No-limit Holdem tournaments have become extremely popular nowadays. The tournament atmosphere gives players a chance to hit it big, and maybe even someday qualify for the World Series of Poker.
A texas holdem player who is well versed in tournament strategy holds a big edge over the opposition. Conversely, even an experienced holdem player who is accustomed to ring games may be at a disadvantage in a tournament setting. So, how does one become tournament-savvy?
The goal of this piece is to give someone some quick but effective guidelines to texas holdem tournament success. Obviously, one article is not going to turn a novice into a professional. Sound tournament poker strategy requires both a solid background in fundamentals and hours and hours at the poker tables. Hopefully we will be able to provide enough knowledge for a beginning tournament player to close the gap and perhaps move a little ahead of those more experienced texas holdem tournament players.
These fundamentals have been put to the test, and have proven to be successful, partly due to its simplicity. Survival is your first goal in a tournament, but accumulation of chips is equally important in the early going. Tight, aggressive play is what we advocate. Even though survival is goal number one, fear of being eliminated is counterproductive to achieving that goal. To be successful, you have to take advantage of opportunities. In Texas Holdem tournaments, playing it safe is important, however it is ironic that the more courageous players are actually safer than the more timid poker players.
No-limit texas holdem tournaments are all about playing the percentages. If you can get a lot of chips into the pot when you have a mathematical advantage, you will be a long term winner. You may suffer some bad beats, but long term the percentages will pay off for you. Okay, enough of an introduction…let’s get down to the nitty gritty of no limit holdem tournament play.
Before the flop
Rule One: It’s cliché, perhaps, but you must play only solid starting hands. In early position, stick to premium hands, like Sklansky’s group 1 and 2 poker hands: AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AKs, AQs, TT, AK, KQs, AJs. In middle to late position, add a few more hands, but be judicious. Hands from Sklansky’s group 3 can be added: AQ, 99, ATs, KJs, QJs, JTs, and maybe KQ and AJ. Avoid playing middle and small pairs unless you can get in cheaply, and then with the aim of flopping a set and winning a big pot.
Don’t play too many hands, but when you do play them, bet and raise with them. Tight poker players are not the same as passive poker players. Folding before the flop is not passive, it’s judicious. Avoid playing hands which over the course of time will be money losers. Your tightness will benefit you in two different ways. For one, you’ll be folding at the same time as other people are being eliminated, bringing you closer to being “in the money”. Perhaps more importantly, by playing really solid starting hands you will relieve yourself of some really tough decisions. The nature of no-limit texas holdem, and tournament play, is that you can lose your stack and be eliminated by one mistake.
As a newcomer to hold em tournament play, playing strong hands will allow you to know where you stand after the flop most of the time. If you’ve hit your hand, you will be in good shape.
Rule Two: You should almost always raise if you are the first one in the pot. You play only premium hands, so the chances are good that you have the best hand pre-flop. So make people pay to play against you. Your raises should be a standard size. Raise the same amount with pocket Aces as you do with AQs. This way, your opponents will not be able to “put you on a hand”.
When the blinds are small early on, you can raise quite a bit more than the big blind, let’s say somewhere between five and ten percent of your total stack. For example, if players begin with one thousand chips and the blinds start at five and ten, think about raising fifty or more. Later on, when the blinds are bigger in comparison to peoples’ stacks, a decent rule of thumb is to raise the amount of the pot after your call. So, if the blinds are one hundred and two hundred and you’re first to act, raising an extra five hundred (making it seven hundred), is a sound poker play.
Rule Three: If there are others entering the pot before you, raise with big pocket pairs, otherwise just call. With people calling before you, the pot will probably be big enough that you will be satisfied in taking it without a fight. Raise at least the size of the pot (or even more) with AA, KK and QQ. You will either win the pot right away or have people putting a lot of money into the pot with a lesser hand. With a non-premium holding, your edge won’t be so large, so you can see the flop before deciding how to proceed.
The difference between this advice and rule one is that the early callers already in the pot will be more likely to call your raise, so it would be much more difficult to win the pot without a fight. However, if you have a poker hand like AK, and there’s only one caller ahead of you, raising may isolate you with that one caller. You should be more inclined not to raiseif your hand is suited or there is more than one caller ahead of you.
You should be more inclined to raise with good pairs or unsuited hands with an Ace, especially if the caller is a loose player (who probably doesn’t have a strong hand). If there are several callers, you can call a small bet (say up to 5 percent of your stack) with a small pocket pair, hoping to flop a set. As you gain no-limit holdem tournament experience, you may also decide to call in this situation with suited connectors like 76s or suited acess. These hands, however, require more skillful play and are probably best left to more experienced texas hold em tournament players.
Rule Four: Be very cautious responding to raises. If there is a raise before you act, play only if you think you have the best hand. If you are raised after you’ve entered the pot you have more leeway, but must still be very careful. Many normally solid starting hands are highly vulnerable in these situations. Don’t hesitate to fold hands like KQs or 99 if you respect the raiser; you are likely either a small favourite or a big underdog, so in the long run it’s a losing play. Hands like KQ are dangerous in that you can hit your hand but still lose to bigger pairs or better kickers. That can be the end of the poker tournament for you, so avoid these large confrontations and be patient.
If you have Aces, Kings or Queens, or another hand you think is better than the raiser’s, then reraise the size of the pot or go all in. These are top hands and come around infrequently, so make the most of them before the flop. With hands that are not as strong but could be the best, like Ace-King or pocket Jacks, you can call if it doesn’t cost you that much, maybe 10 or 15 percent of your stack. If you get a good flop, proceed aggressively, and get out if the board looks too threatening. If the initial raise is so big that you can’t get this information reasonably, then get out.
Your actions depend also on the previous actions of your opponent. Against a holdem player who raises a lot, you might reraise all-in with pocket Jacks, or play AJs the same way you might normally play AK. Again, this is a grey area often best left to more experienced texas holdem tournament players, so be judicious.
Rule Five: When you’ve hit the flop, bet and raise big. The flop will let you know where you stand. With an overpair, top pair with good kicker or a set, you’re looking to take advantage of the situation. These opportunities come along infrequently, so carpe diem! A pot-sized bet is standard, but for our purposes a bet of twice the pot might be preferred.
You don’t really want to get callers unless they are made to pay for it. You do not want to let weaker hands draw too cheaply, and you don’t want to be put into an awkward situation if it is possibly avoidable. These large bets will force your opponent to make difficult decisions which could cost him his stack. If they fold, you win without a fight, otherwise they’re probably risking a lot of chips at a big disadvantage.
Your bet size also depends on how many chips you have. Either bet up to about one third of your stack (this way you have enough for another good sized bet on the turn), or else go all-in. If you’re up against a single opponent, base these proportions on the smaller stack, since they have the maximum number of chips that can be wagered.
For example, suppose both you and your opponent have a thousand chips and the pot is at one fifty. Betting three hundred is strong; it leaves enough for a big all-in bet on the turn if your opponent calls you. If either you or your opponent had just five hundred, then betting three hundred isn’t as good.
You should either bet one fifty now or move all-in right away. If get a favorable flop and are bet into, either raise big or move all-in right there, unless for some reason you feel you’re beat…then fold! Your opponent’s bet probably means he’s got something good, but you have a good chance to win a big pot if your hand is just a little better, which is likely given your strong starting hands. Again, you you have to play aggressively even though it may spell your defeat. If you get called and the turn card is not too scary, make another big bet or go all-in. You get your chips in with an edge…that’s your goal.
Of course, texas holdem isn’t always cut and dried, so there will be many grey areas. To be a successful no-limit texas holdem player, you have to take some chances and make your opposition prove their hand is better. Sometimes you must be disciplined enough to muck a good hand when things look too scary. For the most part, raise or fold, and if you lose, learn from it for the next time.
Rule Six: We advocate tightness, but a good draw presents bluffing opportunities. Call only if your odds are there to take off a card. Bluffing is a very important part of no-limit texas holdem, and no poker strategy is sound some bluffing, otherwise you’re too easy to read. Draws are great semi-bluffing opportunities, giving you chances to win even if you’re called. A good draw with overcard(s) gives you very good chances of making your hand by the river. Take note of your opponents. If there are a lot of them or are facing a calling station, forget about trying to bluff.
Most of the time you will face one or two typical holdem players, and a bluffing is sound poker strategy. Bet just like you would with a strong hand. You’re a tight player and play solid cards. Good hold em tournament players will notice this and act accordingly, respecting your bets and bluffs. If your bluff gets called and you don’t hit your draw, you should usually check the turn. If you have position, you will probably get a free river card. If your opponent bets, anything other than a small bet will not provide you with the odds to call. So fold. If you’re in last position, bet or raise right away.
Don’t slowplay the hand unless you’re absolutely positive it will bring you more money. In general, your opponent has more reason to call the turn, so he can see another card, so a really big hand should not wait ’til the river to try to extract money from the other poker players. If you hit your overcard and not your draw draw, bet like you would with top pair. No limit texas holdem players often misplay their draws. In fixed limit Texas Holdem, the odds are almost always there for your draws.
The big bet ability in no limit holdem means you can only calculate your odds on the current card. Your implied odds are higher, of course, as hitting your draw offers the chance to take a monster pot. Beware of paying too much for a draw though…it’s one of the biggest errors made in no-limit texas holdem.
Rule Seven: As the tournament moves to its late stages, stealing blinds is a must. They have grown significantly, so risks can and must be taken. Of course, this makes for trickier decision-making. At the late stages of the tournament, it is often the case that you must fold or go all in. The large blinds will rob you of time, so you must pick off other players’ blinds fairly frequently. With a small stack, you will probably have to go all in when you have less than a significant amount more than the big blind.
You may have to risk it all on hands you would’ve folded earlier. Hands with aces and mediocre kickers or middle pocket pairs are good enough to push in your chips if you are first in. You may get called and lose, but it will take a lucky flop to beat you usually. Again, get your chips in with an advantage. High card strength is more important than suitedness at this point. Use judgement…if you don’t think you can win the blinds with a raise, then don’t try it. Remember, your tight reputation will help you here. Similarly, in the late stages of the tournament you also must defend your blinds strongly with decent holdings. Use your judgement based on the aggressiveness of the stealer. You may have to call with Ace high if he’s aggressive.
Rule Eight: Your last chips are very precious; treat them this way. If you barely have more than the big blind, remember that you need a stronger hand to call than to raise. Be patient…wait for a hand that offers you a chance to go all-in, as discussed previously. If you’re already in the money, remember that survival is your objective. You may even fold a really strong hand if there are already two players duking it out, as one may be eliminated.
A recap: Play strong starting hands only, and play them strongly. When you hit your flop or have an overpair, be ready to go all the way with it. Raising or folding are usually your best options. Bluffs are effective in strong drawing situations. As the blinds grow, try to take them by force. Survival is the goal, but this is not accomplished with tentativeness. When you’re down to just a few chips, be patient and wait for a big hand to commit them, even if it means waiting until the blinds force you all-in. Remember, no limit texas holdem tournament play improves greatly with experience, so use this as a guide to better poker, but hop on the tables and go for it!
Rule Nine: If you’re new to no limit texas holdem tournament play, start slowly. You need poker experience, so tread lightly before playing holdem with the big boys. Play some low stakes holdem tournaments or get custom poker chips and host your own game at home with your closest friends before moving up to the higher poker tables. Good luck with your texas holdem tournament career!