Hunter gatherer

Chip accumulation versus chip preservation – it’s the age-old argument. The question is, can you do both?

When I first started playing tournaments, I played as many as I could. Every time I sat down I’d try a different strategy, trying to figure out the best way to win. I came up with a system that seemed to work, but the more I looked at, the more I realised it didn’t work at all. Whenever I played in a tournament, I’d set a series of goals for myself – survive the first hour, make the money, and so on.

Finally I wanted to make the final table and of course win it all. This strategy had its plus side – I was consistently cashing, and occasionally, when I got lucky, I’d make the final table. I hadn’t won a tournament though, and in fact most of my final tables ended with four or five people still playing. I thought I was close, and if I kept playing this way, it would happen.

It never did happen. I wasn’t really in contention late in tournaments and when I made the final table, I often found myself short-stacked. Even though it felt good to last a long time, I soon realised that most of the ‘real’ money was in the top three spots – especially the top spot.

Before I carry on, I have a question for you: would you rather always last a long time in tournaments and cash 33% of the time but never finish in the top four, or would you rather crash and burn nine times out of ten, but the tenth time finish in the top three? Take a look at a tournament pay structure.

See how much you get for just making the money. Although it feels crap to get knocked out of a tournament quickly, it’s not hard to see that it’s a better idea to go for the win.


Armed with this new information, I went back to the tournament circuit and tried a completely different strategy. I played so many hands it was ridiculous. I mixed it up left, right and centre. Often, I was able to accumulate a ton of chips while other times I made a quick exit. But still, I wasn’t able to crack the top three.

Then it dawned on me – maybe neither strategy is perfect. Maybe I need to change gears a bit and use a little of everything I’ve learned. I still don’t like to put myself at risk early in the tournament, but at the same time, if I want to accumulate chips there may never be a better time than in the early stages of a tournament.

Think about it: all the bad players are still in during the first level or two, so why not take advantage of their mistakes and accumulate some chips with little risk?


After the first two levels, I’ll really tighten up and go into preservation mode. The reason for this is twofold. The blinds have now risen to the point where it makes it prohibitive for me to enter a lot of pots, and without antes there really is no point in stealing yet.

The second reason is simple – why not use this time to establish a really tight, conservative image? It’ll come in handy later. During the middle stages of the tournament (which I’ll define as when the antes have kicked in, but we are not that close to the money yet), I’m picking my spots.

I’m still in preservation mode and I will use my tight image to pick up a few pots here and there. I’ll obviously be playing my big hands, but I don’t want to risk a lot of chips in a race situation.

One move that works really well during this stage is the squeeze play. It’s quite advanced, but simply beautiful if you can pull it off. Basically what you’re doing is putting in a large re-raise after two or three players have entered a pot. The players are trapped or ‘squeezed’ between you and the original raiser. The original raiser has to worry about the players that flat-called behind him and you, of course.

Some players refer to this play as a ‘dead money pickup’ – the thinking being that the players who smooth-called don’t have a huge hand. It might be big enough to call one raise, but certainly not a big re-raise. Hence their money is dead. Generally, once you get past the original raiser, it’s plain sailing.

Before trying the squeeze play, make sure the situation befits it. The original raiser should be a fairly aggressive player who is capable of folding a hand. The others must have only called the original raise and not re-raised. You’ll need to have a good tight image to pull it off.

If successful, this move can really take your tournament game to the next level. If you steal the blinds, you are getting enough chips for one round, but if you pull off the squeeze play, you’ll get all the blinds, the antes and two or three raises – probably the equivalent of six to nine big blinds. It’s a great way to accumulate chips.


For the early to middle part of a tournament, you should be in preservation mode, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make moves: pick your spots, use the squeeze play and avoid races


As the bubble approaches, I’ll change my play up a bit. This is the time to really accumulate chips. I’m not interested in merely cashing, because I know that the real money is in the top three spots. However, there are many players who are very conscious of making the money and will do almost anything to survive.

The key is to figure out which players are just holding on. Be merciless and attack them at every opportunity. I’ve witnessed players in the big blind folding pocket Queens to a raise rather than risk getting knocked out on the bubble.

Once you’re in the money it’s time to change gears again. The players that were just holding on are now ready to gamble. They’ve made their entry fee back and now they want to see if they can accumulate some chips. This is exactly when we do the opposite. Notice the trend – I try to switch it up so that I’m constantly contradicting the masses.

As the field dwindles, players will be more apt to hold on and see if they can make the final table. This is where I like to keep my eye on the prize. Remember, it’ll feel good to make a final table, but never forget where the real money is.

This is the time to accumulate. Attack those middle stacks – the ones trying to climb the pay-scale ladder. Put them to the test. Don’t be afraid of coming over the top, re-raising and forcing them to call off their chips. Good players don’t call off their chips, so unless they have a monster your aggressive play will most likely be rewarded. Be wary of attacking the small stacks, as they are more likely to stand their ground and push all-in.

The closer you get to the final table the greater the opportunity to accumulate chips. Most players really want to make the final table, while the best players don’t care. They are more interested in putting themselves in a position to win.

Don’t make the same mistake as a good friend of mine, poker pro Bart Hansen. Bart played in the $1,500 no- limit hold’em event at the WSOP, which was televised. He was so determined to make the final table and get on television that he stopped playing the style that got him there. With about 21 players left, he was fourth in chips. He knew he could get to the final table by doing nothing, so that is exactly what he did.

He made the final table – a great accomplishment – but he was so short-stacked it was nearly impossible for him to do anything once he got there. He finished in eighth place, and to this day he still regrets not putting himself in a better position to win the event. Chip accumulation versus chip preservation – there really is no right answer. Find what works best for you and I’ll see you in the winner’s circle.


When the bubble and/or final table is approaching, you should accumulate as many chips as possible. Locate the tight players and pound them mercilessly. Forget making the money and focus on the win

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