How to make the move from cash games to tournaments

Looking to make the transition from cash games to tournaments and find the fame and fortune of the tourney circuit? Simon Hemsworth is a master at both – here’s his guide to adapting to the tourney world…

With online poker becoming an increasingly challenging place to make money it’s important to try your hand at different formats in order to find all the best value. Many players who have dedicated their poker careers to cash games might decide to dabble in tournaments in search of more fish, or that chance of a big score. I have found myself playing more tournaments, both online and live, over the last couple of years. Let’s start by looking at some of the reasons why you may want to switch to playing more tournaments.

Why play more tournaments?

Choosing whether to focus on cash games or tournaments is often down to individual preference. Some poker players like the consistency and freedom of cash games while others like the chance of instant life-changing money that tournaments can provide. However, there are a number of advantages tournaments can provide over cash games, that cash game regulars might not immediately realise:
More recreational players in tournaments
Casual players are more drawn to tournaments because they feel like more of a competition and have the carrot of a big first prize. More recreational players equals more value.
The chance of a big score
A big result in a tournament could change your whole poker career for the better. A significant bankroll boost could instantly offer you more opportunities to play in games you couldn’t afford before.
More community recognition
Tournament players naturally get more recognition for their achievements because their wins are more visible to the poker media. To be seen as a great poker player to the general public, you need to be winning tournaments.
Playing tournaments leads to longer sessions
A lot of online cash gamers struggle with motivation to play long sessions. Playing tournaments ensures you will be sitting at your computer until you finish every last one you registered for.

Skill differences

So, having decided to give tourneys a crack it’s important to identify some of the key differences between them and cash games. Tournaments are regarded as much more of a preflop-focused game. This is because once the first few levels of a typical tournament have passed, the average stack will be short and you will often find yourself working with somewhere between 20 and 50 big  blinds. With such a stack size there isn’t much room to play many flops, let alone turns or rivers. Because of this tournament players concentrate on perfecting their preflop game.
People from a cash game background will generally have a superior postflop game compared to tournament players. This is because cash games are usually played with much deeper stacks and involve much more postflop play with complex decisions being made on flops, turns and rivers. An ability to play well postflop is arguably a much more difficult skill than attaining a good preflop game. Many preflop short stack decisions are mathematical compared to many postflop situations that require analysis of all sorts of variables. Because of this, cash game players have an advantage in tournaments in terms of postflop situations. Indeed, I have been left flummoxed by the decisions highly regarded tournament players have made in postflop hands where all logic seems to have gone out of the window.

Attitude change

Many cash game players move into tournaments with a bit of an ego about their own abilities and an idea that tournaments almost require too much luck to bother with. Although over a short-term sample the luck required in tournaments is incredibly important, such an attitude is not very helpful to your chances of success.
Cash games do provide much more of a clear display of ability leading to success. In cash games the best players can grind hundreds of thousands of hands in a relatively short space of time and eventually the cream rises to the top. However, in tournaments there are many examples of mediocre players that have run good when it matters and ended up millionaires and also great players who have had a breakeven career through getting unlucky at key times. Of course, we don’t know who is in the latter group because we never hear about such players.
This situation can be difficult to accept for cash game players who are used to a system of ‘hard work plus ability equals results’. They might find it hard to accept that a player they see as inferior has made ten times as much money in their career. Unfortunately, this is just the nature of tournaments and something that needs to be accepted. As we know in poker all a good player can focus on is making correct decisions over and over again and hope that they are rewarded with running at expectation in the long term.

Common pitfalls

There are a number of mistakes cash game players make when converting to tournaments. Firstly they ignore that their chip stack is finite. In cash games you play knowing that you can bust your stack and reload as many times as you want. The value of your chips is whatever their value is in dollars and when making decisions you are only thinking about the expected value (EV) within any hand. If you work out you have over 50% equity to go all-in preflop in a cash game then you must go for it.
However, in tourneys, maintaining your stack above zero is very important as you cannot rebuy (assuming we are playing a freezeout). Therefore when making decisions we have to think about how much our stack is worth in the tournament at that particular time. This concept relates to ICM (Independent Chip Model) which is a way of working out the value of your chip stack based on factors like the amount of chips, prize pool, and the number of players left.
When making decisions in tournaments you should always be considering how your stack could be used in the future. So you might fold a hand in a slightly +EV situation because your stack could be better utilised in the future to get all-in with much better equity. Equally, there might be times when you make a call that’s –EV in a vacuum but you consider the chips you might gain to be extremely useful for the remainder of the tournament.

One size does not fit all 

Another place where cash game players struggle in tournaments is playing different stack sizes. In cash games you will typically be playing 100BB or deeper, with occasional short-stacked opponents. However, in tournaments you will play a whole gamut of different stack sizes from 300BB+ to less than 1BB and it’s important to be able to play the whole range well. At one point in a tournament you might have a very healthy stack that is dominating the table and will be able to bully opponents as their tournament life will be at risk. However, within a short space of time and some lost pots you might become a short stack. Now you will only be able to open a very tight range from early position and will be making lots of mathematically based decisions in late position, like when to resteal. These two strategies are markedly different and are dictated by our stack size. Many cash game players fail to quickly adjust to multiple strategies and their chances of success suffer as a result.
Within the realm of tournaments there are all sorts of different formats and quirks that are added to make each one slightly different. For example a tournament might be four, six or nine-handed, it might be a turbo or deepstack, and it might include bounties or antes from the start. It’s vital to know the different strategies involved in all the different formats so you know the best way to approach them.
I remember a big mistake I made in a prestigious online tournament that was due to inexperience. I was playing a tournament with very deep stacks and a slow structure that would conclude after two very long days. After an early position raise and a mid-position call, I squeezed A-Ko. The player in early position folded and the initial caller four-bet. I ended up five-bet/calling a shove only to see he had A-A. With such a deep and slow tournament the standard play for me there was to simply call the raise with A-Ko. Instead I got all my chips in very early on with absolutely awful equity. It taught me a harsh lesson.
A facet of tournament poker I have struggled with is the necessity to play long sessions to succeed. With cash games you can play for a couple of hours and quit if the games are dry or you feel you are not playing your best. If the games are good and you are playing awesomely you can carry on and crush.
With tournaments you will typically be playing sessions of at least ten hours, and the longer you are playing the better it means you are doing. One of the key aspects of tournaments is that the late game – when the decisions mean the most and are all worth a lot of money –will be at the end of a long, gruelling session. Therefore it’s incredibly important to remain fresh enough to be able to play your A-game. As a result, sessions must be planned well so you have had enough sleep and food. Leaving the tables because you feel like it simply isn’t an option when it comes to tournaments.

Give tournaments a go 

Although there are significant adjustments to be made when transitioning from cash games to tournaments there are plenty of success stories of former cash gamers winning big events. Learning a solid tournament strategy and becoming a winner in these games is arguably a much easier task than transitioning the other way to become a winner in cash games.
In my experience playing cash and tournaments, plenty of cash gamers have dabbled in tournaments and achieved great success, while licking their chops when the tournament grinders decide to sit on the cash game tables! It’s always good to keep poker as fresh and exciting as possible so why not give tournaments a try. Some great play and that one day of run good could change your poker career forever.

Jamie Gold out of his depth 

Tournament players have not traditionally fared well in tough cash games with the best players in the world. Although on the face of it this hand is a cooler for Jamie Gold, when he turns top set against Antonius’s nut straight, it does not mean he played it well. Although Jamie Gold was fun to watch during the 2006 WSOP Main Event I think most agree his victory was down to a great run of cards. A lot of his decisions were simple with good cards or he was gambling heavily preflop where his errors were not severely punished.
In this hand on High Stakes Poker the players have very deep stacks and mistakes can cost a lot of money. Antonius is a superb player in every format, and although he gets lucky to hit the nuts on the turn he plays the street perfectly and allows Gold to shovel in all his money when Antonius is very rarely going to be calling with worse. Of course, as had been the story of Gold’s career up to that point, he gets very lucky to win two thirds of the pot when they decide to run it three times. 
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