Essential Poker Tournament Skills
Last week, we talked about the Bank of Timex, a large bet being made by poker pro Mike McDonald against many of the game's pros. McDonald's intuition is that people do not have as large of an edge in tournaments as they probably think they do.
So if it's true that tournaments are a lot more of a crapshoot than players would prefer to think they are, what can be done to maximize whatever edge exists? The following are some essential tournament skills needed to maximize your chances of collecting all the chips in the rather tough arena that is modern day tournament poker:
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1. Pay attention, follow your intuition
If you're an experienced player, your intuition is probably more on-point than you realize. When the tight player at the table three-bets you, it's perfectly reasonable to suspect that your Jacks may be no good and proceed forward in the hand with caution. When you just knew the maniac at your table was going to three-bet you before he even looked at his cards, find the courage to stick in a hefty four-bet assuming you originally raised with any type of decent hand.
Poker is so highly situational that the right play to make sometimes differs from the play you would otherwise make in a vacuum. Pay attention, gather info, and trust that your instincts are there for a reason.
2. Don't be afraid to gamble
Players who assume they have a large edge in tournaments often pass up on marginally +EV situations in order to decrease their variance in a tournament. That's hogwash. No player should realistically be shying away from all-in situations in which they likely have the pot odds to get their chips in the middle.
Recently, I was playing in a WSOP event where I re-raised all-in for 4,000 (just ten big blinds) after another player opened for 1,200 chips. The player folded Ace-Jack face-up and said that he "didn't feel like flipping". I thought this was a terrible fold. Indeed, he would have been flipping (I had pocket fives), which was a great deal for him given that he only needed to call 2,800 more for a pot that already had some 5,500 chips in the middle.
Basically, don't be a nit. Tournament poker requires that you gamble some in short-stack situations. You win tournaments by getting the chips in the middle and hoping you win the all-in, not by shying away from them.
3. Find spots to be aggressive.
In poker tournaments, you should be scouring for opportunities to make small bets that can lead to winning a pot. The most obvious example of this is three-betting preflop. However, while this remains a generally strong play, it's important to understand that many players expect to be three-bet and are countering by being more aggressive with four-betting. Know your opponents and know what you're getting yourself into.
Aggression is sometimes masked as patience. For example, a very aggressive and effective play versus loose players can originate by simply calling their raise from the blinds. You wait until after the flop to become aggressive by firing out a bet on the flop. Even if you missed the flop, this can be a strong play. Chances are, they missed the flop too and may decide to end the hand rather than invest chips hoping to win a pot against a player who immediately indicated strength on the flop.
4. When the pots get big, always have it
Playing aggressive requires balance and discipline. A hand that starts with aggression aimed at winning a small pot can end with stupidity in losing a large one.
As a general rule of thumb, be very cautious about making bluffs on the river or paying off large bets on the river. It doesn't cost much to put in chips without a strong hand preflop or on the flop. However, doing this on the river often requires a much larger investment. Moreover, players do not generally like seeing the river and then folding (unless they were merely on a draw all along). Therefore, rather than viewing the river as an opportunity to bluff, view it as a chance to punish your opponents with very large value bets. Dare them to think you're bluffing and be ready to turn over the goods when they find the courage to put the chips in.