How to Be a Winning
Tournament Player
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Chris Ferguson
Poker Lesson #14
How To Win At Tournament Poker, Part 1


People often ask very specific questions about how to be a winning
tournament player:

How many chips am I supposed to have after the first two levels?
Should I play a lot of hands early while the blinds are small, then tighten up
later as the blinds increase?
I seem to always finish on the bubble. Should I tighten up more as I get close
to the money, or try to accumulate more chips early on?
Surprisingly, all three questions have the same answer:

Stop trying to force things to happen. Just concentrate on playing solid poker,
and let the chips fall where they may.

In fact, that's the best answer for almost any specific tournament question.
Here is a more useful question:

How much of a difference is there between ring game strategy and
tournament strategy?

The answer: Not as much as you think.

Before you worry about adjusting for tournaments, concentrate on adjusting
for the other players. The most important skill in poker is the ability to react
to a wide range of opponents playing a wide range of styles. Players who
can do this will thrive in both ring games and tournaments alike.

Many of the most costly tournament mistakes are the result of players
over-adjusting for tournament play. Let's look at these questions again:

How many chips am I supposed to have after the first two levels?

The short answer is: As many as you can get.

Play your cards. Play your opponents. Do not try to force action simply
because you think you "need" to have a certain number of chips to have a
chance of winning. You should be thinking about accumulating more chips,
while trying to conserve the chips you already have. The more chips you
have, the better your chances of winning. The fewer chips you have, the
worse your chances.

Forget about reaching some magical number. There is no amount below
which you have no shot, nor is there any amount above which you can be
guaranteed a victory. A chip and a chair is enough to win, and enough to
beat you. Getting fixated on a specific number is a good way to ensure
failure. Next question:

Should I play a lot of hands early while the blinds are small, and then tighten
up later as the blinds increase?

Your play shouldn't change much as the tournament progresses. Gear your
play to take maximum advantage of your opponents, irrespective of how far
along the tournament is. Most players are too loose in the early stages of a
tournament. Rather than become one of these players, adjust for their play
instead:

Attempt to steal the blinds less often
Call more raises
Re-raise more frequently
Likewise, when opponents typically tighten up later on, you should steal
more often and be less inclined to get involved in opened pots. Again, this
should be a reaction to the way your opponents are playing, not an action
based on any particular stage of the tournament.

Last question: I seem to always finish on the bubble. Should I tighten up
more as I get close to the money to avoid this, or try to accumulate more
chips early on?

Usually the people asking this question are already tightening up too soon
before reaching the money. In other words, they are over-adjusting to
tournament play. Not only is it incorrect to tighten up considerably before you
are two or three players from the money, doing so is the surest way to finish
on or near the bubble. Just play your best, most aggressive game, and try
not to let your stack dwindle to a point where you can't protect your hand
with a pre-flop all-in raise. If you do, your opponents will be getting the right
pot odds to call, even with weak hands. Look for opportunities to make a
move before you let this happen, even if it means raising with less than
desirable holdings.

Next week, I will address the two situations where adjusting your game will
help.

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