Characteristics of Mid-Stage Action

As we get closer to the bubble (where the next player knocked out won’t win any money) and average stack gets shorter, a lot of players will become more conservative and risk-averse. Translation: it’s prime time for chip accumulation.

Once the antes come into play there’s more money up for grabs every hand. During this phase of the tournament you should widen your standards for getting involved, but you don’t need to put your stack in reckless danger going after that dead money. While the smart strategy is to raise more hands and go after more pots because of this added ‘dead money’, you still shouldn’t be chasing the pot with wild abandon.
Let’s take a look at how we can accumulate chips without fatally compromising our stack. I’ll start by laying out your fundamental mid-stage objectives:

Mid-Stage Goals

1. Read the table. You’re going to identify how you can accumulate chips by checking out the table setup. Always be aware of the table layout, player types and stack sizes; this will keep you from playing too loose or too tight. Remember: each table requires a slightly different approach. Adapt or die. (More on this fundamental adage later!)

2. React to the table. Keep the reckless players in check and don’t give much action to the cautious ones. Never play into your opponent’s style; play in a fashion that will take them out of their comfort zone.

This means you’ll want to re-raise the loose players who are opening trash hands. Yes, occasionally they will wake up with a strong hand, but most of the time (70%+) they will have to fold to your re-raise.

Likewise, you have to be willing to re-raise and call all-ins against the most maniacal players – otherwise, just avoid them all together. Maniacs are the type of players who will not only open a wide range of hands, but will also be willing to come back over the top with weak holdings (e.g. any pair, any ace, broadway cards) if they think you’re pulling a play on them. They may be opening a wide range of hands, but that doesn’t translate to them folding to a lot of 3-bets. So, if you’re going to go up against these players then you’d better be prepared to bet your stack on it with some far from premium hands yourself. Hands like 77 and AJ will go way up in value in these situations against a maniac.

As I mentioned, though, it may not be worth getting involved. The only way to make this call is to take a look
at yourself and how you play. Maniacs are always in the action so it can be very tempting to try to get involved with them and play along in their game of who can pick up the most blinds and small pots. This said, their sticky nature can make it a losing proposition if you’re not prepared to follow up re-steal attempts with future bets.

If this is the case, then you’re better served just sitting back, relaxing, and watching the maniac try his magic against the table. You should just focus on the dynamics that are being created around him. You can pick up some valuable information about the way your tablemates play by the way they react to a maniac.

3. Steal from the tight players. Since the stacks are usually pretty short mid-stage, cautious tight players will be letting some prime opportunities pass them by. Don’t let them pass you by too; take these steal opportunities to cushion your own stack – just be aware of who’s in position and whether or not these players are likely to police your steals.

4. Focus on late position. Ah, the sweet spot. Since there are fewer players to get through in late position you have less likelihood of running into a strong hand. When you’re dealing with non-believers, and late position fails, try stealing from positions that will get more credit. Again, pay attention to who is in the big blind and who is in position; this will determine how likely you are to have opponents play back at you.

Building a Stack: Mid-Stage Chip Accumulation

Now that you know how to keep your eyes on the prize and your head above water, I want to give you a deeper look in how, exactly, to maximize chip accumulation using precise strategy and numbers. We know there’s an undeniable luck factor in poker and this is why we have to use solid, iron-clad strategies to sway the balance in our favour. In other words, we want to control everything we can control.

1. Steal the blinds: Risk 2-2.5 big blinds to win. The pre-ante reward is 1.5 big blinds. Once antes are in the mix, that reward jumps up to 2.5 big blinds, while the risk on your part remainds the same. A 50% success rate is break-even, so if you pick your spots well, you’ll be making money on your steals.

The exact success rate of your steals is dependent on the following factors: A) how many hands/players you have to get through

B) what % of their hands each player will continue with (whether it be by flat calling your raise, or by playing back at you with a 3-bet.

*Remember, some opponents will play the same percentage of hands, no matter what. Some will play fewer hands facing a lot of action (raise, re-raise) and others will play fewer hands based on what percentage of hands they think you are opening, so when your raise looks like a steal, it will work less often. On the other hand, if they have no reason to suspect you’re stealing, they may fold everything but the most premium hands.

2. Re-steal from the loose openers. Risk 5-7 big blinds to steal the blinds and the villain’s open (4.5-5.5 big blinds). Your success rate will be based on what percentage of hands the opponent opens and what percentage of those hands they continue with vs. your re-steal (be it via flat calling or re-raising).

3. Play stronger, play in position. Build your stack by playing stronger hand ranges than your opponent. Double your power by playing in position so you can control the action.

Here are some tips on how to achieve these objectives:

If your opponents are opening 20% of their hands, you want to play no more than 20%; you will experience less fluctuation in your stack if you play an ideal 10-15% of hands in these spots.

When you connect strongly with the flop, you want to continue with the hand. The more shallow your stack is, the lower your criteria should be for getting all-in. For example, with 1 pot-size bet left to play for, you’re never going to want to fold a top pair, but with 10 pot-sized bets behind the wager, you may consider it since your opponent probably only has very strong holdings if they are willing to invest that much to win the relatively small amount sitting in the middle.

Once you know if you have reached your commitment threshold regarding hand strength, you have to decide on the best way to get the most money in the pot (i.e. fast-play or slow-play). Your decision to continue with the hand has been made at this point, and your options are whittled down to either calling or raising on each street – folding has been eliminated.

In cases where you have not connected very strongly with the flop, your commitment threshold may be such that you will call one bet and fold to a second; or perhaps you will call two but not three. In these cases your goal is to find a way to make it to the showdown for that amount of bets. If you end up having to fold your hand, it didn’t really matter what you had – and if you’re up against an opponent who you know is going to put the maximum pressure on, it can be correct to fold right away rather than commit chips you’ll never see again. Again, this comes down to knowing your opponent.

4. Defend your blinds. If you’re facing a min-raise you will be getting 3:1, sometimes 4:1. This means that if you see a flop, you only need to end up winning that pot 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 times to make your money back! Given that a random hand has about a 33% chance of beating a monster like Ace-King, you can see why defending your blinds is very important. Keep in mind that this means you shouldn’t go crazy when you just catch any piece of the board; your goal is not to win the pot every time you defend your blinds – not even half the time! Your goal is to win the pot often enough to make your pre-flop call profitable.

For blind defence to work you must be confident that you can play well after the flop. Conversely, if you are passing up on this opportunity when you’ve landed great odds, you will be like the player who plays to survive in the tournament, slowly bleeding your chips away. Don’t shy away from putting yourself in a temporarily uncomfortable spot if the action looks like it could be in your favour. Factor in the opponent you’re up against, how many hands they’re opening, how many chips you will have left to play once the flop hits and whether or not you have position; this will determine whether or not you can win the pot the 20-25% of the time it requires to break-even.

You can also defend your blind by re-raising/3 betting. Again, it boils down to simple math: what percentage of hands is the opponent opening and what percentage of those hands will they fold to your re-raise? Let’s not forget that in all these spots, you can always win the pot after the flop as well. You should also consider the standing of your image. In other words, will your opponent think you are stealing, or will they think you woke
up with a real hand this time? Building on this, if you make it clear that you are someone who is ready to go to battle, players will be less inclined to go after your blinds in the first place. Your image will impact how often your re-steal will be successful.

5. Capitalize on fold equity. Use your fold equity to win pots without a showdown. Fold equity simply refers to the likelihood that your opponent(s) will fold facing your aggressive action. By using your fold equity to win hands, you take your winning chances from whatever they were based on your pot equity, to 100%.

So:

Fold Equity = 1 – (% of hands your opponent will continue with / % of total hands they have)

Here’s a concrete example to offer up a little more illumination:

Dave holds Ac8h and is up against one other opponent, Susan. She has 4h7d. The flop comes down with 10s6c2d.

At this point in the game, Dave and Susan hold pot equity of 25% and 75%, respectively. Essentially, this means that if the players simply showed their hands and the turn and river cards were dealt, Dave would have a 75% chance of winning and Susan would have a 25% chance.

As it stands, Susan’s hand is pretty dismal and since she doesn’t know what combination of cards Dave could be holding, let’s say she has a 85% chance of folding if confronted with a hefty bet. If Dave can successfully bet Susan off her hand (which we know he can in this case) his chances of winning the pot jump from 75% to 100%. Even if a 7, 4 or running straight cards were going to come on the turn or river, it doesn’t matter because Dave has successfully ended the hand by making a winning bet.

Fold equity can be an incredibly valuable tool, especially in mid-stage MTT play when the stacks are lower and you want to be able to risk more, but risk with a degree of safety. Fold equity puts solid numbers behind random chance. After all, you aren’t always going to land good cards and even if you get them, they do not always guarantee the win. A master poker player is one who can also win chips by good betting. If you are able to do this then when coin-flips and coolers happen you will be more likely able to withstand the blows.

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