The final frontier

Getting to the final table of a major tournament is impressive, but treat it just as another table

If you have played any of the other players at the final table before, you should have an idea of their style and can plan accordingly

This month we’re looking at how to play final tables. Reaching the final table of any online or live tournament is an achievement in itself. However, considering most pay-out structures save the serious cash for the final three, getting to the final table is only half the job. To be consistently successful at tournament poker, you need to be able to handle the pressure and formulate an effective strategy to help you take advantage of the tournament structure and your opponents’ weaknesses. Your strategy should be designed to give you the best chance to finish in first and take down the tournament.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

The great thing about poker is that there are no set rules, and every decision depends on the situation and your opponents. However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t try to prepare to play the most effective poker for whatever game you’re in. When you reach a final table, it’s more likely than not that you’ll have played with at least a few of your opponents during the tournament. If you play regularly – live or online – there’s also a good chance you may have played against them in other tournaments in the past. As I’ve said before, in a game of incomplete information such as poker, any additional information you have can give you an edge.

If you’ve previously come across any of the other players who’ve also made it to the final table, you should have some idea of their style and can plan accordingly. Some players are capable of moves that others wouldn’t even dream of and this is knowledge you can use to plan an effective playing strategy. The more information you have in a situation, the better decisions you can make. I would always recommend preparing yourself as best you can by thinking through how you expect your opponents to play, what their weaknesses are and how you can exploit them.

So you may have some idea how aggressive your finaltable opponents are and of what moves they’re capable, but you also have to consider the size of each player’s chip stack. If you’re chip leader, how big a chip leader are you? Will your opponents let you run over them or are they aggressive and likely to play back? In general, players these days are much more aggressive than they used to be, so the happy days of being able to consistently bully a whole table are much rarer than in the past.

The size of the blinds relative to the average stack also plays a big part in adjusting your strategy. Most final tables will have large blinds and possibly antes, which means short-stacked opponents will be far more aggressive and likely to go all-in pre-flop. Post-flop play becomes less important in these situations and if you’re a big stack, your game plan revolves around picking the right hands pre-flop to knock out your opponents. Again, if you have a good idea of their style of play, you should have an idea of what their likely range of hands to push with will be.

One final key point in choosing your final-table strategy is to assess the aims of your opponents. Some players come to a final table wanting to climb as high up the payout ladder as possible, without taking risks. Others will only be interested in coming first and will be more likely to be happy to gamble to get there. If you can pin down their attitude to the prize money, you can adjust accordingly and take advantage. Similarly, if it’s a televised final, inexperienced players will be more conservative and fold more often, not wanting to look foolish. Use this against them whenever possible.

Tales of the WSOP

Confidence is the key to surviving final tables. For example, going into the final table of the WSOP in 2002, I had about $400,000 of the $6.3 million on the table. But with John Shipley a big chip leader with $2m, I had an okay chip stack compared with the rest of the table.

I was confident having been chip leader with 45 players left and then still making the final, despite losing every big pot I played on the fourth day, including a $1m pot on the final-table bubble when we were ten handed. WSOP main events only lasted five days back then! Part of me was just glad to have made it to the final table, but I was also hoping that after losing so many confrontations, things would turn my way. After I doubled up early with rockets, that confidence grew and it helped me to play optimum strategy, taking each hand at a time and playing it on its own merits. Regardless of the pressure or the prizes, it’s vital you take each hand as it comes and concentrate on each decision – that’s all you can do, and it took me to second at the 2002 WSOP.

In the WSOP’s $2,000 no-limit hold’em event this year, I made another final table, this time as chip leader, but not by much. This final table to me demonstrates my point about knowing your opponents. I knew Billy Duarte and had played with four or five of the other players during the tournament, but I knew nothing about one of the newbies, Robert Cohen. From Cohen’s initial play, I had him pinned as a tight player, but after a while he went crazy, showing a bluff reraise with 7-2 and then reraising an all-in on his blind with J-10. The other player, Troy Parkins, had Q-Q and bust him from the tournament. I’d rather play against world-class players that I know than people like Cohen who show themselves to be so unpredictable. If you know what your opponent is capable of, you can put him on a hand or assess whether he’s making a move. But if a previously rockish new player starts showing hands you thought he would never play, it’s hard to plan an effective strategy.

Playing TV tables

One aspect of playing live tournaments that you should definitely factor into your strategy is whether the final table is televised. Should you be lucky enough to reach a TV table, remember that putting players on TV affects their decision making. This is especially the case with inexperienced players who don’t want to look stupid on camera. If you’re a new player, you have to try to ignore the cameras and – as I keep saying – focus simply on making the best decisions you can on each hand at the time. If anything, you should be aware that pros are a little more likely to bluff you, as you’re more likely to fold and save face than make a brave but potentially embarrassing call on national TV.

Also worth thinking about is the final-table structure. The WPT, for example, runs a six-handed final table, with an aggressive blind structure compared with most tournaments. Naturally, this means you must be prepared to play a pre-flop strategy, picking your hands and playing them aggressively. Some pros complain that the WPT is a crapshoot, which may be true, but that’s not really an excuse. Players know what the final-table structure will be, so you should be prepared to adjust to a short-handed, aggressive pre-flop style designed to maximise your chances of finishing first.

Finally, one thing that I hear a lot from relatively inexperienced players is that they plateau at the final table. I’ve seen this myself in tournaments where a relatively inexperienced player reaches a final table with a healthy stack after playing hours of solid poker. They then proceed to tighten up or overplay marginal hands, and eventually get blinded down and forced all-in. My advice to these players is to remember that the final table of any tournament is just a continuation of the same game. If you’re at the final table, you’ve been doing something right to get there, so keep doing it. Pressure is something that has to be turned to your advantage – apply it to others, not yourself. Stay aggressive and concentrate on making the right decisions and, with luck, you’ll be successful.

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