Slow and steady: the importance of playing it safe in the early stages of a tournament...
The main aim of a poker tournament will always be to win it. But in order to get yourself into the position to compete at the business end, you will need to navigate through various other stages where the focus should be more short-term. Many things change during the course of a tournament - opponents, stack sizes and blinds, for example - and these variable factors will mean you need to adjust strategy as the tournament progresses.
In the early phase of the tournament you have a large stack relative to the size of the blinds. Typically your stack and the average stack will both be considerably more than 50 big blinds.
In the middle phase the blinds increase and you will usually have anywhere between 15 and 50 big blinds. Sometimes you will have even less. The middle phase will end when the tournament approaches the bubble. If, for example, the top 100 players get paid in a tournament, the middle phase will end when there are 120 to 150 players left. (There then follows a bubble phase and an in the money phase.)
If you are new to tournament poker, you should first make sure you have read the course describing strategy for Sit & Go tournaments. It describes optimum strategy for the early and middle phases, which also applies for multi-table tournaments. You can use Sit & Go strategy to start playing and then improve on it with this course.
Solid early and middle phase play
The following three tips are key to successful early and middle phase play:
Avoid playing and losing big pots with marginal to weak hands.
Go for big pots if you are lucky enough to hit a good hand. Bet or raise big.
Try to win big pots with small investments in speculative hands.
It is very important to understand the above points well, keep them in mind while playing and put them into practice. Here are more details, with several examples:
Avoid big pots with weak hands
Early in the tournament your stack is large compared with the blinds. It does not cost you much to fold mediocre hands and wait for the good ones. Later in the tournament you might be short stacked and forced to play super aggressively with very shaky holdings. But that simply is not the case early on. If a hand does look dangerous, weak or mediocre, fold it. Don't call a couple of times to grow the pot and then make a tough decision. If a hand is unfavorable or develops poorly on the flop you should cut your losses by folding as early as possible.
Here are some typical examples.
Play big pots with big hands
If you happen to have a very strong hand early in the tournament you need to get really aggressive. Make big bets or raises whenever you have the opportunity.
Making large bets yourself usually does a better job of increasing the pot than slow-playing does. This is particularly true if the pot is very small when you make your hand. If you try to be deceptive, your opponent needs to be very aggressive to grow the pot. He won't do that unless he has a monster himself (or if he is a total maniac).
However if you make all the big bets, your opponent only has to call for the pot to swell. There are a lot of players who will do that with weak hands, and pay you off with far inferior holdings.
Here are some examples of how you should often bet to build a pot with a monster (and how you should sometimes wait for a better spot):
Make small investments with speculative hands
Some starting hands have a quality that is perfect for the early stages of a tournament: they either make a very strong hand or they don't. This means that decisions tend to be easy with them: you build a huge pot if their potential is fulfilled, but you lose the minimum if you miss out because they are easy to fold. These type of hands rarely develop into a mediocre holding, so the decisions are straightforward.
Compare with for example. If the improves, you will usually have top pair with a decent kicker, which is not a bad hand but it's nothing to win a big pot with either. If you get heavy action you will usually be behind.
On the other hand, will either develop into a monster by making a set or it will be almost worthless after the flop. That makes for an easy decision: if you hit it you go for a big pot. If you don't make a set you check and fold. If you get lucky you can potentially win a gigantic pot and double up.
In order to find out if the flop makes your hand, you often only have to invest a very small fraction of your stack. Getting to a flop cheaply is the order of the day.
One word of warning: don't be sucked in to playing a big pot if your speculative hand doesn't develop exactly as you hoped. If, for instance, you manage to see a cheap flop with , you will be hoping for straight or flush cards to give you a monster draw. If the flop came , you have picked up bottom pair but your hand is still pretty much worthless. Its potential was not realised, so you should fold.
Here are some examples:
Recap: Keys to play in the early phase of MTTs
Play solidly and don't jeopardise your stack with moderately strong holdings
Avoid mediocre hands like , which often develop to top pair without a perfect kicker
Be very aggressive and straightforward with very strong holdings like premium pocket pairs or a set
Play speculative starting hands like or small pairs if you can see the flop cheaply
If you miss the flop with speculative hands, just let them go without losing any more money
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