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The key to being successful in fixed-limit tournaments is knowing when to play them like
fixed-limit cash games, says Lou Krieger

While no-limit hold’em has long been the tournament game of choice both for online players and in bricks-andmortar establishments, fixed-limit games still refuse to die out. In fact, they’re gaining in popularity. Fixed-limit hold’em tournaments differ from no-limit events in somewhat the same way as fixed-limit and no-limit cash games are different, but not exactly. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Fixed-limit tourneys move more slowly because your entire stack won’t be at risk until you’re short-stacked, or until the blinds have escalated and almost everyone has fewer chips than they would like. Some experts suggest that you can play more aggressively in fixed-limit games precisely because your losses are limited and you cannot be eliminated on any single hand unless you find yourself with few chips, facing large blinds and antes, or both. According to these mavens, you ought to come in for a raise if you come in at all. In other words, either fold or raise – don’t call. That’s a fairly simplistic approach, so let’s dig a bit deeper and see how well this strategy holds up.

One of the differences between tournament and cash game play is that in the former players have to consider the relationship between their chips to the blinds in addition to the hand that they are playing. When a player’s chip count is small in relation to the blinds – and antes, if they are used in addition to blinds – he has to take more risks or suffer the pitfalls of having himself eaten alive by the blinds.

Cash in hand

But that’s not the case in a cash game, or at the start of a tournament, or even during rebuy events because you can always add more chips if you go broke during the first few limits. At the beginning of most fixed-limit tournaments, every player has a large number of chips in relation to the blinds, and as a consequence play can proceed just as it does in fixed-limit cash games. In other words, when everyone has plenty of chips, you can play as you would in a cash game, without regard to the relationship between your chips and the size of the blinds or whether you have more, or fewer, chips than others in the pot with you.

You can usually afford to pursue flush or straight draws to their conclusion in fixed-limit games. If there’s $60 in the pot and the betting limits are $20, you can call a bet with a flush draw because the pot is offering you 3/1 on your money while the odds against making your flush are only 2/1 – never mind any additional money you figure to make if your flush pans out and your opponent keeps calling while you continue betting.

But in a no-limit tournament your opponent can easily price you off your draw by forcing you into a nearly evenmoney wager when you are a 2/1 underdog. He can do this even while the blinds are low in relation to players’ chip counts early in the event. If he bets $200 into a $60 pot and you call, you’re facing a 1.3/1 price against a 2/1 proposition – and that’s a money loser in the long run.

Later on in fixed-limit events, when the blinds have grown quite large in relation to most players’ chip counts, drawing hands become unplayable because they consume too big a portion of one’s chips on a hand that’s not favoured to win the pot. But when you have a big pocket pair, two big cards such as A-K or A-Q, or you’re on a stone cold bluff, raising is almost always a better idea than calling.

Aggression rules

Most of us have a propensity to call unless there’s a specific reason to fold or raise. But calling actually runs afoul of one of poker’s prime strategic precepts: be selective, but be aggressive.

The need to be selective is almost self-evident. The player who gets involved in too many hands will win his share of pots and then some, but a poker player’s objective should centre on winning money, not pots, and playing too many hands is a surefire way to go broke. This is true whether you’re playing fixed or nolimit, cash games or tournaments. Playing selectively and aggressively is a universal component of winning poker. Aggressive play gets extra money in the pot for the player who is favoured to win because he has the best hand. He can also win if his opponent folds to his raise. Aggressive play provides two roads to winning; passive play provides only one.

In fixed-limit tournaments you can afford to raise because you do not have to fear a big, over-the-top reraise, as you would in no-limit events. If you raise in a no-limit tournament, there’s always the risk of someone re-raising you all-in. That’s when you have to throw away hands like top pair with top kicker, two pair and sometimes even a set. Along with folding your hand, you are also relinquishing any money you wagered – which can be a relatively hefty sum. But while your opponent can always re-raise in a fixed-limit game, whether it’s a cash game or tournament, the size of that re-raise is limited and if you have a lots of chips, losing one additional bet shouldn’t hurt too much.

Poker’s ‘be selective, but be aggressive’ mantra suggests that unless there’s some overriding reason to call, folding or raising is usually a better decision.

Dip into your chips

In fixed-limit tournaments the same concept of relative chip worth that you find in no-limit tournaments comes into play, although not until later in the event, and then only if you are short-stacked. When you have only a few chips, they are worth more on a relative basis than each chip is when it’s part of a big stack.

If this seems to fly in the face of logic, try thinking in terms of your percentage of tournament equity rather than absolute chip value. In other words, if you have 100 chips and are able to win or lose one, the gain or loss to your tournament equity is small – only 1%. But when you have only ten chips, losing or winning a single, solitary chip makes a difference of 10% of your tournament equity.

When you get into desperate mode – suppose you have only five chips remaining – winning an additional chip results in a 20% gain in equity. In other words, the fewer chips you have left, the more precious each one is, and when you are nearly down to the felt, you simply can’t afford to take a flyer on a weak hand if you hope to remain in the tournament.

Early in a tournament, particularly in a fixed-limit event, chips have the same sort of relative worth that they do in cash games, and fixed wagering limits prevent you from losing all you have on one hand.

A bet on the flop in a fixed-limit tournament is the size of the big blind and is usually a small percentage of the pot. That’s why players stick with flush and straight draws in fixed-limit hold’em tournaments, never mind the fact that when the pot is raised it is only one more bet to call. When the pot grows large and the odds against completing your flush are not even 2/1, you can afford to risk a few chips for a sizeable reward.

But a flush draw in a no-limit event might force you to commit most or all of your chips on this betting round or even the round that follows. Most players prefer to gamble their tournament lives on a made hand, even if it’s no more than one pair, than go out on a failed draw. In fixed-limit tournaments you won’t find many players releasing top pair, top kicker, overpairs, or two pair, and you’ll seldom see them release a set unless the board is very threatening. But in no-limit tournaments players run the risk of losing all their chips unless they are able to release hands like these when circumstances dictate. Every skilful player can tell you a story about getting a distinct and overriding feeling that he did not have the best of it when an opponent bet enough to force him to commit his entire tournament life to the pot if he decided to call.

That’s when sets are ditched. And although no-one is ever happy about releasing big hands, folding a strong hand and losing some of your chips is a lot better than dying with a losing hand – even in fixed limit. Poker players don’t gain anything by falling on their swords, and when it’s a choice of tournament elimination versus living to play another hand, just take solace in the words of general George Patton, when he said: ‘The idea of war is not to die for your country. The idea is to make the other fellow die for his.’