Chapter 4: Playing in Multi-Table Tournaments
So far, this book has only addressed playing poker in the form of a cash game, where the goal is simply to get as many chips as possible and profits are the number of chips one ends with less number of chips bought including rebuys. In a cash game, one generally makes standard plays and makes adjustments to different players’ varying styles of play. In a tournament, one’s goals can vary. The way tournaments work, everyone buys in for a fixed amount and everyone’s buy-ins go into a prize pool. In a casino, part of the buy-in goes to the casino, for example a tournament might cost $330, with $300 going into the prize pool and $30 going to the casino. Everyone starts with a fixed amount of chips, for example 10,000 tournament chips, unlike a cash game where everyone can buy in for whatever amount they would like to between a minimum and maximum amount. In a tournament, the blinds are based in tournament chips and change as the levels progress. The levels are fixed time limits which determine how long the blinds will remain unchanged. For instance, in the 10,000 chips hypothetical tournament the levels may be 30 minutes, where the tournament starts off with blinds of 25/50 then in the second level goes to 50/100, in the third 75/150, in the fourth 100/200, in the fifth 150/300 and so forth. Usually, tournaments will allow rebuys during a certain amount of levels. When a player loses all their chips, during the rebuy period they can choose to rebuy or leave the tournament, and after the rebuy period ends they have no choice but to leave the tournament. After the rebuys commence, the prize pool is determined and the total number of chips in play is also determined. As the number of chips stays fixed, the number of blinds players have gets constantly attacked by the levels meaning that at a certain point in the tournament players will have relatively short stacks, well under the usual 100 or so big blinds a player would normally start with in a cash game. There is a certain amount of people who get paid for placing in the tournament, and this usually works out to be anyone who places in the top 8% to 12% of the playing field. The minimum prize tends to work itself out to be roughly two buy ins with the top prize oftentimes being 20% of the prize pool.
The following factors must be considered at the beginning of a tournament to help determine how one will play:
The top-heaviness of the tournament
How one’s skill compares with the rest of the playing field
The cost of the tournament
The availability of rebuys
Tournaments are generally very top-heavy, meaning there is a lot of incentive to play for first rather than to minimally cash. Certainly the top-heavier a tournament is, the more the incentive increases for one to play in a risky manner which will potentially allow one to get a higher cash rather than just placing. Conversely, if one is ever a part of a tournament that is not particularly top-heavy, one may be more inclined to play to just place rather than win. If one’s skill is greater than the skill of the majority of the playing field, one can try to dominate the tournament and play better poker than most of the other players. When one objectively thinks that one is a better player better than most players in the tournament, one should be playing to win. When one feels otherwise, one should be playing to survive. Of course one will still try to make a lot of chips in big hands when one can, but perhaps one will bluff less and one would be content just making the money. I would strongly advise players not to play in tournaments where they feel worse than most of the playing field because playing to win is how tournaments can be profitable in the long run, not minimally cashing. For minimally cashing to be profitable in the long run, one would have to place literally half the time with no rebuys which is highly unrealistic. Another factor to consider is the relative cost of a tournament to a player. If the tournament is a serious amount of money for a player, the player should aim to at least recoup the cost of their buy-in. If the tournament, however, is not that expensive to a player, then that player should aim to try to place highly because there is little downside in losing. On the other hand, with a highly leveraged top prize, a player must be rather pleased with a victory. Lastly, a standard tournament strategy for when one is trying to place highly is to try to secure a relatively large amount of chips from the start then keep that lead. In order to get a lot of chips initially, one may have to engage in risky play that may lead to elimination from the tournament. If rebuys are available, this makes it easier for someone to make risky plays from the start instead of playing standard. I would encourage players to always play in tournaments that they can afford where they feel competent against the playing field so that they can go for 1st place instead of a minimum cash. Players who play super conservatively due to wanting to make the money will never play to the best of their ability; if someone is not going to play their best for any reason, they should not enter the tournament. It is tough to even cash in a tournament, if one decides not to go for first in a tournament, unless they won the buy-in through a raffle or contest, they should not be playing in it in my opinion.
While a player should always initially aim for 1st, this can change as the tournament progresses. As the bubble comes closer and closer to bursting, meaning the point at which every person to be knocked out will be in the money and before every player who busted lost their buy ins, players may find that their initial philosophies’ on placing can certainly change. It is very standard for players to play especially tight, meaning to play only a very small range of hands, as the bubble gets closer and closer to bursting. If a player has a lot of chips, they can take advantage of this by constantly raising and 3-betting. Even if a player does not have a lot of chips, as long as that player does not bully a big stack player, they will frequently get away with this strategy. Even if the short stacks suspect that a player is playing overly aggressively, they will wait until they have a hand before making a move on the bully. To successfully get away with the bullying strategy, one must be putting most or all of their chips on the line, thus taking on the major risk of losing the tournament without placing. Considering the benefits and risks of bullying while a short stack, one should only bully if they are playing for a top place and need to get as many chips as they can to do so, with the pre-bubble burst being the perfect opportunity to do so. It is very legitimate for player to be conservative when the bubble is about to burst, they just have to realize that it is highly unlikely that they will place highly in doing so if they are not currently a big stack. However, if someone is a very short stack and the bubble is about to burst, one is usually better off trying to survive because if they raise all-in their stack is not hard to call and even if they are to double up, they need to double up many times in order to have a shot at a top prize. Typically, the shorter someone’s stack is before the bubble bursts, the sooner they will be eliminated once the bubble bursts. In some rare situations where one is trying to survive and is very risk averse, someone can justify folding top hands such as queens or even aces. An example of this is when there are 3 or more all-in’s exactly 1 player away from the bubble bursting, making it appropriate for a player to let their hand go. The reasoning for releasing a big hand is to virtually guarantee placing in the tournament after the bubble bursts. When someone gets knocked out, the player who folded will cash. Moreover, if the player who folded were to instead call and win the pot, as that player started with an incredibly short stack, that player would not have enough chips to be in good shape for a top prize. Of course these situations are rare and require 3 other all-in’s not 2 because one needs to almost guarantee that at least 1 other player gets knocked out. With 2 all-ins, if the shorter stack wins the all-in, then the the bigger stack will still remain in the tournament. However, with 3 people, if the big stack wins the hand, 2 people will be knocked out. If the middle stack wins the hand, 1 person will be knocked out. Lastly, if the small stack wins, at most 1 person will be knocked out. The only situation where nobody gets knocked out in a 3-way all-in is when the small stack wins the main pot and the middle stack wins the side pot. If there are no more than 2 all-ins, the at-risk player has sufficient equity such that they should call, especially because the half the time there won’t be a knockout in the case of 2 all-ins. However, when there are 3 all-ins prior to that player’s decision, one’s hand equity is severely reduced as there are 3 others in the hand which reduces one’s equity greatly, and 5/6 of the time there will be a knockout absent of the at-risk player moving all in, so by avoiding taking unnecessary risks one can almost always make the money. The toughest decision facing 3 or more all in’s is with aces or kings, which comes down to preferences between risk and reward. With kings or aces, one will virtually always have the best hand, however other hands may have high equity against these monster hands for example pocket pairs in the case of aces and AX, or hands containing an ace in the case of kings. If one is concerned with just placing, they should absolutely fold. Certainly, with 2 all-ins folding a top hand could never be justified but in the case of 3 other all-ins it can be. Personally, I like to play very aggressively and go for a top cash, thus I would never fold kings or aces, though I would fold anything worse than and including queens or AK on the bubble. With 3 other all-ins, folding big hands is a virtual guarantee that one will cash. Certainly, one’s chance of losing the hand (100% less one’s equity) is greater the chance that none of the 3 players is knocked out (1/6=16.7%). Even if one has aces or kings this is true. While one would like to make the call in a cash game with the best hand, in the case of queens or worse on the bubble, it is correct to fold in the case of 3 other all-ins if one has a short stack, but in the case of 2 or less all ins it is correct for one to quickly call. With several people before the bubble, as opposed to being on the bubble, even in the case of multiple all-ins folding big hands is a huge mistake because it is not guaranteed that one will make it past the bubble bursting.
As far as strategy is concerned, tournaments start out very much like cash games. Everyone has large stacks, and no good player makes ridiculous bluffs at the very beginning as pots are usually relatively small and players instead wait to make strong hands. As the levels increase and variance in stack sizes increases, tournament strategy starts to replace cash game strategy. The less blinds the average player has, the less amount of betting is even possible before an all-in. For instance, at 30 big blinds, an all-in is just a 4-bet. Because of this, people raise smaller than they normally would. At 30 big blinds, the early position player would raise minimally (2 times) or maybe 2.5 times the big blind instead of the usual 3.5 times for 6-max or 4 times for 9-max games. In addition, players make decisions to call, raise, or fold based on their implied odds, which are generally not great if the potential caller does not have many chips. The big blind, considering raises are between 2 and 2.5 big blinds, has a very good price to call; however, if an early position player raised the caller can be in really bad shape if the caller only hits a pair. However, usually the big blind will call with decent hands like A9 but will make sure to make a strong hand before stacking off. Players at around 30 big blinds will rarely 3-bet without having hands because if they were to get 4-bet all-in they would have to fold and would lose 1/3 of their stack. For this reason, if someone ever 3-bets around 30 big blinds, one should never 4-bet them without a very strong hand. They will call almost 100% of the time. However, oftentimes players will fold to 3-bets. It is correct for an early position player to raise with hands like KQ and to fold these hands to a 3-bets. If a player ever 3-bets another player, they should c-bet small whether or not they make a big hand by flop. If the player misses and the opponent moves all-in, they will barely lose chips because they 3-bet small and c-bet small as well. If they hit, by betting small the opponent may not be super afraid to get their chips in and, of course, the pre flop 3-better will call if they have made top pair or better by the flop. If a table is playing very tight, a great strategy to gain a better chance at a top-cash is to steal, which is when a player raises frequently in later positions with marginal hands knowing that the players behind them almost always fold. This is the same technique that aggressive players will use just before the bubble of a tournament bursts. In addition, 3-betting hands that can play well post-flop against tight raisers is a great strategy as the raisers almost always fold, will call with strong hands which make up a small percentage of their raising range, and will only 4-bet all-in with very strong hands which make up a very small percentage of their raising range. When the initial raiser folds, the light 3-better wins uncontested. When they call, the 3-better’s hand might play well on the flop and the pre-flop raiser may miss the flop if they have a hand like AJ or a pocket pair but the board brings high cards. Lastly if the pre-flop raiser moves all-in, which is very rare, the light 3-better will fold and bet small to protect themselves in a scenario like this. To get away with 3-betting light successfully, one should 3-bet to a relatively small size because if the pre-flop aggressor calls or reraises all-in one will lose less chips than if one had bet to a 3-bet size that would be more consistent with cash game sizing. Certainly, if a light 3-better is to c-bet, neither that person nor their opponent are pot-committed and thus the light 3-better can still try to win the pot on the flop. As stacks dwindle towards 12 or so big blinds, frequently players will just open-shove, meaning they will just go all-in in lieu of a normal raise and only get called by great hands. One can take advantage of this by raising light. When one’s stack gets short, the player needs to reconsider their preferences between cashing towards the top versus cashing towards the bottom. Regardless of preferences, it is a death wish for a player to rise light from early position, particularly at around 12 blinds when raises are all-ins and players will have big hands a reasonable percentage of time. An aggressive player can still jam any pocket pair from early position because oftentimes when they get called they will have decent equity against a calling range. A tighter player, however, will fold small pocket pairs from earlier positions and jam, or raise all-in, from later positions. Stealing is still a profitable play, but a player should only steal in early position with good hands and in later positions can steal with a much wider range. Lastly, as tournaments start approaching the bubble, levels start including something called an ante, which is a mandatory blind of sorts that every player has to put in. Usually an ante works out to be ¼ of a small blind, but adds up in a 9-max game each orbit to over 1 big blind. Antes contribute to chipping away forces, which mean that if players do nothing to chip up, then they will be in bad shape. In addition, the ante increases the incentive for players to steal pots because if a player can successfully steal a pot, excluding their own ante, they retain an extra big blind for each pot they successfully steal. As antes are introduced and stacks get very short, players should try to keep stealing but do so with hands that will have decent equity against a call such as A2 or QJ rather than any 2 cards, which can find themselves jeopardized against hands that call them.