Cash Games versus Tournaments – P3: Playing in Tournaments

If you are willing to wait until you find a good game and exhibit good discipline, play- ing in cash games is a steady way to make a few bucks online. When you limit your risk by playing in small games, such as $3–$6 and below, you can compete against players who lack either the bankroll or experience to move up to the higher levels. Sure, there are some sharks at the lower levels, such as players who are waiting for seats in big- ger games, but if you know what you’re about, you can gain a pretty safe edge over the lower-limit games and learn to avoid the skilled players.

What you don’t find in cash games is the huge payoff for a day’s work. In a cash game, three hours of solid play against lesser opponents can net you $20 an hour or so, but $60 isn’t exactly life-changing money. No, to get the big money you have to play in tourna- ments, where anywhere from 20 to 2,000 players sit down together and see who comes out on top. Chris Moneymaker, the Tennessee accountant who turned a $39 PokerStars online tournament buy-in into the $2 million 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event first prize, is the poster boy for online poker. The 2004 World Series winner, Greg Raymer, is also a PokerStars player, though he had competed in several previous WSOP main events and plays a lot of high-limit Stud at Foxwoods casino in Connecticut.

The remainder of this chapter discusses tournament strategies you can follow to maxi- mize your chances of finishing in the money. For further reading, be sure to pick up a copy of Championship Tournament Poker by Tom McEvoy (Cardoza, 2004). Tom is a WSOP veteran and an exceptional tournament player, so you should listen to what he says when it comes to tournaments.

Buying In to a Tournament

Buying an entry into a tournament seems like a straightforward affair: You put down your money and pick up your chips. That’s true for smaller tournaments, but you can also try to qualify for tournaments with large entry fees, typically $200 or more, by win- ning a smaller tournament where the prize is an entry into the larger tournament. These qualifying tournaments, called satellites, often charge you either one-tenth of the larger tournament’s entry fee and give away one seat, or charge you one-fifth of the larger tournament’s entry fee and give away two seats. You can also put up a smaller amount of money and play in a super satellite, where you compete against a bigger field for the same number of seats. If the satellite you’re in gives out multiple seats, you play until you get down to the number of players as there are seats on offer; there is rarely any additional money on offer for winning a satellite.

If you choose to go the satellite entry route, T.J. Cloutier advocates buying into three satellites to give yourself a shot at getting in for less than the full entry fee. There’s a lot more to think about when playing in satellites than we can cover here, so we recommend you buy Championship Satellite Strategy by Brad Daugherty and Tom McEvoy (Cardsmith Publishing, 2003). They cover all the angles and then some.

Achieving Goal One: Surviving

Regardless of the type tournament you enter, you’ll have to have at least one chip, and preferably a lot more, in front of you to keep playing. In a tournament, you must base every decision on the impact a win or loss will have on your chances to remain in the tournament. You must be especially vigilant when you play in a pot limit or no limit tour- nament, where you can be knocked out of action in a single hand.

Consider a sample hand in a no limit Hold ’em tournament where you’re up against three other opponents, each of whom has gone all-in in front of you. It’s early in the tourna- ment, and you’re still near your original chip count. You will have to go all-in to call, so if you lose the hand, you’ll be out of action. You hold Q♠Q♣. What do you do?

You should fold. We know it’s hard to throw away a pair of Queens before the flop, but you’ve got three opponents all-in in front of you, and at least one of them is bound to have either a pair of Kings or a pair of Aces. Not to mention the fact that even if you do have the best hand, there’s a real chance you’ll be unlucky and lose the hand anyway. Take a look at two scenarios: one where your opponents have premium hands and the other where you have the best hand of the four before the flop.

In the first case, assume that one of your opponents has a pair of Aces, another has an unsuited Ace and King, you have Queens, and your final opponent has a pair of Jacks. Table 5.1 displays the percentages for each hand to win, lose, or tie.

As you can see, the pocket Aces are a huge favorite to win the pot despite the fact that there is an Ace in another player’s hand. What’s worse, you will only get a share of the pot around 20 percent of the time, which means that the odds are 4:1 in favor of this hand being your last hand of the tournament. Even the pocket Aces, which are the best possible starting hand, are only 3:2 favorites over the rest of the field when you consider those three hands as a group.

In the second case, let’s assume that you have Queens, another player has a suited Ace and King, another opponent has a pair of Jacks, and the fourth opponent has a suited Nine and Ten. Table 5.2 displays the percentages for each hand to win, lose, or tie.

When you don’t have players competing against each other for the same cards, as was the case in the first sample hand, the race between hands is much tighter. The odds against you winning the hand are 2:1 in this scenario, so the prudent action would be to curse your luck, toss in the Queens, and let the other players fight it out.

TIP: Doyle Brunson, two-time winner of the World Series of Poker main event and author of Super System (Cardoza, 1979), argues that the only hand you should be will- ing to go broke on before the flop is a pair of Aces. The previous analyses support his view.

Achieving Goal Two: Increasing Your Chip Stack

You’ll eventually need to get all of the chips into your stack if you want to win a tourna- ment, but you can’t get them all in the first 10 minutes unless it’s a really small field. But, because tournaments increase the limits you play at as time goes by, you need to win money to stay ahead of the blinds and antes. How do you do that? By winning pots, of course, but you may not always have the best cards to work with. You should be patient at first, playing a solid game and waiting for opportunities to win as much money from your opponents as you can. Your tactics for extracting the most chips from other players depend on the structure of the tournament (limit, pot limit, or no limit), how you have played against that particular opponent in the past, and whether you think they have a hand that can beat you.

Achieving Goal Three: Making It into the Money

When you survive in a tournament long enough to be in a prize-paying position, you are in the money. The most critical time in any tournament is often when you are a few positions away from getting paid. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than seeing a player who was all-in win a hand without knocking someone else out when you’re low on chips and have to pay the blinds for the next two hands. When there only need to be a few players eliminated before the remaining players win money, all remaining tournament tables will go hand for hand, meaning each table starts a hand at the same time and waits for the other tables to complete the hand they’re on before beginning a new hand. Going hand for hand prevents a table from playing more slowly than other tables, resulting in fewer hands and less risk of a player being eliminated from that table. If the tables didn’t go hand for hand, eventually no one would make any moves and the tournament would not progress.

When only a few more players need to be eliminated before all remaining players are in the money, and you have more chips than some of your opponents, you can often pick up pots from them by raising. Raising opponents with short stacks forces them to decide whether they want to risk being eliminated out of the money. Many opponents will want to guarantee that they get some money out of the tournament, especially when they’re

so close to getting paid, so they will often fold and let you pick up a relatively small pot. If you have a short stack and another player raises enough to put you all-in, you need to

make the same decision. In most cases it’s just fine to fold, based on the premise that you should secure a guaranteed prize and fight to improve your position afterward.

Achieving Goal Four: Making It to the Top Three Positions

Winning any money in a tournament is an exhilarating experience, but you find the real money in the top three positions. As an example, consider the data in Table 5.3, which shows the standard payout structure for a $40 PokerStars tournament with 500 players.

♠♥♣♦ Note

You can find the full standard payout schedule for PokerStars tournaments at

As the payout figures show, it doesn’t matter financially if you finish in 36th or 28th place. It does, however, make quite a bit of difference if you finish third instead of fourth. The difference between fifth place and fourth place is only $300, but the difference between fourth and third place is $700, between third and second it’s another $980, and between second and first it’s a whopping $1,920. That’s a significant difference when your tourna- ment investment was a $40 buy-in and $4 entry fee.

What’s the lesson? When you survive to the next payout level, such as making it to 36th place in the tournament described in Table 5.3, and it’s a long way to the next payout in- crease, try to make a move to build your chips if your stack is below average. When your opponents can put pressure on you because you don’t have that many bullets to fire back at ’em, you should be more willing to find a good hand and take a stand. If you’re only one or two places from the next increment, however, hang on for dear life.

Playing in Rebuy Tournaments

Some tournaments, called freezeouts, only allow you to buy in once. The chips you get at the start of the day are all you can buy for that tournament. Many tournaments, par- ticularly those with buy-ins of $100 or less, let you rebuy one or more times during the first hour of the tournament. As the name implies, a rebuy gets you another set of chips to play with. Most of the time you receive the same number of chips that you got at the start of the tournament, but some tournaments offer higher chip amounts for successive rebuys. For example, if the field started with $5,000 in tournament chips, a second rebuy might get you $6,000, and the third rebuy $8,000.

Players in rebuy tournaments who have set aside money for rebuys will often be much more aggressive than players who intend to buy in only once. For that reason, you’ll often find players going all-in very early in the tournament with marginal hands in an attempt to double up and gain leverage against their opponents. Set aside whatever money you want to play for in the tournament, including any rebuys, and buckle your seat belt. You’ll be in for a wild ride until the rebuy period ends.

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