How to build a monster stack quickly in tournaments: #1 Assess your table

New PokerPlayer strategy expert Jamie Sykes offers his unique perspective on the five best ways to run up a massive stack in the early stages of tournaments 

I hate it when people say that poker isn’t a sport. It is a sport and I, therefore am basically an Olympic athlete. Well, maybe neither of those statements are true, but they do allow me to segue perfectly into a fantastic analogy; if poker was a sport, like running for example, then tournament poker would be a marathon. Think about it, you train most days for them, and they are long feats of endurance, which provide you with a huge sense of accomplishment when completed successfully. They also carry a certain degree of prestige. 

In both marathons and poker tournaments it is important that you are well versed with how to properly navigate each section because overall success can depend entirely on effortlessly flowing from stage to stage with the wind in your sails and momentum as your companion. Recovering from a mistake at any stage isn’t impossible, but it certainly makes life more difficult, and the earlier that mistake is made, the larger its radius of effect can be. Any good professional will testify that when they have momentum with them from an early stage it becomes much more natural to make good decisions throughout the tournament. 

Getting off to a good start is one of the best ways for us to capture that elusive creature that we call momentum, so let’s look at a few ways in which we can accomplish that…

1. Assess your table

The first and most important thing that you have to do before embarking on the long journey towards tourney glory is to assess the marine life in front of you. Can you spot any fish? Any sharks? Maybe a beluga whale floating around? A catfish perhaps? There are a few little warning flags that  show up within the first twenty hands or so in online and live tournaments alike that you can use to identify whether the person sat across from you is your prey, or if you are theirs:

Have they open limped preflop?

This is usually a solid indicator that a person plays poker recreationally rather than as a professional. Limping is nowhere near as unfashionable as it was a few years ago (these days you’ll definitely see me whipping out a limp in a live tournament) where it was almost considered illegal to do so by the online whiz kids. However it is a tool the pros use more towards the mid to late stages of a tournament, so if you see someone limbering up with an open limp, you can be pretty sure they are just here for a day out. 

Have they three-bet in position preflop?

This is basically the polar opposite to the point above. If they have already whipped out the three-bet pre in position and aren’t on a life support machine then they are quite likely to be competent and aggressive. This is not a hard and fast rule 
though because:

  • They could just have a really good hand 
  • They could simply be aware of the three-bet and know that they should use it but not actually have the ability or knowledge to properly apply this strategy, resulting in them being a cheesecake themselves 

The latter point used to trip me up all the time. I’d see a person under the age of 25 being aggressive preflop with small bet sizing and just assume that they were a competent player – but in reality, because of all of the information that is flying around the internet, there is a whole culture of people who know that they should do something but don’t properly know how to do it, and these people can be almost as soft a spot as a recreational businessman.

It is important to gather as much information as possible both in and out of hands in order to properly assess the opponents across the table. If it’s a live tournament have a good look at the players – how old are they? Are they wearing expensive clothes? Are those clothes expensive but informal (potential pro) or a balling business suit (potential recreational player)?

Make sure you listen to them as well, you can pick up a lot from table banter which can help you to identify the marks from the pros. Are they local? What kind of language do they use? If they are using modern poker terminology correctly then there’s a good chance your man does alright. But if he’s saying things like, ‘I see that bet!’ then you’re probably safe. For now…

Read the other articles in this series now:

Jamie Sykes is a UK tournament pro – get more strategy from him and other big winners in PokerPlayer magazine every month – subscribe today for just £12.99 for 12 issues!

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