Winning it all

Reaching the final table is an achievement, but to be a big winner you need the skill to navigate your way to a podium position

The final table is where poker dreams are made, where the big money is divided up and champions are crowned. As poker players we spend endless hours tr ying to get there, but little time thinking about what we need to do once we arrive at our destination.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for a final table, but there are a few immutable truths. In this article I’m going to look at how to adapt your play to maximise returns from your tournament endgame. And the first thing you should consider is stack size.


If you get to the final table as chip-leader there is no one correct way to play but there are two clear schools of thought. The first is to assume the role of table captain, bullying the medium stacks who are just trying to survive long enough for the shorter stacks to bust out. The more passive option is to tighten up and wait for play to get short-handed, at which point you can ramp up the aggression knowing that you are guaranteed a higher payout.

The strategy for short-stacks is much clearer, as they have little to lose. There is no time to hang around and wait for other people to bust out as they will soon be blinded away. The most interesting strategy decisions, however, fall upon those caught between these players – those with the ever-tricky medium stacks.

There is a lot to consider with a medium stack. Should you risk busting out while the short-stacks are still clinging on? Should you avoid the big stacks or meet them head on to ensure you don’t lose all chance of winning when play becomes short-handed? Well, as a rule you want to avoid big confrontations with stacks bigger than your own. Not only do you want to avoid clashes that can result in your elimination, but you also want to be able to exert maximum pressure on your opponents – and that means having the ability to put them to the test for all their chips.


Every time someone gets eliminated at a final table, you not only move up a spot but crucially you earn more money. I once heard Antonio Esfandiari say that he always avoids looking at the payout structure of a final table, as he doesn’t want it to influence his play and prevent him from going for the win. While this is a commendable approach, it will not suit all players.

I’d argue that if poker is a game of incomplete information, we should not ignore any information that is available to us. Let’s use the payout structure from the final table of the most recent GUKPT event in Newcastle as our example. In that event the payouts for the final nine were as follows…

1st £57,175
2nd £33,075
3rd £23,625
4th £16,075
5th £12,275
6th £9,450
7th £7,550
8th £5,675
9th £4,725

What is important is how big the jumps are between the different payouts. While in this tournament every jump is incrementally larger than the previous one, this is not always the case. What is typical, however, is that moving from ninth to third (£18,900) is less valuable than moving from second to first (£24,100). This should be a key factor in shaping your final-table play.

Of course, some payout structures are steeper than others, and you should analyse the structure in order to find the optimum approach. Unlike Esfandiari, most players are governed to some degree by the idea of moving up the payouts. They see that it’s profitable to hang in there while other players knock each other out, and will avoid action as a result. Sometimes this approach is justified, but more often than not the top- heavy nature of tournament payouts means that you should stay focused on the win. A cautious strategy might make the difference between a ninth and fourth- place finish, but to make that final lucrative jump from second to first you need to accumulate some chips, and that means keeping up the aggression, pushing marginal edges and maintaining maximum pressure.


Once play gets three-handed you have made it to the business end of the tournament. You have secured a substantial payday and now you need to shoot for the top spot and the associated money and glory. Again your play will be shaped by a number of factors, including relative chipstacks, the style of your opponents’ play and the size of the blinds and antes.

The payout jump between second and third will be substantially less than that between the first and second spots. But while that would seem to point to going all-out for the win, there is a balance that needs to be struck between aggression and shrewdly picking your spots. While it is true that anything can happen in heads-up, getting there with a severe chip deficit makes you a big underdog to take down the title.

Clearly, sitting back at this stage is not an option. The fast structure in the late stages of a tournament combined with the nature of short-handed play creates an aggressive environment, and those that are content to sit back at this stage will be punished. If all three players have relatively even stacks, the more aggressive players will generally be rewarded.

However, sometimes the situation dictates a more conservative approach. When Praz Bansi and I were three-handed at the Bolton GUKPT last year we both had around a million in chips, while the third-placed player Ian Nelson was extremely short with only a few big blinds. In situations like this, raising into the short- stack with marginal holdings will be a losing play, as the shorty is looking for a spot to get his money in.

You need to align your raising range with that of his pushing range to ensure you are not allowing him an easy shot at a double-up. This three-handed dynamic caused me to fold a lot of my buttons, whereas with more level stacks I would be normally looking to open-raise up to 90% of the time.

However, this scenario also allowed me to open up my play from the big blind, when Ian had passed his hand from the button. Praz was opening a lot of pots from the small blind, as I would expect him to do, trying to make me find a hand to play back with.

In situations like this it is important not to become too passive, as the blinds and antes will soon decimate you if you do. While you obviously don’t want to lose a big pot to the other big-stack, the same holds true for them. As such, when they open the pot after the short- stack has passed, you should open up your re-raising range and put the pressure back on your opponent, who also does not want to go broke in third place. This is a very specific situation, but the point should be clear. It is hugely important to consider the table dynamics combined with the payout jumps and adjust your strategy accordingly.


The key to final-table play in my opinion lies in careful, logical aggression and the ability to adapt your play both to the specifics of the final table at hand (players, styles of play, blind structure, payout structure) and as the table evolves. Be aware of the table dynamics. Who is hanging on for the next payout jump? Who is looking to make their move as soon as possible? Some other key points to bear in mind are as follows:

  • Try to avoid big hero moves against bigger stacks without a damn good reason.
  • Keep the pressure on the shorter stacks and try to foster a table image of someone others will want to avoid playing big pots without a hand.
  • As play becomes short-handed, try to adapt to the conditions better than your opponents and realise the importance of the dead money in the pot as the blinds get bigger and come round more often.

Finally, try to enjoy it. Although this will come with experience, a lot of players tense up and are not able to play their natural game in the later stages of a tournament when the money becomes serious. Focus, relax and remind yourself that if you play well you can be satisfied whatever the end result.

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