How to crush live poker tournaments

James Keys made his big score when he finished runner-up in the 2011 Aussie Millions, netting him over $1m – here are his winning MTT strategies

Money talks

I’ve always talked about hands. When I was at uni I was in the poker society, all of us would play a lot live and online and we’d talk strategy constantly. Talking about your game and analysing hands is more valuable than playing. You should always be talking about when to shove, mistakes people make and what the right play is.

A lot of grinders like to stay away from the scene, and they can stop developing. Instead of playing for eight hours a day, play for six and spend two hours reviewing your game with others. More information is always a positive.

Play it tight

In live MTTs with big buy-ins you usually start off with 200 big blinds so there’s no rush before the antes kick in. A lot of people blow up in the early stages and it’s easy to get annoyed when you don’t play a hand for half an hour, but don’t get carried away and play too loose. It’s such a waste to play huge flips early on. Until you have a read on what your opponents are up to and a reason to not play tight then don’t.

There’s less reward for bluffing early so it¹s not a good proposition. Once the antes kick in then your hand range widens. You should be raising with suited connectors and pocket pairs UTG and start raising 70% of hands on the button ­ anything suited, any Ace-high, K-5 and up and any playable Queen or Jack.

Readers digest

Whenever you see a showdown there might have been seven or eight bets in the hand so look for the aggressor and who’s trying to bluff too much. A lot of people think, ‘Oh this guy’s raising every hand and now he’s raising me on the turn when I’ve got two pair’, but they’ve not noticed he is passive. When a passive player raises the turn they’ll have a strong hand.

The way people put their chips in is an indicator of strength. When stacks slide out or are cut down in fives it usually indicates strength one way or the other.

Three-bet defence

Because of the structure, a lot of the time you¹ll have just 20-30bb after the first few levels in online events and three-betting strategy isn’t too important. But in live MTTs you’ll constantly find yourself in these types of spots. In position, I prefer to call when being three-bet, but out of position I never call. If you’ve got pocket tens and stacks are 100 big blinds deep and you get three-bet from the hijack or the cutoff, if the flop comes down with anything but a ten and they c-bet there could be roughly 50 big blinds in the pot if you chose to call.

A lot of people forget stack sizes and if you start check-calling flops out of position then pots get expensive and defining an opponent’s range becomes a nightmare

Image is everything

If everyone thinks you’re at it and raising with nothing, play off that. People will three-bet you light if they think you’re young aggressive, so four-bet shove and peel off their bets. If opponents decide you’re raising light in late position and three-bet out of the blinds, by calling you’ll confuse them and they’ll start spewing off chips.

When you change tables you don’t know anyone else and they don¹t know you. Start making lighter open shoves from late position and generalise your opponents, for example the younger player is more likely to be aggressive. Play everyone as if they’re average until you¹ve got a good reason not to.

Size ’em up

Against big stacks your equity comes from people making mistakes later in the hand, so play differently from normal and they’ll struggle to put you on a range.

If you flat-call a three-bet with Aces instead of coming over the top, you¹re likely to get three streets of value from a big stack holding a slim hand like K-Q if the flop hits them. If you don’t raise with Aces against a short stack pre-flop there’s little to earn from your deception.

Bubble thinking

The bubble is player dependant. You need to look at who’s thinking about the money and who’s thinking about winning. People put too much emphasis on min cashing, but there are still those who don’t and you need to avoid them.

Live final table bubbles are a lot bigger than online. People will tighten up more and the adjustments are greater. Opponents will fold to smaller stacks and people will fold in ridiculous spots.

Even big stacks can shutdown and you can steal off them. But it¹s an ICM disaster if you play a lot of hands short stacked ­ shove all your value hands and shove wide on other short stacks.

One on one

If you’re playing against a tight player heads-up you should be opening every button and never flat call out of the big blind.  If he is c-betting 80% of the time, but they’re only three-betting pre-flop 40-50%, their range is still quite strong and you¹re going to struggle to call.

Against loose players heads-up, you have to be varied. Widen your calling and value betting ranges, stop pure-bluffing and let the chips come to you.

Some people start three-betting a lot preflop when the other guy is raising every button, but if you do that against loose players you have to be willing to play out of position and make some big multi-street bluffs. 

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