John Vorhaus shows you how to play big tournaments and win the big money
The path to poker glory in today’s online wonderland does not lie in cash games and it doesn’t go through sit-and-gos. Sure, you can win some money with these activities – enough to sustain your poker cravings and maybe even draw enough extra income for that 42-inch plasma screen the wife wants. But for real money, life-changing money – what James Clavell famously called ‘f ? ? ? you’ money (because it lets you tell the boss where to go) – you’re probably going to need to get involved in the massive full-field online tournaments where, if you win, you could trouser a truly life-changing chunk of money.
Of course, nobody just wanders into these things and stumbles blindly to victory. The best online tournament players – the names you see over and over again on the leaderboards – have a definite plan for the event, including strategies not just for the playing of individual hands but for exploiting predictable opportunities and evading inevitable traps that occur and recur throughout a full-field tournament. Let’s shine a light on some of those strategies now, shall we?
Early phase: Dead money
A certain percentage of online players come into full-field tournaments wildly ill-equipped to play them well. Maybe they don’t have the smarts or the experience or the game plan. Maybe they’re just there to learn or to have fun. That’s fine. They’re free to do what they want with their money and time. But what this means for us is that there is a lot of loose money – dead money – floating around out there, and in the early stages of a tournament it’s your job to do this one thing:
• Grab all that the dead money before someone else does
If that dead money finds its way into the hands of more dangerous, skilful foes, it’s going to be much harder for you to carve it away later. Best to attack it while it’s poorly defended. Make aggressive raises and re-raises. Force your weaker-minded opponents to make tough choices. Among other things, they lack the experience or savvy to make tough choices correctly. The more hard decisions you put to them, the more likely they are to err on the side of dumping their chips to you.
You won’t be the only one using this strategy of course; other sharks swim in these waters. But if you use simple common sense to discern which players should be attacked and which should be avoided, you won’t be under too much pressure and can focus on putting pressure on those least equipped to handle it. In other words:
• Don’t challenge strong players, challenge weak ones. That’s what they’re there for
If you do this one thing right – duck the good players and pummel the bad ones – you should be sufficiently well-heeled to compete in the tournament’s middle phase.
Middle phase: Things not to do
Surviving the middle rounds of an online full-fielder is less about making the right moves than about avoiding the wrong ones. Remember, at this point most of the weakest players have been sucked dry and kicked to the curb.
• Don’t forget your overall place in the tournament
The amount of chips you hold, relative to the size of the blinds, tells you whether you’re in great shape, fair shape, or short-stacked and imperilled. The table (see right) illustrates the number of orbits you can survive until the antes and blinds would bust you completely.
It’s easy to see that when you have a strong stack you can be much more loose, aggressive and creative in the playing choices you make. But, and this is important, you need to keep firmly in mind where you’re at. If you’re in a great chip position but see yourself as only average or, worse, imperilled, you won’t be able to leverage the advantage that a big stack brings. You’ll be making a mistake.
• Monitor your opponents’ stacks
In the middle stages of the tournament, some stacks are short and vulnerable. Others are large and formidable. Most are of average size. And all these stacks should respond to raises differently. If you don’t pay close attention to the size of your intended targets’ stacks, you can land in a world of hurt. Suppose you hold 8? -7? in early position. Some players call this a ‘package hand’, a holding they add to their package of raising hands for the sake of deception. It’s not a bad idea to have such package hands, but they must be used correctly. If you see that your one potential caller is fairly short-stacked, you don’t want to push with your package hand, because you know that you’ll only get a call from semi-strong to a strong hand, a ‘good enough to make my last stand’ hand. A hand, in other words, likely to dominate your 8-7 suited.
Aim that package-hand raise instead at someone who has about the same number of chips as you. It will work much more effectively. This foe still has enough chips to remain patient, and so will fold a lot of the A-7, K-J, Q-10 holdings that an imperilled player would play. You have a much greater chance of getting him to lay down, thus winning his chips without a fight.
• Don’t blow your lead by picking unnecessary fights
This is a big problem of mine. Whenever I become chip leader, I get it into my head that it’s the chip leader’s right, by God, to tyrannize all the smaller stacks. That’s true… to a point. But if you try to do too much with your big stack, you’ll find it an average one – and then an imperilled one – in a very short space of time.
Say your bully behaviour has caused a procession of timid folds from your foes, but then someone with about twothirds your stack size re-raises you, putting themselves all-in. Should you call? Can you afford this reckless venture? You’re already in a dominant position. How much more dominant do you need to be? And what does it mean when someone with a fair amount of chips is willing to go to war with the chip leader? It means they’re not afraid. Maybe they’re just a great bluffer; more likely, they’ve got a hand worth taking into battle. Don’t get carried away. Let someone else be the bully for a hand. You’re still chip leader, and you still have all the chip equity you could have so carelessly squandered.
Final phase: The squeeze is on
As the money bubble approaches in full field online tournaments, players sort themselves into two groups. First there are those who are desperate to get past the bubble and earn themselves a payday – any payday. This may be their first tournament and they want ‘something to show for it’. Or they may have gotten into this tournament via a satellite, so the ratio between what they’ve paid to get in and what they stand to win is really quite attractive to them. Other players however, are ‘in it to win it’, and consider a low money finish to be equivalent to a first round bust-out. They’re looking for the big money payouts and know that these numbers sit in the top three spots. Plus, to some, glory and bragging rights are even more important than the money. So the final phase of a tournament finds a field of players with wildly different goals, attitudes and plans for getting what they want. When you find yourself in this situation, you have to ask yourself two questions: Which goal do I have? How will I achieve it?
• If you just want to make the money
If you just want a payday, and you’ll settle for a small one, then your task is simple: measure your stack against the rising blinds and see how far you can go if you just do nothing at all. If the numbers suggest that you can make the money without playing a single hand, by all means follow that path. You won’t get much money for your troubles, but you’ll get something and that’s better than nothing.
• If you want to move up by measured steps
If you’re aiming for a cautious climb up the pay table, with a backdoor chance at the top spot, you want to pick your spots with care. Yes, you’ll be involved in hands – it’s the only way to collect chips and move up – but you’ll make it your practice to avoid large stacks and engage short ones, especially the shortest and most imperilled ones. If you’re lucky enough to have at least a little something in hand, by all means put the squeeze on those who are on the brink of extinction. You have little to lose (since their stacks are too small to bust you out) and something substantial to gain – every player eliminated now moves you one place higher up in the money.
To work this strategy effectively, keep a wary eye out for the bigger stacks around you. They may not be content just to let you pick on the small stacks unmolested. As soon as you attack a small stack, you might find yourself under attack from a much larger stack. Then you must decide whether to stand or run.
• If you’re in it to win it
If you want to win this thing, you really don’t want to let anyone else get a bet in edgewise. Use the combined forces of your big stack and your big moves to send everyone else fleeing from your path. Use big bets and raises to reinforce the belief that you’re gonna win this thing, full stop. In short, get on top, stay on top, and hurl bets down at everyone who tries to climb so high. There are pitfalls, though. Your pocket Kings may run into pocket Aces and knock you back into the pack. In the main though, if you back up your big stack with strong moves and bully behaviour (always within measure of course), you’ll put yourself in position to win the top prize, the bragging rights, and the famous ‘f ? ? ? you’ money. Good times!