact is when you have a pocket pair, if you have to commit more than ten percent of your stack to the pot to see the flop, it is better to take a firm position. Either throw your hand away or move in, but do not make the indecisive play of calling with the hope of getting a good flop, because such a thing is difficult to identify if you do not make trips. It is particularly tempting to make the wimpy play of just calling when it is late in the tournament and you are hoping to survive to achieve a higher place in the money, but don’t do it. You can fold, of course, but if you decide to play, go out with your guns blazing, not shelling out large chunks of your money hoping to get a good flop.

My student’s second example was from the late stages of a limit hold’em tournament at an eight-handed table. He had $15,000 in chips. The blinds were $2000 and $4000, and the betting limit $4000-8000. Here is what happened.

“I picked up A-K in the big blind. A player opened in middle position with a raise and a player in late position cold-called. Should I call or raise?”

I believe that the player is close enough to being all-in that he is going to have to call on the flop even if the boardcards are not helpful. With less than one big bet left (seven grand when a big bet is eight grand), he should reraise, and bet the remainder of his money on the flop. That way, he sees five cards, and not just three. Note that it is the amount of chips that he has left relative to the pot size that required this strategy. The fact that is was thousands of dollars worth of chips is not of consequence, as that changes only the psychology, not the mathematics. With more money, say over twenty grand in this blind structure, it would have been quite reasonable to only call, and hope to help the A-K on the flop, but not in the actual circumstances he faced.

The experienced tournament player is especially aware of these situations where you must either marry your hand or muck it. If you wish to succeed in tournament poker, and especially satellite play, you must be familiar with the concept of a point of no return, and recognize the many situations where a committal decision is forced upon you.

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