Phil Shaw looks at how to adjust your sit&go strategy to master ‘steps’ tournaments
One of the best things about sit&gos is that poker sites can reinvent them with new formats and structures. One such example are ‘steps’ tournaments, where a small investment can allow you to work your way up the ladder to a large live tournament and maybe even a big score.
Satellites to major live tournaments have been around as long as the World Series of Poker. But with the growth of internet poker the sites themselves have started inventing new ways for players to qualify for events like the European Poker Tour or majors like the World Series, where they will wear the site’s colours. Traditionally, this has been through multi-table tournament satellites or double shootouts (where you have to win two single tables to qualify), but with the introduction of steps tournaments sites like PokerStars have come up with a new format entirely.
Players can choose a buy-in level that suits them and try to work their way up through each ‘step’, where the next level is about three times the buy-in of the previous one. On PokerStars, for example, there are six steps with buy-ins of $ 7.50, $ 27, $ 82, $ 215, $ 700 and $ 2,100. Based on where you finish you either get a ticket to the next step, one for the same step (or even the one below) or nothing.
Then at the top step the prizepool is paid out in entry packages or cash depending on the tournament you are hoping to qualify for and your finishing position. For example, the Monte Carlo EPT step 6 pays one package and $ 1,200 for second from the $ 20,000 prizepool whereas the smaller buy-in Punta del Este LAPT step 6 pays three packages and $ 500 to fourth.
Assuming you are going to start at one of the lower levels, your main focus should be on the strategy for steps one to five. The structures are all virtually identical, offering two tickets to the step above then a variety of tickets back into the same level or ones below. Because the next level up is usually around three times the buy-in, about two-thirds of the prizepool is allocated there, with the rest going to the next positions (steps one to five are played nine-handed whereas step six has ten players).
This is different from a standard sit&go where the payouts are 50%, 30% and 20%. With a structure where only the winners show a profit it’s important to play for those places and not worry too much about ensuring you get to the smaller prizes unless the situation is very extreme. What this means is that in the early stages of a steps tournament you will need to look to accumulate chips. In a standard format you may creep into the money with not much more than your starting stack, but here it is virtually impossible as in the endgame the big stacks will usually wait for the small stack to be knocked out.
With 13,500 chips in play and starting stacks of 1,500 there will be an average chipstack of 4,500 for the last three and the winners will average 6,750. In this situation, you might as well play some speculative hands like small pairs, suited connectors and so on. In the higher buy-in games there will often be weak players who have come up from lower steps and are likely to give their chips away early. This is also reflected in ICM calculations that tell us that gambling in the early stages of a step tournament is less problematic than in other sit&gos. For example, doubling up your starting stack early in a step two SNG will take its value from $ 25 to $ 43.25, so while you still want to be a favourite to go all-in, you only need to be about 58% favourite or better.
The more crucial strategy adjustments for steps tournaments come when you enter the endgame, and with two tickets and nothing extra for the other player it is important to avoid being the one making a bad call and freerolling someone else into a ticket. If there are two seats up for grabs and it’s down to three players all with equal stacks, each player has two-thirds of a seat. Should an all-in occur the players involved will either win an additional one third or lose two thirds (with the other third going to the bystanding player). For this reason you need to be a 67% or greater favourite to call in such a spot, unless pot odds play a large role.
In situations where there are two large stacks and a small one this goes even higher, as freerolling the third-place player would be disastrous. Note that in such spots, a hand like A-Ko should usually be folded to an all-in, as it has only 65% equity against a random hand. You may still even fold hands that have about the right equity if your opponents may make foolish mistakes and freeroll you later.
When it comes to the endgame, caution is advised, because one bad call could freeroll someone else into a ticket
Adjusting your game
Essentially your gameplan should remain unchanged throughout steps one to five. However, you should modify it slightly as you move up depending on the level of your opposition. In the early game you might play more hands if you feel you have a big edge or there are many bad players, but at the higher steps you may encounter excellent players and decide to tighten up. Similarly, in the endgame players in the lower buy-in steps will often not understand correct strategy and do foolish things. You should be careful about moving all-in against low-stakes players with marginal hands or making marginal calls. Higher-stakes players on the other hand will rarely call when you move all-in against them on the bubble.
Once you reach step six you will need to tailor your play to the structure of the tournament. As we saw above in the Monte Carlo step 6, first place gets an $ 18,800 package and second $ 1,200 cash, so you should play to win. LAPT events play more like the lower steps with several packages on offer, meaning there will be a tightly fought endgame, and you should be very wary of playing for stacks on the bubble.
Slightly different again will be the upcoming WSOP steps on PokerStars where there is traditionally one $ 12,000 package and several cash prizes on offer. Here the cash prizes are spread quite thinly and none of them are usually more than the $ 2,000 entry (second and third received $ 1,500 in last year’s structure), so you should again mostly play to win. However, watch out for exploitable lower-stakes players who might play too tight and try to win a few hundred dollars more.
Be careful of moving all-in with marginal hands against players in the lower buy-in steps, as they may not understand correct strategy and could be calling too lightly