The opening levels of a sit&go are often where the game is won or lost
PHASES OF PLAY
I divide up my discussion of the sit&go into three phases. The first is the early phase, which exists in every structure. It occurs when the blinds are small relative to stack size. For example, most sites begin play with 10/20 blinds and stack sizes of 1,500 chips. With blinds so small compared to stack sizes, post-flop play dominates.
The middle phase of play typically begins when the blinds reach 50/100. When this happens most of the remaining chip counts are between 1,000 and 2,000.
A common tournament rule of thumb is that you should simply push – rather than making a standard raise – when your stack is only ten times the size of the big blind. This also applies when the other stacks are ten times the big blind as well, even if your own stack is 30 times the big blind. Effectively, you are playing short- stack poker, and short-stack poker is a push-fest. As the blinds increase to 75/150 and 100/200, the pressure increases on nearly everyone and generally pre-flop play dominates.
Many skilled players view the middle phase as a luck fest, but as I will demonstrate next month, there is room for skill in this phase of play. The middle phase lasts until the bubble bursts and only three players remain (assuming a normal payout structure). The late phase of play includes three-handed play and heads-up play.
Generally, pre-flop play continues to dominate three-handed play, but often there is some room for post-flop play when you get heads-up. The size of the blinds dictate whether this is possible. Unless the heads-up play ends quickly, it too will end with pre-flop play.
The blind structure of the sit&go dictates the length of each of the three phases of play, therefore dictating the times at which you will need to shift gears from post-flop to pre-flop. The most common difference in structure is between a regular format and a turbo format. Regular formats generally increase the size of the blinds at ten-minute intervals, though some sites may do this at eight-minute intervals and others at 12 minutes.
A turbo format generally increases the size of the blinds every five minutes. There are also super-turbo formats, where the blinds increase every two minutes.
The ramifications of the turbo formats are that the early phase is shortened and the late phase will usually be dominated by pre-flop play. Many skilled players (for example, skilled post-flop players), dislike turbo formats because the early phase is shortened, which reduces the advantage they have over the field. In addition, when these players make the final two, there is no room for skilled post-flop play.
These skilled players often refer to turbo formats as push-fests and, therefore, crapshoots. In their view, the way to ensure profitability is to exploit mistakes in the early phase and to build up enough of a chip stack to give one an edge in the ensuing crapshoot. Formats with longer early phases offer greater potential to exploit post-flop mistakes, which give these players a better chance of surviving the middle phase of play and making the money.
As I mentioned, the assumption that the middle and late phases are matters of luck is incorrect. There is room for skill in these phases as well, it just happens to be pre-flop skill rather than post-flop skill. If you become proficient at understanding when you have the equity to push and when to fold, you have an enormous advantage over your opponents in the latter two phases of play. Since the crucial action (in terms of who makes the money) occurs in the middle phase, developing your pre-flop skill is essential to maximising your returns in the sit&go format.
Players who are adept at these decisions prefer a turbo format because the early phase of play is shortened and the middle phase – where they have an advantage – arrives more quickly.
A second common difference in blind structure is the rate at which the blinds increase. Many sites increase the blinds 100%, which means the blinds effectively double each time, for example, 25/50 to 50/100 to 100/200. Other sites, such as PokerStars, may increase blinds at a slower pace – about 54%.
Here, the blinds increase as follows: 10/20 – 15/30 – 25/50 – 50/100 – 75/150 and so on. Yet other sites, such as Ultimate Bet and Pacific Poker, increase blinds at even slower rates, about 43% and 44% respectively (my research indicates that among the major card rooms, these are the slowest rate increases available). The slower the rate increase, the longer the early phase of play will be, and vice-versa.
THE EARLY PHASE
Players who excel at post-flop play have an enormous advantage in the early phase, and this is largely because the vast majority of sit&go players are not skilled post-flop players. Generally speaking, super-tight hand selection is the best strategy at the beginning of the early phase. Why is this so if skilled players have an advantage post-flop? You might think the post-flop advantage would mean the best strategy is to see lots of flops.
To understand why this conclusion is incorrect, you have to understand the difference between the value that tournament chips have and the value cash game chips have. In a cash game, a $10 chip is worth $10, but in a tournament, chips have value only insofar as they represent equity in the payout money.
If you sit at a $10+1 ten-player sit&go with starting stacks of $1,500 in chips, a $10 chip is worth only $0.07. The total prizepool is $100, and there is $15,000 in chips on the table, so a $10 chip is only 0.07% (=10/15,000) of the chips and hence represents only 0.07% of the final equity.
If you squander your chips in the early phase on speculative hands – like when chasing draws – you will put yourself at a significant disadvantage most of the time. The blinds continually increase, which means the middle phase of play could arrive quicker for you. While the middle phase still allows for skilled play, the advantage you will have is less than what can be had in the early phase.
In a cash game, you can simply reload if things go badly, but in a sit&go, you must conserve your chips and thereby conserve your equity. Most players do not understand this, and the early phase is dominated by poor play – particularly of the calling station, draw-chasing variety. Obviously, if you have a good hand, you can exploit this by value betting.
MIXING IT UP
If you are not confident in your post-flop play, limit your hand selection to monsters and hands that can flop easily-played monsters. Your hand selection should essentially be pocket pairs, A-Q and A-K. Big pairs, such as Q-Q and above, ought to be played aggressively. Lower pairs, and the big Aces, should be played cautiously. Ideally, you should limit your lesser hands to late position, though limping or calling a moderate raise in middle position is okay.
If you are confident in your post-flop play, you can mix in some suited connectors or suited Aces in late position. There is a bit of a catch-22 here in that if you are not a proficient post-flop player, you will never become one if you fail to put yourself in the positions that will develop this skill. If you are inclined to develop this part of your game, then cash games are heavily weighted towards post-flop play.
You could work on your skills in the lower stakes, or you could drop down a couple of levels in buy-ins and continue to play sit&gos. Whatever you decide, initially you should continue to play a tight strategy; it will just be less tight than the super-tight strategy.
As the blinds increase, they will come to represent meaningful amounts relative to your chip stack. At 25/50, the blinds start to matter. Raising from late or middle position with a small pair like 5-5 or A-J is acceptable, but you should not be looking to play a big pot with such hands. You are looking to take those blinds, or if called, to win the pot with a continuation bet on the flop.
Your continuation bets do not need to be large – like full pot-sized bets. You want to limit your risk, but play begins to tighten up around this point and you should look to exploit this in the appropriate situations. Obviously, if you are raising a hand like 5-5 and connect with the flop, you could easily double your stack and put yourself in a good position for the next phase of play.