The antes have begun. Now the tournament gets a lot more serious. The CSI is lower, forcing you
to play or perish. “How do you get more chips?” Look to your right. That’s exactly where your next infusion of chips is likely to come from—the player on your right or on his right. If you have a passive player on your left, perhaps he’ll also make a significant contribution to your stack.
Chips Flow around the Table in a Clockwise Fashion
Chips tend to flow in a circle around the table in a clockwise motion. Why? Simply put, players seated on the left have position and wield the threat of further action over those players on their right. If
you had a choice about where to sit at the table, you’d always opt to be behind the loose- aggressive players, with the tight-passives on your left. This is the tried-and-true formula for success in poker and those who tell you otherwise are on their own very strange voyages. So look to the right to see who’s likely to back down and who you can frequently bully by raising or re-raising; look to the left to determine if he’s timid and whether you can steal from him. If so, raise nearly every time you’re in the small blind and he’s in the big blind when everyone else has folded, regardless of your hand.
Action in the Late Positions
It’s possible for you to have a key confrontation from any position, of course, but most likely you’ll be
in one of the last five positions when you move all-in and risk your entire tournament life. Those five positions (starting two to the right of the button and continuing in a clockwise direction) are called the hijack, the cutoff, the button, the small blind, and the big blind. A lot of times someone in the hijack, the cutoff, or the button brings it in for a raise with mediocre hands, hoping to take the pot down right away without a confrontation—they have only four or fewer players to beat, so their hand requirements are much weaker than for someone who may have raised from an earlier position. years ago, this tactic was quite successful, since they’d only be re-raised if someone in the few spots behind them picked up a premium hand. In the modern game, however, the range of hands used to re-raise a late position raiser has expanded greatly.
The Simple All-in Steal
When your CSI is 7 or less, your only actions are all-in or fold. Many times when everyone folds to you, you’ll have a chance to push and pick up the blinds. Stealing blinds is immensely profitable, since most players don’t call as often as they should. In fact, sometimes it’s right to steal so often that here I’m adding 3 more categories, with weaker hands, that you should only consider playing when stealing or re-stealing the blinds.
Category 9: K2-K7s, K5-K8o, Q3-Q7s, Q9o, J6-J8s, J8-J9o, T5-T7s, T8o, 95-96s, 85s, 74s
Category 10: K2-K4o, Q2s, Q2-Q8o, J2-J5s, J4-J7o, T2-T4s, T6-T7o, 93-94s, 96-97o, 84s, 86o, 43s Category 11: Everything else, even 72o, the worst hand in hold ‘em!
The following table is my estimate of the hands with which the big blind is likely to call you, depending on how big your stack is and the position you raised from. This is obviously a round estimate, using our defined-hand categories, but I believe it’s reasonable.
Players besides the big blind will call less frequently than the categories given. If these calling assumptions are true, then an optimal strategy can be calculated to determine which hands to steal the blinds with. The details of these calculations are beyond the scope of this text, but the results show that if your opponents call this often, you can push quite a lot! The table below shows how often you can push.
As you can see, when it’s folded to you in late position, you have a prime opportunity to take the blinds. only a few players have a chance to call you and they usually don’t call often enough to make it incorrect for you to push with garbage. Sometimes it can be quite scary to see two low cards, then drag the slide bar over to the right and press raise. But once you do it a number of times, the fear wears off—just remember, they can’t see your cards and have no idea you aren’t pushing with AK. To be successful at tournament poker, you’ve got to be willing to go broke, providing you’re making mathematically sound and aggressive decisions.
Now sometimes you’ll get called and most likely it will be by a strong hand. That’s okay. you still have a chance to get lucky. If you win, there’s some good and bad news. The good news is that you’re still in the tournament and you’ve now doubled up. The bad news is that the whole table has seen that you pushed with a weak hand. They’ll probably start calling more frequently and won’t let you get away with it as much. That means you’ll have to ease up on the throttle just a bit.
So if the table knows you’re a thief after seeing you show down a sub-par hand (or suspects it since you’ve been raising a lot in the last several hands), push only with the following hands:
Toning down your aggression just a bit shows everyone that you do occasionally fold, and prevents you from having to face a showdown with the absolute worst hands.
What if you’re on the other side and it’s a short stack pushing against you? one of the things you should not do is assume he’s pushing as much as I recommend here. Almost nobody does. As we saw in Chapter 8, the less often he’s pushing, the tighter we have to be in calling. Actually, the assumptions we made for how often people call is probably a good recommendation for when to call the typical player. That frequency is about right when people aren’t pushing very often.
And what if you suspect that someone at your table is an inveterate blind stealer and he keeps going after your big blind? Maybe you’ve seen him raise nearly every time he’s in late position, or perhaps you’ve seen him show down a couple of weak hands. Maybe he’s even read this book! If that’s the case, you need to call him more often to punish and discourage his rampant stealing. If you continue to fold meekly, that’s all the more incentive for him to keep stealing. I recommend you call this often:
Naturally, players have different degrees of aggressiveness between passive and full speed ahead. Depending on your evaluation of his level of aggression, the right hand to call him with may lie between this table and the default calling strategy in the first chart above.
Currently, if you make a raise from one of these late positions, often an aggressive player, smelling weakness and still to act from one of the blinds, will re-raise (re-steal) by making a raise that threatens all of your chips! He knows that you’ll have to like your hand a lot to call when your tournament life is on the line. What type of hand might he have in order to make this large re-raise or all-in maneuver? Well, if he’s confident enough in his read, he doesn’t even need to look at his cards, as two napkins will do! If he’s convinced, for example, that you need at least a pair of nines or better, AK, or AQ to call, hands that many solid old-school players would require, it’s usually correct for him to push with any 2 cards!
This may make you understandably uncomfortable, or as poker-pro move-in specialist Hoyt Corkins aptly puts it, he “likes to have a little pop when he puts it all in.” If you feel more comfortable with a modicum of value, as Corkins says he does, you can use the following guidelines for re-raising: AK, AQ, AJ, AT, A9, A8, KQ, KJ, KT, K9, QJ, QT, Q9, JT, J9, (19, or greater points in blackjack), any pair, and suited connectors down to 54 suited. you’re still relying on fold equity, but you’ve got a fall back position, if called. Sometimes you’ll run into a bigger hand or even get called by a hand that dominates you. you may have one common card and be behind on the other one, such as KJ versus AK. That’s poker! you can’t win ‘em all. you gave yourself a chance to win and that’s what this game is all about. If you’re looking
for certainty, take up chess. In poker, if you stay aggressive and take calculated positive EV risks, you’ll eventually get the money. It’s as simple as that. Timid players, however, get lost in the shuffle.
If the shoe’s on the other foot and you’re getting re-raised by the blinds when you steal-raise from late position, you’ll have to make a stand at some point to stop this undesirable behavior. How strong a hand does he need to re-raise? Weigh this against your pot odds when considering a call. This is very similar to what we did in Chapter 8 for SNGs. Most situations in MTTs have low bubble effects compared to SNGs. So put him on a range and call according to this table:
Calling All-In Recommendations for Most Tournament Situations
As the bubble approaches, we’ll adjust these calling standards, as discussed in the next chapter.
Blinds are 100/200 with a 25 ante for a starting pot of 525. A very aggressive player in mid- position raises to 700. You have a stack of 2,000 on the button and are considering moving all-in. How strong do you need to be? If you push, you’ll be giving him 3,225-to-1,300 or almost 2.5-to-1. That’s enough for him to call with anything, so you have no fold equity. But your pot odds aren’t as high. You should calculate them as if he raised to 2,000, putting you all-in from the start. That’s 2,525-to-2,000 or a bit over 1.2-to-1. A very aggressive player from mid-position is probably raising with Category 6 hands. That means you need a Category 4 hand (AJs+, KQs+, 77+) to move in. If he’ s a tighter player, raising only Category 4 hands, you’ll need a Category 2 to move in.
Two Negatives Can Make a Positive
What makes this play (the re-steal) so valuable is that it labels you as fearless and willing to risk it
all. Believe me when I tell you that professional players will hate this situation (I sure do) and, if they see this move a couple of times, they’ll give you a wide berth. The pro will probably put you into the “maniac” category and won’t want to dance with you unless he’s got a monster. Phil Hellmuth is famous for laying down hands where he thinks he’s a 3-to-2 favorite early in tournaments, whereas I’m telling you to put all your chips in when you might be an underdog mathematically!
There are several reasons for this, but the most important is fold equity. When you move all-in and there’s a 25% chance that your opponent will throw away a better hand than you, suddenly a hand that’s only 45% to win, if the hand is played out, has positive EV. Combining the money won when your opponent folds with what you’ll win when your hand prevails makes the overall return profitable, even if your opponent calls 75% of the time and is a favorite when he does so. This is counterintuitive and difficult for some to grasp, but it’s accurate. Fold equity is a powerful ally.
In 2007 a good young player going to the final table in a major event in Asia, without a dominating chip position, confided to me that the first time the player on his right raised, he intended to move all-in without looking at his cards! He’d pretend to look, but wouldn’t, so that he couldn’t give anything away if scrutinized. He did just that and his opponent folded! The next time the player on his right raised, he moved all-in again! Successful again, he’d now gained respect from the entire table, as well as greatly increasing his stack, and he could now play poker. He’d become the table captain by demonstrating that he was willing to move all-in, risking everything to win. Cautiously moving up the payout ladder was clearly not part of his game plan. This is the type of player who others with a low tolerance for ambiguity want no part of, including most professionals. He was feared by everyone, but especially by those players who were on his right, as he might come over the top, even all-in, at any moment, when they brought it in for a raise. His opponents became defensive, fearful, and far more selective in their hand selection before getting involved. Reducing the aggressiveness and increasing the predictability of your opponents’ actions are valuable assets at the final table. you can read more about this concept, which I’ve dubbed “Fear Equity,” in Kill Everyone.
Antes Have Started—Steal!
When antes are added to the blinds, the dynamics change. Not only does it cost more to play each round (increased CPR), but beginning pots are now juicier and ripe for the picking. Early in the tournament the blinds were puny and not that meaningful. Now they’re worth stealing. If your opponents are timid and scared of you, steal them blind!
Enter Pots with a Raise
Once the antes start, if you’re first in, always enter the pot with a raise. Don’t limp in. Find the minimum amount you must raise to get them to fold. Usually this is about 3 times the big blind, but sometimes at tight tables even as little as twice the big blind is sufficient to pick up pots pre-flop. Players such as Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari raises just under 3 big blinds from any position with a wide variety of hands. With blinds of 200/400 and a 50 ante (1,050 in pot 9-handed), he might make it 1,100 to go. If everyone folds, as they often will, he’s gotten virtually a 100% return on his 1,100 investment. If he gets called, he still has the opportunity to flop a big hand or to outplay his opponents. By making the same size raise with both his strong hands and his speculative ones, it’s impossible for his opponents to evaluate the strength of his hand based on the size of his raise. If he gets re-raised, he’ll fold his weaker holdings, but re-raise with his stronger ones.
When you raise from one of the steal positions (hijack, cutoff, or button), you should know in advance what you intend to do if you get re-raised. Consider not only your action, but also the most likely reaction, before you put your first raise into the pot. I’ve seen Chris “Jesus” Ferguson raise from late position, get re-raised, and call with marginal hands such as KT offsuit, J8 suited, 55, etc. Why? He wants to indelibly inscribe the idea into his opponents’ minds that if they re-raise him, they will get called. This puts them on notice—re-steal at your peril. once players believe that their fold equity has been compromised and they’re likely to get called, they’ll usually only re-raise with sound values. When they get called they must play the hand out of position, a daunting prospect when they have a weak hand against an aggressive player.
Many players loath getting mini-raised and are frequently unsure how to deal with it. Mini-raising is making the minimum raise, just double the amount of a bet. I don’t recommend mini-raising pre-flop (except when heads-up), but post-flop it can be a cheap and powerful weapon. If you start mini-raising, I recommend that you do it both with powerful hands and big draws. If you only do it with one or the other, your opponents may be taking notes—you take notes, don’t you?
When low-level players mini-raise, it’s almost always a powerful hand, frequently a set. But high-level players do it with powerful hands, good draws, or nothing at all. It sometimes is used, in combination with a turn bet, to pick off continuations bets. For example, he bets on the flop, you mini-raise, and he flat calls. on the turn, he checks, you bet, and he folds if all he has is overcards. you don’t necessarily have to have a hand—you just have to hope he doesn’t have one.
This move practically forces the original bettor to make a decision on the flop if he wants to continue with the hand. If you want to try this move as a bluff, the best time is when the flop comes up low cards. A c-bettor with overcards will have a difficult time. I hate being mini-raised even when I have a strong hand, such as top pair, because if I’m behind I have very little chance to improve.
Mini-raises have multiple uses, but the basic idea behind them is that when you have a strong hand, you want to offer your opponent tasty pot-odds so he’ll be tempted to play on. This way, you can perhaps suck more money out later in the hand. Aces pre-flop or a set post-flop are the usual candidates for mini-raises. At least that’s how it used to be. These days it often means that the threat of one of those hands allows the mini-raiser to steal pots with a large range of hands. There are a lot of positive reasons to make that mini-raise!
Committed to the Pot
As we discussed in the section on sit-n-go’s, if you put 1/3 of your chips or greater into the pot, you’re committed to play the hand through. Folding is no longer a viable option. If you’re facing a bet or raise that will create this situation if called, decide if you’re willing to go all the way with this hand prior to calling. This same principle applies to your opponent. If he makes a bet that commits 1/3 of his chips or greater, assume he’ll call you if you push all-in. In other words, your fold equity is close to zero. Play smart, plan ahead, and act accordingly.
on the river bet top pair/top kicker or better, if your opponents haven’t shown any aggression. This is a bet for value, as many opponents will call you to the river with second pair or even worse. If the turn or river completed any obvious draws, you should be more careful, especially if they come out betting. An opponent who checks to you likely didn’t complete a draw—usually if he makes it, he can’t help but bet. If you’ve been the one showing strength on the flop and turn, he’ll need a good hand to bet on the river, most likely 2-pair or better. one pair is probably no good, not even top pair. If you have 2-pair or better, you can usually value-bet the river most of the time, unless the board is very scary (like 4 cards to a flush or straight).
Another concept we discussed in the SNG section is the continuation or c-bet. C-bets are more prevalent in MTTs than SNGs. In fact, based on the extraordinary (and well-deserved) popularity of the Harrington on Hold ’em series of books, c-bets have now become the norm, rather than the exception. Having said this, it’s still correct to bet on the flop the majority of the time, if you raised pre-flop. If
your opponent has two unpaired cards, he won’t hit the flop 2/3 of the time, so a bet will often win if your opponent has missed. A c-bet is really betting that your opponent has missed the flop and can’t call. Because 50% of the pot is the published standard for c-bets, I suggest betting 70% of the pot, so it looks more like a value bet than a c-bet. Even though this looks less like a c-bet, innovative (often young) opponents may be suspicious and will either raise to see whether or not you have a real hand or call to see what you’ll do on the turn. Depending on what type of player you’re up against, you’ll often have to either bet again or check and fold, if they bet.
Betting Tactics After the Flop
on the turn you should play similarly to the way you played on the flop. If you still have top pair or better, make a pot-sized bet if it’s checked to you. If you had an overpair on the flop, but an overcard comes on the turn, don’t automatically give up the hand. Bet if it’s checked to you, but fold if he bets first or raises you. If he calls again on the turn when you have an underpair, check on the river and fold if he bets. With top pair, if you were called on the flop and the turn card completes an obvious draw, consider folding if he bets or raises.
Suppose you have AA in middle position and you’re the second biggest stack at your table with 42,000 chips and blinds and antes of 200/400/50. you raise to 1,200 and get called by the table leader in the
big blind with 50,000 chips. The flop comes 862 rainbow. He checks, you bet 1,000, and he calls (pot = 3,250). The turn is a 9. He checks again. Now what? you should check. your opponent has sufficient chips to bust you and he called on the flop. Now a possible straight card has come. Before acting, you should consider what you’ll do if he raises. you could bet around 2,000 and see what he does, but you’ll hate it if he now puts in a big raise, representing a hand that’s better than yours (straight, set, 2-pair). By checking you keep the pot small and avoid possibly being faced with a difficult decision for all your chips. when you’re either well in front or way behind, it makes sense to control the size of the pot, keeping it small. you’ve increased the chance that your opponent will make a better hand on the river, but even if this happens he’s unlikely to move all-in. From his perspective, your hand appears to be something such as AK or AQ and he’s likely to make a smallish bet in hopes of getting paid off, if he’s got a hand that beats you. your check on the turn also gives you the opportunity to pick off a bluff on the river. Call if he makes a reasonable (up to pot-sized) bet.
If he checks again on the river, you can bet around 75% of the pot. Given this sequence of bets, very few players will check again with a hand that beats your AA, so if you’re checked to on the river you can make a value bet almost without any thought of being beaten. As you see, checking on the turn is actually a clever play that often gains you more chips, while keeping the pot under control and costing you less when you’re beaten.
If your opponent had 5,000 instead of 50,000 it’s a different story. All-in, baby!
- The natural flow of chips around the table is clockwise.
- Stealing and re-stealing occur predominately from late position and are more prevalent once the antes commence. You can loosen your standards for stealing and calling aggressive re- stealers. when you need chips, consider re-raising all-in against an aggressive blind stealer.
- You can have positive EV even when your all-in bet is called the majority of the time and you’re an underdog when called.
- Mini-raising both with very strong hands and draws can be an effective tactic.
- Control the size of the pot when you’re either way ahead or way behind.