Poker tournaments provide an opportunity to win big prizes for small outlays, thus many players now prefer them to cash poker. However, the strategy required for tournament play is significantly different from that required in cash games. Tournaments work by eliminating players who lose all their chips. Your twin aims in tournament play are thus to amass chips but at the same time to do everything in your power to avoid being eliminated. In freeze-out tournaments, the latter aim is even more important because there is no opportunity for re-buys.
Mason Malmuth states that in re-buy tournaments it is always mathematically correct to re-buy and that this rule holds even if all the other players at the table have many more chips than you will have after your re-buy. However, some other authorities advise against taking this policy too far.
One aspect of tournament play which differs from cash-game play is that competitors need to be very patient. This does not necessarily mean waiting patiently for a good hand but rather It means waiting for good opportunities. By opportunity here I mean a combination of good position, good read on your opponent and possibly a good hand as well. In cash games you might. be prepared to take a risk with, for instance, a drawing hand giving you a 33 per cent chance of winning the pot because you are getting good pot odds. This would be correct in cash games because you know that if you make the play in similar situations over a series of hands you will show a profit. The same reasoning does not apply in freeze-out tournaments or tournaments where the buy-in phase has ended. In a tournament, if you play a hand with 33 per cent chance of winning, no matter how good the pot odds, you are putting yourself in the position where you have a 66 per cent chance of being eliminated. If you lose in cash games, you can just take more money out of your pocket, but in a tournament, after the buy-ins are over, you do not have this option. So patience and caution are valuable assets in tournament play.
However, in the early stages of a re-buy tournament many players will take more risks than they would in a cash game, in the hope of building up a large stack of chips. This is not a bad policy during the re-buy stage, where you could play the 33 per cent draw, because the worst that can happen is that it will cost you another re-buy. Also, in the early stages of a tournament, the cost of the blinds will be low compared to the average number of chips held by the players, which allows looser play. This is not a bad policy provided you can afford to re-buy. If you cannot afford the re-buy you will have to play a lot more cautiously.
In the middle and later stages of a tournament, the structure of the game gradually changes. The blinds increase until eventually they become very large in comparison to the size of the average stack. Adopting tactics which allow you to win the blinds, therefore, becomes increasingly important and you will find that players bluff and semi-bluff much more. This is usually correct tactics. However, it now becomes less correct to just call bets speculatively mainly because it costs too much compared to the size of the stacks.
In the later stages of a tournament, stack size is all-important. A large stack is much to be feared because that player can eliminate you from the tournament. But you can more readily play against small stacks as they can do you no terminal damage, even if they win a few pots from you. If you are one of the lucky ones and have a big stack, you can take more risks and perhaps call a bit more than you would otherwise, particularly against the small stacks.
In the later stages of the tournament, players begin to be eliminated more quickly and often you will have to play at a table with between five and eight players (as opposed to the optimum nine to eleven). This means that you will have to put in a blind bet more often, for each round of the table, therefore costing you more to play than at a full table. You now need to win hands more frequently just to maintain the size of your stack. In these situations, it becomes correct to play more loosely, that is, to play more hands. The trick though is not just to play more hands, but to play them aggressively, hoping that your bets will win the pot for you uncontested.
Final Table Play
At the final table in small to medium-sized tournaments, there is usually a prize for the first three or four players, so you will have a 30-40 per cent chance of getting in the money. The temptation is to be very cautious. However, because the blinds are extremely high at this stage compared to the average stack and, also, because, as players are eliminated, the cost per round to play increases, it is seldom correct to play too cautiously. You will get anted away if you don’t win at least one hand for every round of the table.
It has become common practice in tournaments throughout the world for the last few players in a tournament to do a deal sharing the prize money between them. A rough estimate is that this happens at least 50 per cent of the time. For instance, if the four remaining players all have roughly the same number of chips, it is not unusual for the players to split the prize money equally, with each getting 25 per cent. Another type of common deal is where the remaining players agree to take a fixed sum each and play for the rest of the prize money. So, if there was £5000 in prize money, the four players might agree to take £1000 each and play for the remaining £1000.