Winning Tourneys

Put your newly acquired short- handed skills to the test in the aggressive world of tournament poker

Are you a short-handed poker warrior yet? If you’ve been reading this series of articles and paying even the slightest bit of attention, I’ll wager that you are.

But there’s one area of short-handed combat I’ve yet to address: tournament play. In today’s action-orientated poker world you can find a lot of six-max (six-handed table) tournaments, which can be both fun and profitable for a newly christened short-handed specialist like yourself. There’s a lot of call for aggressive play, but understanding the size of your stack is more important than knowing that a flush beats a straight.

You’ve almost certainly played nine- or 10-handed tournaments and sit-and-gos, and have some idea of what kind of hands you’re ‘supposed’ to be playing from which position. When under the gun, you only play A-A, K-K, Q-Q or A-K – according to conventional poker theory anyway – and loosen up the closer you are to the button. So what happens to starting hand selection when under the gun is just a couple of seats away from the dealer button?

Yes, in short-handed play hand values increase, because there are significantly fewer cards in play, and you need to be more aggressive than normal. But that doesn’t mean you need your finger hovering over the all-in button on the first hand.

To make the money in a six-max tourney, you have to outlast many foes, and the only way to do that is to accumulate chips rather than lose them. Play the beginning stages of a six-max as you would a short-handed cash game, with the caveat that you donít want to risk huge portions of your stack on narrow edges ñ especially if youíre confident you have a skill advantage over the other players at your table.

The blinds in the opening rounds of any tournament are always small and thereís not much to be gained by being overly macho in your opening salvos. Sure, you should have no qualms about playing lots of aggressive small-pot poker, just as you would in a cash game, but avoid risking huge chunks of your stack in uncertain circumstances. If your opponents think youíre going to keep shooting at the pot whatever two cards youíre holding, youíre inviting yourself to be trapped by a better hand.

Pot limitation
Controlling the size of the pot is the key consideration here. Take your foot off the gas and temper your aggression in the early stages. You want your stack to be as deep as possible, relative to the pot size, so that you can keep your betting flexible and creative. If the pot gets too big, that option is gone, and youíll suddenly find that one more bet will pretty much commit you, and probably your opponent, to the hand.

To stop the size of pots escalating beyond your control, consider limping when you have position pre-flop instead of making a standard raise. Likewise, you may wish to check behind on the flop or the turn to keep the pot small for those tricky river decisions. You should constantly be thinking about your stack size, your opponentsí stack sizes, and your tournament goal of accumulating chips.

In poker, there are no absolutes, so donít always try to play small pots, just monitor the circumstances. When youíre a big favourite in a hand, youíd like nothing more than to play a big pot. However, when youíre unsure about where you stand, or youíre on a draw, try to keep the pot and thus your chip commitment and risk of tournament death small.

By the time you get to the middle stages of a tournament you should have a fairly good idea of how the other stacks at your table play. That’s when you must start to pick off the aggressive players with well-timed re-raises, particularly when you have position. You might run into a monster, but when you’ve spotted an aggressive pre-flop raiser you know that most of the time they’re making a move with less-than-premium hands. That doesn’t mean you should be pulling off this move with complete offal, but given a fairly strong hand (think medium/high suited connectors as well as big court cards), it’s often worth picking that raise off.

Push and shove
When a short-handed tourney reaches the latter stages and chips have been hoovered up by a few big stacks, some players will have enough ammunition for post-flop play but, increasingly, others will be in what I call ‘push-and-pray’ mode, where options are reduced to folding or pushing all-in pre-flop. At this stage, the cardinal sin of tournament play is to get blinded away to the point that your stack is too short to be a threat to anyone. Don’t damn yourself to tournament death this way! If you let yourself get down to three big blinds, you’d have to double through twice just to be out of immediate danger. Don’t let it happen. Use your stack while it’s still got some clout.

So if you’re down to seven big blinds, for example, you need to find a place to push. Ideally, you want your push to coincide with another short stack’s big blind, so long as his stack isn’t so short that he has the right odds to call with any two cards. If that’s the case – if you know you’re going to get a call no matter what – make sure you have a hand containing an Ace, a pair, or two cards above an Eight before you push.

Fight the power
As a short-to-medium stack you can often find yourself forced out of the action as the bigger stacks try to boss the table. This can throw the normal tournament rule of only pushing as the first aggressor out of the window. Be prepared to re-raise all-in with your strong hands (middle-to-high pairs and good-to-great Aces) and take your shot to double through the big stack or, if you still have enough chips to make them fold a marginal hand, swallow hard, and come over the top with anything in the hope you don’t get called. Your all-in raise probably needs to be around four times their bet to deprive them of the odds they’d say was an ‘automatic call’. If you don’t have that amount then pushing all-in as the first person to act on a later hand will actually work better for you, because you’ll still have some fold equity. Down here in the trenches of a high blinds-to- stacks ratio, it’s best to win without a fight.

If you have a big stack, you needn’t take big gambles. Stay aggressive – especially when you can attack unopened pots – but don’t make lots of wanton calls. Also, remember that if there are short stacks at the table, an all-in push from a medium stack means a real hand; if not, he’d wait to let the crippled stacks get polished off.

Endgame strategy
When you make the final table the blinds will almost certainly be large relative to stack sizes, so your decisions and actions will be just as heavily stack-dependent. If you’re among the shortest at the table, plan to be very aggressive, seizing the initiative (and all available fold equity) by making lots of pre- flop all-in moves. Whenever possible, target your attacks against big blinds who have stack sizes similar to yours, and avoid going to war with the large stacks as they’ll be that much more likely to call you with a potentially stack- busting Ace-rag or small pocket pair.

For example, suppose you’re the small blind and the action folds to you. You have K-9 – normally a great hand to push with at this point; but the big blind has a big stack, and looking downstream, you see that someone with just seven big blinds is next to post the big blind. Fold your K-9 and preserve your fold equity. Then, if you’re able to be the first one in when the short stack posts the big blind, steal no matter what two cards you have, for the short-stacked big blind is more likely to have rags than a real hand, and much more likely to play it safe and surrender his blind, since he knows that after the small blind he’ll have a few more free shots to pick up a real hand. Note that if you have only four or five big blinds, you’d need to push with that K-9, for fear of being shut out of steal opportunities when you’re on the button or in the cut-off.

Be the big bandito

If the gods have been smiling on you and you have a big stack, just remember that it’s not your job to make promiscuous calls to eliminate the short stacks. Instead, it’s your job to be the aggressor and deny the short stacks their vital all-in opportunities. Don’t play sheriff, play bandit! Raise! Raise! Raise! Raise! Have I made myself clear? Raise!

Note that I haven’t talked about what to do if you’re medium-stacked in the short- handed endgame. That’s because there’s almost no such thing as a medium stack at this point. If your stack isn’t so big that you can bully the short stacks, then it’s probably so small as to be shortly imperilled by the rising blinds. Remember, you’re seeing the blinds far more frequently short-handed. You can’t afford to wait. Let aggression win you some uncontested pots, and hope that luck (or your foes’ impatience and willingness to gamble with worse hands) is on your side when you finally show one down.

Bottom line: Go big or go home, and the shorter your stack, or the shorter the field, the bigger you have to go!

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