Turbo strategy

Turbo sit-and-gos aren’t just crapshoots, if you play them well you can find consistent profit

Overcommitting yourself by putting too much in is a horrendous mistake that weak players make a lot

Whether you’re a total beginner or an online poker veteran, sit-and-gos provide a quick burst of adrenaline-fuelled tournament poker at all skill levels and stakes.

And while the majority of players cash occasionally but lose more than their fair share, a growing number of players are finding the small edges and optimal strategies needed to consistently win.

In fact, the best sit-and-go players in the world make thousand of dollars a month (even at moderate stakes) from multi-tabling turbo STTs all day long. But you can do it, too…

Okay, let’s get this clear from the start – sit-and-gos are not real poker. They require a completely different set of tactics to cash games and multi-table tournaments in order to succeed, and there is a completely different range of obstacles to overcome. But for those who know how to play them correctly, and are able to exploit every little edge, they are a fantastic low-risk way of building a bankroll.

Essentially, turbo SNGs are a game of push/fold poker. If you accumulate chips early on, all you’re doing is extending the amount of time you have until you enter push/fold mode.

That’s because with fast blind levels (usually around five minutes) it will almost always get to a situation where everyone in the tournament is short- stacked (less than 10 big blinds) and needs to either push all-in or fold.

Those who know when to push and when to fold will make the money anywhere between 30-40% of the time and achieve a healthy ROI (return on investment) of between 10-20% – for every £10 in they get £11 or £12 back.

Early stages

In contrast to MTTs and cash games where intelligent loose-aggressive play can often be the most successful strategy, in sit-and-gos, especially at the lower stakes ($1-$50), tight is right.

Your mindset from the first hand should be one of conserving chips until the blinds get to a point where everyone is short-stacked – usually with five or six players left – and you have the simple but tricky decision of whether to push all-in or fold.

So in the opening two or three levels you should avoid playing speculative hands, where making loose calls and raising with inferior hands will deplete your already shallow chip stack. So get used to folding marginal hands like A-J in early position, mucking small pairs to a raise, and forget about defending your big blind with hands like Q-10 suited.

These types of holdings will get you in trouble if you hit a flop semi- hard and find yourself all-in (and all out) with top pair/average kicker. Likewise you should avoid chasing flush and straight draws as you’ll find yourself spewing chips time and again.

That’s not to say you can’t play some speculative hands very early on. It is worth limping into unraised pots in late position with big suited connectors like J-10 or K-Q, and small pairs – Twos through Nines – in the hope of flopping a set. But you must be disciplined enough to lay these hands down in the face of strength post-flop if you haven’t hit the board hard.

Sit-and-gos are not for the stubborn poker player, or those who want to play ‘real’ poker. Often you lay down the best hand pre- and post-flop but it’s simply not worth getting involved, as you’ll lose chips for the all-important endgame.

So what should you play? Obviously, you’re going to play Aces, Kings and Queens from any position. You should usually make a standard 3x or 4x raise, and will occasionally find yourself in a position to double-through early on if someone shoves all-in with a smaller pair or A-K.

Jacks and Tens are also playable but caution is needed. For while they turn into a monster five- or four-handed on the bubble, frequently in the early stages you’ll find yourself pushed all-in pre-flop after your initial raise. Sometimes you’ll be in a great spot against an underpair, but it’s far more likely you’ll be a big dog to an overpair or flipping a coin against A-K/A-Q.

That’s a horrific situation for your tournament equity as nearly 50% of the time you’ll go out! So Jacks and Tens can be mucked in the first level or two if there’s a lot of action.

Open-raising in any position with A-K is fine, but be careful of re-raising because you’ll almost certainly have to fold to a shove from the original raiser if the chip stacks are similar sizes for the same reason as with the Tens and Jacks. And while A-Q can also be a raising hand from late position it’s probably better to limp or call with rather than raise or re-raise because of its domination by A-K and big pairs.

Middle stages

At levels 3 and 4, when the blinds start to become worth stealing, some players will become short-stacked (where their stack is around 10 big blinds or less). At this point you need to continue to play very tight, perhaps even tighter if you’re not getting good cards, to preserve your stack for when you’re in push-or-fold mode with less than 10 big blinds.

Don’t panic and stick it in with any old rubbish though; instead wait for something with some potential or a spot where you’re unlikely to be called. Say you have K-10 suited in the cut-off and the action has folded to you, it’s an automatic shove and one that you should be making with any pair or collection of face cards.

Remember, you can’t allow yourself to blind out as you need to maintain enough chips to make players think twice about calling you with a hand that may be beating you.

On the other hand, if you have a big stack through an early double-up, then you’re in great health. Don’t get involved in raised pots unless you have a monster hand but look to make small steal raises in late position to hoover up chips from scared players. If anyone comes over the top with a genuine hand you can then easily fold.

This throws up an interesting point about bet-sizing in sit-and-gos. When raising in a game where the stacks are shallow and the swings in stack sizes so great, it’s essential you make the right-sized bets and raises. Over- committing yourself by putting too much in is a horrendous mistake that weak players make all the time.

A standard opening bet should nearly always be the same whether you have A-A or K-Q. A three times the big blind raise at the 25/50 or 50/100 level, providing you have a big enough stack to warrant it is fine, while as the blinds increase a minimum raise or 2.5x bet will suffice in order to achieve your goal of stealing the blinds.

Time and again you’ll see bad players make a raise of four or five times the big blind, which then gives them the pot odds to call when a shortish stack shoves. But more often than not, their hand is crushed and they end up as the short stack. A smaller raise would have achieved the same goal – to win the blinds – if no one had anything, but would have allowed them to make an easy fold if someone showed a lot of strength with an all-in shove.

Late stages

As the endgame approaches and the action gets down to five or four-handed in a full ring SNG, it’s time to gain your edge over the opposition. By now the blinds are huge (in relation to chip stacks) and everyone is going to be under pressure to collect chips or blind out. If you’re not at the bubble stage yet, with five or even six players left in, and the level has reached the point that a starting stack would be short-stacked (100/200 if you sit down with 1500), it’s time to start pushing.

Forget about the quality of your cards and start looking for the right spots instead. You can’t afford to miss an opportunity to shove and scoop the blinds. You really don’t want to be called in most situations but by getting your chips in you’re giving yourself a chance to live.

Imagine the blinds are 100/200 with a running ante of 25, you have 1300 in your stack and the five-way action is folded to you on the button holding Q-10 suited. You should move all-in nearly all the time, apart from when the big blind is a monster stack or a short stack who is already committed to calling.

An uncalled shove will see you pick up 425 chips – increasing your stack by a third! Any other average stack player has to have a huge hand to call so your push is going to have a positive expectation in the vast majority of cases.

One of the most difficult positions to be in is if you have somewhere between 10-15 big blinds. That’s because an all- in move seems too drastic, but a raise, if someone comes over the top, then leaves you short-stacked. Often then, it’s the right move to just move all-in, especially with antes in play to take the pot pre-flop.

If you have A-J in the cut- off for example, with 2200 chips and blinds of 100/200/a25, your best move has to be all-in. It seems like a big overbet, but with 400 or so in the pot, your range is well ahead of any of the three players left in the pot, and with the chance to add nearly 20% to your stack, it’s a no-brainer. Even if you get called by a smaller or similar-sized stack they might call a significant amount of the time with the worst hand, or an underpair for a coin-flip.

Often at this point, your fate will be decided by a race or two, but you can put yourself in the driving seat by applying the pressure and getting your chips in first.

The bubble

To cover all the ins and outs of bubble play would take another article of its own, so I’m going to highlight the practical points to consider instead.

Bubble play is a delicate balancing act so constantly check the clock to see when the blind levels are about to rise, remember to look at all your opponents’ chip stacks in relation to your own and each other, and adjust your game accordingly. It’s important to identify between the players that do and do not understand bubble strategy correctly, because you don’t want to shove all-in with any two cards against a player who’s going to call for all his chips with a marginal hand like Q-10.

It’s bad for you and it’s bad for them. Instead target those players who are looking to creep into the money by not playing a hand or are too frightened to put their chips in. Do everything you can to avoid the big stack or, if you are the big stack, move your chips in virtually every hand until the bubble bursts.

Your cards are largely irrelevant at this point. For someone to call for all their chips while another opponent is also nearly out is a grave error, even with a big hand like A-K. The other thing you can do with a big stack is taunt the middle stacks.

If they make a normal raise, you can just shove on them, and unless they’ve got Aces, Kings or Queens they’ll probably have to fold, in case you have them beat or outdraw them, leaving the two short- stacked players to creep into the money instead. Again you need to make sure they understand bubble play correctly to make this play.

If you’re a short or medium stack you need to pick your spots wisely and make moves to avoid getting into a situation where you’ll be so short- stacked that you’ll have no fold equity. Remember, 7-2 off is only a 2/1 underdog against A-K. So embrace the fear and do it anyway.

(If you want to be really successful at bubble play, which is where the best players exploit their mathematical edge you need to read and understand ICM or Independent Chip Modelling. Go to www.chillin411.com/node/7 for a full explanation. You can then download one of several ICM calculators – see Teacher training, above – which will do the maths for you in real time, or allow you to see which pushes/folds were correct after you’ve played.)

But if you remember nothing else, the most important lesson to take is make sure you’re not the one calling all-in for all your chips. It’s better to push with any two cards where you have two ways to win (by your opponent folding or by winning the hand if called), rather than by calling and having to win the hand to stay in. Only call all-in if you’re so short- stacked that you have to gamble or you have such a big hand that you believe you’re well ahead of your opponent’s range.

Again, chip stack sizes come into play here. So while calling with J-Q might be okay if you’re a huge stack compared to a tiny stack who’s shoved on your big blind, doing so with 9-9 or A-K when the big stack has shoved into you as second chip leader, and there are two tiny stacks on the verge of going out, is a huge mistake.

In the money

After the bubble has burst the blinds are usually very high – 200/400 or more – and it’ll still be all-in or fold (unless you’re trapping someone with a monster), but it’s time to return to a more normal way of playing, looking for big hands or ones which have a good chance of winning.

This is because now that everyone is in the money the calls will be looser and players will relax. If you have a combination of any of the following – high cards, suited cards and connectors (such as 8-9 suited) – then you should be shoving in to keep the pressure on your opponents. At this stage it really is a crapshoot but you can still maximise your chances of winning by doing the pushing not the calling (unless you have a big hand) and by keeping an eye on chip stack swings and the rising blind levels.

When heads-up you need to realise that hands like A-6s, K-Js, and any pair are pretty monstrous hands and that with the nature of the tourney you’ll be getting your chips in virtually every time.

As a final point to make, you must realise that in order to cash consistently you will have to experiment a little, find a style that works for you and play a solid endgame to beat the hordes of turbo SNG multi-tablers that are out there. Once you know what you’re doing it’s probably worth playing two or three tables at once to stop you from getting bored in the early stages of the games when you’re folding almost every hand.

In fact, playing lots of tables will stop you from trying to get flash with J-10s, when you should just be mucking that kind of hand to a raise. Turbo SNGs are a different kind of poker. They require experience, a sharp mind, a lot of patience and, for those with a mathematical mind, they’re a fun, fast route to consistent profits.

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