As previously stated, this guide will not tell you how to play a hand from beginning to end, but rather when to enter a pot, how often and why. In the beginning of a tournament, there are a couple of things to take notice of, namely field size, structure and starting stack. The first section of levels before antes should be viewed as a sort of “pre-tournament”. This is a time to get acclimated to your table’s style and personality. This takes more effort from the live player as opposed to the online player. In an online tournament before antes, it is important to note the overall style of your table will generally be loose aggressive, bordering absolute foolishness.
During this stage of the tournament it is important not to get too committed to hands based on starting value. The blinds are typically miniscule compared to your chip stack, and you only get taxed while in the blinds. This means you are essentially playing for free, and when you play for free you want to see as many hands as possible, risking the least amount of chips for the greatest possible value. You want to be limping into a lot of pots and calling small raises (up to 3x BB) to see the flop on speculative hands. The most valuable hands during this phase of the tournament are suited connectors, A-x suited, and low to medium pairs. The reason these hands are so valuable at this stage is that they don’t subject you to tough decisions, you either get the odds you need to play and make a big hand or you fold, no wondering if your 8high or pocket 3’s are worthy of a re-raise. The objective of this level is to make the nuts and then move your chips around aggressively.
This is the easiest time to play straightforward value based poker where you bet when you have it and fold when you don’t. A huge mistake players make is getting too fancy too early, or being too aggressive when your table is unlikely to fold any pair made. This makes continuation betting almost useless and actually counterproductive. For example, if you raise early position with AK and the flop is 79Q and you continuation bet, odds are one or more of the few people who call you will have hit something. At this stage, anything is worthy of a call, and you might see yourself shipping an unnecessary portion of your chips to someone holding 89 in that spot. After you get that bet called, and you miss the turn, you will have to check, opening the door for your opponent to bet you off or allow another card to fall for his 2-pair/draw completion, depending on his holdings. Then you might find yourself trying a last ditch attempt at winning the pot with a river bet that will look suspicious, since you checked the turn, and will be called by weak holdings a large majority of the time. This will give you a bad reputation with the table and will reduce the value of your continuation bets later on if you face the same players. If you want to look on the bright side and say that maybe your continuation bet causes the field to fold, let me ask you, what have you won? The answer: a tiny pot, worth nothing in the long run. You want to be in pots where you make a straight, a flush or trips against an opponent who can’t fold top pair or 2 pair. You might find yourself doubling up early giving you a great advantage versus the rest of the field, especially when antes come into play, which I will discuss next time.
I must remind you that poker is a game of probability, uncertainty and luck. The reason professionals win consistently is because they have learned to cut the odds and turn them in their favor over the long run. They too take horrendous beats and have bad runs of cards, but they understand how to mitigate losses during these periods by playing each hand accordingly. They never lose their heads and get wrapped up in, “I should’ve won that hand”, or “If I had played this hand look what I’d have flopped!” They understand that the action is greater than the result. This means that correct plays are correct even if they would cause you to lose, and incorrect plays are incorrect even if they would have led you to victory. If you let the result blind you, then your play will suffer and your style will get mashed up in mangled logic based on lesser probabilities coming to fruition instead of what is more likely to. Be patient, and wait for your spots.
Let’s take a look at some typical early level blunders. Overplaying big pairs is the most common mistake I see. If you have AA, and the blinds are 20/40, while the average stack is 3000, chances are you are winning a small pot or donating your stack. Do not raise an exorbitant amount pre-flop with blinds this small compared to the average stack; control the size of the pot. It does not matter to someone with 3000 chips if you raise to 120, 160 or 200 at this level. If they were calling 120 you can sure as hell bet they would call 200. This also tips off the strength of your hand at this stage. Usually big raises early in tournaments represent large pairs or AK. This is because psychologically the player holding that hand will want to get more from their excellent pre-flop holdings than the low blind level allows for, while also attempting to keep people out with their drawing hands. Meanwhile, what you end up doing is pulling more people into the pot and making it difficult to assess your status on the flop. Then, when you get your flop bet raised you, for some odd reason, shove the rest of your chips in, or call them off when all you have is an over pair. Do not overplay these kinds of hands. Another mistake is people raising with marginal hands, and raising too often. Just don’t do it, you will have plenty of opportunity later to hit the clutch and gear up, but for now its patience that rules all.
Let’s recap. Suited connectors, A-x suited and low to medium pairs are the hands you should target to play. See as many flops as possible, but remember that your goal is to make the nuts or a huge hand, not top pair with 78. In these situations you should proceed cautiously, there is no need to be aggressive in these spots because the value of the pot compared to your chip stack is minimal. Do not overplay big starting hands, or you will find yourself on the rail with another one of those bad beat stories everyone was already sick of circa 2005. The goal of this section is to get you into the antes portion of the tournament with your stack doubled. In the next part of this series on MTT’s, I will discuss how to deploy your increased chip stack and wreak havoc on your opponents after antes come into play.
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