Speed thrills: How to win big in online turbo tournaments

MTT expert Nick Wright points out the adjustments you need to make to win big in online turbo tournaments

While we would hate to make lazy comparisons to a certain popular yeast-based spread, it’s true that you either love or hate turbo MTTs. Personally I love ’em, and it seems there are many like-minded people out there, as turbo tourneys and their rambunctious younger siblings, super turbos, are fast gaining in popularity. Unsurprisingly, the poker sites love them too, as they generate a huge amount of rake in a short space of time.

Turbo tournaments are characterised by shorter blind levels, usually five or three minutes in length, instead of the more traditional 10, 12 or 15. Starting stacks, however, are roughly comparable to that of a regular tournament. Turbo MTTs are very exciting to play and it’s possible to win a large tournament in a short space of time. For example, a 3,500-runner turbo tournament might take three to four hours, whereas a 3,500-runner regular speed tournament will take at least double that time.

Of course, there are trade-offs for this potentially higher hourly rate, and a number of factors you have to make your peace with. Chief among these is that you must embrace the higher variance and bigger swings that come with the territory. There are many poker players who completely swerve turbo tournaments, believing they are luck-based shove-fests and not ‘proper’ poker.

And they’re right…to a certain extent. There is absolutely no doubt that a good player’s edge in a $10 turbo tournament will be smaller than a regular $10 tournament, but that does not mean they’re unprofitable. Over time the skills that make you a winning player in standard tournaments will show through in turbos – it will just take a larger sample size.

Despite the variance it’s possible to make a fine hourly rate as the tournaments do take a lot less time, but there are specific adjustments you need to make from your usual tournament game…

Rev your engines

In a turbo tournament stacks will usually be a bit shallower than in a regular tournament but that doesn’t mean you have to go feral early and try to win every pot you enter. At the beginning of a tournament you might start with 2,000 chips and a blind structure that goes 10/20, 15/30, 25/50, 50/100, 75/150, 100/200. If the levels last five minutes and you only tread water you’ll have 30 minutes (and about 30 hands) before you reach the fabled ten big blinds territory. The difference here is that in turbo tourneys ten big blinds can still do severe damage. This is the first adjustment that you have to make then, scaling down the definition of being a short stack from 10BB to 5-7BB.

Many players underestimate the amount of time they have to work with and play a turbo as if the world is about to end. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake. Play your starting hand for its value (rather than getting tricky) and observe one of the cardinal rules of turbos: ‘If in doubt, stick it in.’ The most aggressive move is usually the best action, especially if you flop big draws with plenty of fold equity. Make sure you’re the player manipulating the action by shoving and putting your opponent to the test rather than the other way round, and you’ll be on the right track.

It’s important not to get too concerned about results if you bust out early. You will exit earlier more often in turbos than in standard tourneys, but the volume you put in should make up for this. Ideally, you are looking to get all-in as a 65-80% favourite at some stage in the first half hour in the hope of doubling up. However, getting your hands on a big stack early on isn’t essential. The main benefits it holds is that you’ll be able to absorb the effects of being card dead or losing a flip.

Most of the time, though, you’ll survive the initial flurry of early activity and will get to the point in the tourney when the average stack isn’t too short. At this point, perhaps around the one-hour mark, many players will be clustered together in the 12-25BB territory. Just one double-up at this point can send you to the heady heights of 30-50 big blinds and within shouting distance of the chip lead.

As you can see then, it’s important not to go mad and splash your chips around recklessly, but focus on making the right decisions and getting your chips in good. And in turbo tourneys that starts with your preflop decisions…

Big decision

The most critical decision you’ll make in any hand during a turbo MTT is almost always preflop. While you still need to consider the strength of your hand if you enter a pot, there are many other factors to consider too. At all times you need to be aware of the stack sizes of players still to act. Before you put a chip in the pot you need to know which players you’re bet/folding to, and those you’re bet/calling – even if it’s a crying call. Let’s say you have K-J suited in the cutoff and you decide that you will raise first to act but fold if anyone behind you moves all-in. In that example your cards – pretty as they may be – are totally irrelevant as you’re simply stealing the blinds, not raising on the strength of your hand.

One big leak many players have is playing small and medium pocket pairs in early position. With multiple stacks of 10-20 big blinds at the table, simply folding 2-2 through 7-7 in early position is the smart move. The range of hands that will play back at you rarely contains hands that you dominate, but includes a lot of hands that dominate you and others that make you a coinflip at best. However, pairs are good hands to hold if you are the one shoving all-in as a three-bet in late position, because in this scenario you have plenty of fold equity, the player could be stealing with a wide range, and they play okay against hands that contain overcards like K-Q, A-Q and A-K.

Once antes have kicked in, if you have a stack of around 15 big blinds it’s often easier (and sometimes unexploitable) to just open-shove rather than make a standard raise. If you’re called preflop you can find yourself in an awkward pot-to-stack situation postflop. For example, let’s say you have a stack of 75,000 at 2,500/5,000/500 and raise to 12,000 with Kc-9c from the button. The big blind calls, making the pot 29,500. Your remaining stack is 63,000 and you miss the 7c-8s-Qh flop completely. If you make a c-bet bluff of somewhere between 15k-22k you’re in a terrible spot if you get raised, having invested 40% of your stack before folding.

Even if you’re simply in shove-or-fold mode you still need to consider the stacks behind you, especially those in the blinds, as if they’ve got a sizeable portion of their stack already in the pot they’ll call a shove lighter than they should.

The price is right

Isolating limpers is a really easy way to increase your stack in turbo tournaments. Open-limping is rarely a good move in any tournament but it’s especially true in turbos. If you’ve got a 12-20BB stack, coming over the top of a limper is a relatively easy, if slightly high-risk way of picking up chips.

For example, let’s say the blinds are 200/400/50, a player limps for 400 and you move all-in for 6,000. If he folds you’ve increased your stack by 1,450 – nearly 25%! Although you’ll occasionally run into a slow-played A-A or K-K, most limpers will hold a hand that can’t stand a shove. Even if you’re called by a hand like A-x suited, unless you’re dominated you should hold a hand that has decent enough equity to justify the shove.

As you get deeper into the tournament, especially once antes kick in, you can reduce your raise size to anywhere between 2x and 2.5x. It’ll do the same job as a 3x raise and will save you chips if you decide to raise/fold. Don’t worry about pricing players in with the smaller raise – the players most likely to call are in the blinds and although it seems like they’re getting a discount, playing the rest of the hand out of position is a heavy price to pay. It’s very hard to outplay someone out of position and with shallow effective stacks.

Dropping the hammer

As you get closer to the endgame, having a big stack is of greater importance than in the earlier stages. Other players are well aware that you can survive a blow or two and they also know that you won’t be afraid to put them to the test, so it’s possible to use your stack as leverage and pick up a lot of pots preflop by reraising players who can afford to fold – medium-size stacks usually.

The reason this is so effective is that the majority of stacks will be closely bunched. It’s very possible that only the top 15% of players will have 20 or more big blinds. The vast majority will have 15 or fewer big blinds, and as the pay jumps get wider players will be wary of busting out, preferring to wait for other players to get involved and bust out first.

A great time to wield the big stack is when tables get short-handed. For instance, if play is nine-handed a table will break with 45, 36, 27 and 18 players remaining, and with ten left you’ll be on the final table bubble. So it’s worth noting that when there are 49-46, 39-37, 30-28, 21-19 and 12-10 players remaining you’ll have six or seven players at your table for a few hands – take advantage of this by opening more pots and applying pressure. As the blinds and antes come round faster, you’ll need to do so in order to survive.


To take down turbo tournaments you need to be willing to bust early, play big pots, embrace variance, deal with the inevitable bad beats that will come, get aggressive and plough through hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of tournaments before swearing that they’re the devil.

Despite their pitfalls they do offer a good route to profit and, above all else, they’re great fun. And that’s the most important thing, right?

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