Pro concepts: Day 1 tournament strategy (part 1)

Get yourself through Day 1 of a major tourney like the GUKPT grand final and you’ll put yourself in line for a major payday. We show you how…

Live poker players have really never had it so good. Throughout the UK there are a whole host of exciting, affordable poker tours with huge prizepools and great structures. But if you want to win a UKIPT or a GUKPT main event the first obstacle you have to navigate is getting through day one. 

In the first part of this Day 1 tournament strategy special we look at levels 1-4 and also take a look at satellite EV.
As the saying goes, you can’t win a poker tournament on day one, but you can sure lose it. The most important goal at this stage is survival and anything above that is a bonus. The most important aspect is that simply by making it through the first day you give yourself a chance of winning some money.
That doesn’t stop players from making horrendous mistakes in situations they don’t need to get involved in. When playing at UKIPT Newcastle recently we saw one player bust by getting 300 big blinds in preflop with Queens, players bluffing off their stacks in level one and short-stacks committing tournament suicide towards the end of the day. This is not how you play tournament poker. If we take the structure of a UKIPT main event, you have a 15,000 chip stack and one hour levels, so there is no need to go crazy in the early levels. Taking this structure as our guide we’re going to explain how to give yourself the best chance of making day two.

Levels one and two

Average stack: 15,000
Blinds: 25-50 & 50-100
The first few levels don’t seem important. The blinds are teeny weeny, the pots often irrelevant to your stack and everyone is more concerned with looking at Twitter on their phones than concentrating on their play. But, while we hate to be the ones to break it to you, the opening levels may well be the most critical of the entire day.
It’s here that you first meet the table of players you are likely to be sat with for the next eight hours. The first thing you must do is get basic reads on each player at the table. Who are the fish? Who are the solid pros? Who feels sick with nerves? Do anything you can to get this information.
Before a hand is dealt and you’re all sat down start engaging people in conversation by asking them if they regularly play tournaments, if poker is their main job and so on. It’s amazing how much valuable information people are keen to give away. Obviously, if someone asks you those same questions be deliberately vague as you don’t want to fall into the same trap. 
The great thing about having so many big blinds to play with is you can afford to play a lot of postflop pots for little damage to your stack. The best example of this is when you suspect a fishy opponent has A-A and you hold a small pair or suited connectors. Whereas later in the tourney you couldn’t profitably call three-bets in the early levels here you can. If you hit a big flop you can stack a guy like this early on because they will have no concept they should fold their ‘monster’ hand. Feel free to also limp in. There’s a whole stigma these days around limping but if you feel you can play well postflop and others will make major mistakes then it can be a good tactic to limp with a wide range. After all, winning those blinds and adding an almighty 75 chips to your stack is not very important in the grand scheme of things.
The opening levels are about exploiting mistakes and not making any of your own. Protect yourself from tricky spots by playing a little more passively than usual. This could mean just flatting early position three-bets with Q-Q and A-K rather than four-betting and resisting the temptation to run big bluffs that are always completely unnecessary at this stage. If you can win a few chips here then great, but the main goal of levels one and two is to scout the table, set a good image for yourself and look for opportunities to capitalise on major errors that can lead to an unlikely double-up for you.

Levels three and four

Average stack: 20,000
Blinds: 75-150 & 100-200
You can start to increase the pressure on your opponents now the blinds have increased a little. By this point there will be slightly different stack sizes all around the table that you need to be aware of. For example, if a player in the big blind only has 3,000 at the 100-200 level then you may want to just fold 5-4 suited (to avoid being shoved on) on the button instead of attempting to steal the blinds.
Conversely, expect the big stacks to defend their blinds more liberally and, if they are good, aggressive players, to be opening many more hands in an attempt to bully the table. It’s at this point that you should look to three-bet more liberally, especially in position against the tighter players. By doing so you can either pick up the pot right away or often win it with a simple continuation bet. If you only three-bet with your monster hands you’re unlikely to get any action so make sure you put the pressure on regularly to ensure value. 
We wouldn’t advise limping from this point forward as by now you’re often playing with a sub-100 big blind stack and any loss is significant. Players will be much more inclined to steal and you’ll have to fold the weak parts of your range to a large preflop raise. It’s much more optimal to raise all your opens to 2.5 big blinds as this amount is large enough to steal but not too big to risk if you are three-bet and forced to fold.
By the end of level four your stack will probably be one of three things – short comfortable or a monster. No matter where you’re at it’s important to stay confident and not get ahead of yourself. If you have an 18 big blind re-shoving stack it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get back in the game. On the other hand just because you have 70,000 chips now does not mean you’re guaranteed a final table spot. Keep your focus!

Extras: Satellite EV

Almost all major live tournaments now offer a plethora of live and online ways to satellite in for a fraction of the buy-in. Satellites can be especially valuable when playing events that are far away from home as usually a satellite win will secure not only a tournament seat but also a package that includes travel, accommodation and even spending money.
In theory, you should always try to satellite into an event purely because of the large variance inherent in tournament poker. The only problem is that satellite play is a specific skill in and of itself. If you don’t have the ability to play satellites well you run the risk of spending just as much money on trying to qualify for the events as if you’d just bought in directly!
If you’re comfortable with satellite play then it makes sense never to buy-in direct and always try to qualify. However, if that’s not your thing a good alternative to paying full whack is to sell a percentage of yourself in the tournament. Even very successful pros often sell up to 50% of themselves (sometimes with a small mark-up) because they acknowledge that it’s very difficult to stay profitable if you are continually buying in directly to live tournaments.

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