People don’t play aggressive enough in the early stages of a poker tournament. There are a few benefits to playing aggressive while chip stacks are still deep enough so you’re never putting that much of your stack at risk. Those benefits are:
- you’ll win chips against players unwilling to commit a large percentage of their stack with marginal holdings
- you help set up an erratic table image when in truth you’re never risking that much of your stack
- getting paid off in big pots is easier when you have the nuts since your opponents are tired of your shenanigans
So how do you go about being more aggressive in tournaments? Try the 15% rule: bluff often as long as never more than 15% of your chips are going into the pot.
Bluff, bluff, bluff, and bluff some more. The goal is to make your opponents’ lives a living hell while ripening them up to play a big pot against you when you actually have a hand.
Here are the three concrete example of hands where the 15% rule can be applied:
It folds to your opponent in middle position who raises to 225. You are in the cutoff with Jack-Nine offsuit. The players yet to act all have at least 30 big blinds and have been playing tight. Re-raise! Re-raise your opponent to 550. Screw him. This is your pot. One of two things is likely to happen: he calls your raise or folds to your raise. If he calls, make a continuation bet of 650. Odds are in your favor that he will fold. If he calls or re-raises, now you re-evaluate your plan with the hand since you’ve already reached the 15% ceiling of how far you’re willing to go to win this pot while bluffing. But in a majority of cases, it won’t ever reach this point.
Your opponent raises to 400 from the cutoff. You call in the big blind with Ace-Ten offsuit. The flop comes King-Seven-Three rainbow. You check and your opponent bets 500. Screw him. This is your pot. Raise! Raise to 1,200. That play looks super-strong. The only realistic holdings of your opponent that he will continue with are top pair or a set. Everything else he’s folding to a check-raise on a board this dry. That’s a lot of hands he’s continuation betting with and folding to a check-raise with.
If he calls, all hope is not lost. You’ve got a decent chance of seeing a free river after you check the turn. Aces are live outs for you if he checks behind the turn and even a Ten could give you the best hand. But when you consider that he might even fold two Queens to your flop check-raise, it becomes apparent what a strong play this can be.
Blinds: 200/400 ante: 50
Oooh, antes. Now we’re having fun.
Your opponent raises to 900 in middle position. The two players in the blinds each have more than 25 big blinds and have played tight, so you call on the button with Seven-Six of hearts. The flop comes Ace-Nine-Five with one heart. Your opponent bets 1,150. You guessed it: screw him, raise! Raise to 2,400 and send a message to your opponent that if he wants to continue with this hand, it’s going to be an expensive pot for him. He’ll fold most holdings that aren’t a strong Ace and he’ll only raise with a set. That’s a lot of folds and very rarely a raise.
If he calls, you’ve still got outs and will likely get to see the river for free after you check-behind the turn. You’ll probably win this pot on the flop, but if you don’t, you will occasionally win a huge pot when you draw an Eight or run out hearts. Have fun showing that hand down and sending a message to your table that you’re capable of showing up with anything.
When Not to Bluff
Sometimes, bluffing is dumb. The bluffing we advocate with the 15% rule is not meant to be applied to any and every situation. You need the right scenario for it to be a smart play. Here are examples of when bluffing can be a mistake:
- when you’re facing multiple opponents in a hand
- on strong action-flops where even if your opponent doesn’t have a made hand he could have a strong draw
- when your opponent simply never folds (don’t bluff these players, just wait till you have a nice hand and punish them with value bets)
- when your table image is so crazy that no one is going to believe you actually have a hand
- when players yet-to-act who remain in the hand are short stacked to the point that if they re-raised all-in you would be pot-committed to call with garbage
Use the 15% rule wisely and it’s unlikely to lead you astray. There will be tricky situations where you’re required to play some poker after your bluff turns into a showdown-able hand. Re-evaluate those situations and make solid decisions. There will also be situations where you’re forced to tuck your tail between your legs and give up on the hand.
But when the worst thing that can happen by playing a little creatively in a hand is that you lose 15% of your stack, big deal. The upsides counteract this potential “disaster” scenario. So loosen up a little and start bullying your opponents around!