Playing in Small and Mid-Stake Events
Small and mid-stake tournaments are what the majority of poker players are going to participate. For all intents and purposes, any events in the range of $1,000 or less would be considered small or middle limit. You can regularly find these events in most major casinos, in circuit events, and just about anywhere that poker is played. Being that they are the most popular form of tournament poker, it comes as little surprise that it's the game that the most people are looking to learn more about.
As is the case with any tournament, your strategy and approach to the game are going to vary as the event goes on. You shouldn't be playing the same way when you are in the money as you were in the first stage of the tournament. The biggest adjustment that will need to be made is going to be in response to the caliber of player that you are going to be facing.
In cash games, too, you are going to generally be up against the same level of player from table to table, assuming you are playing with the same limits. While every player should never be grouped into one field, this is going to be the ideal way to play tournament poker. You won't be playing with the same guys from event to event, and you may not even get to play with some players for hours at a time. Because of all of this, you need to carry your strategy, as you refine it, into each and every event that you play.
Early Stage Strategy
The early stages of these tournaments will provide you with the best opportunity to take advantage of inferior players. As you would expect, the field will normally trend towards the stronger competitors as the event continues on, so there won't be nearly as much "easy money" on the tables. Beyond all of this, your stack sizes will be such that there's a lot of room for play. You won't need to fold mediocre hands for fear of unnecessarily crippling your stack, because you should still have a significant amount of big blinds left.
The structure of the tournament should be one of your primary concerns when you first start to play. If you are playing in a turbo tournament for example, you are going to need to make some adjustments. These types of tournaments will call for faster play than your average event. Likewise, a deep stacked tournament will also cause for some adjustments to your strategy.
For the most part, you should be looking to play in a lot of pots where you can play at a reasonable price when a tournament is just starting. Position is everything and late position is going to give you even more of an edge over your opponents. The key is to make sure that you are playing for the right price. There's a big difference between playing a lot of hands for a lot of chips and a lot of hands for few chips. Playing in limped and otherwise cheap pots will be a great way to give yourself an opportunity to win big pots without putting a lot on the line. You should still be hand selecting, but it's even more vital that you carefully select the types of pots that you are playing.
Middle Stages and Bubble Play
The middle stages are where you will start to see where you stand in the grand scheme of things. If you are winding down to a smaller stack, you'll need to push the envelope and take some chances in an effort to recoup your lost chips. If you already have a large stack, you'll have the chance to bully your opponents around. Your relative stack size is going to mean everything.
How these stages are affected in these limit buy ins will be found in how people react. In higher limit tournaments, stronger players will be able to calm down and still be sure that they are making the most optimal plays possible. When you are up against weaker players as you will come across in these fields, you are going to notice that many players freak out and just shove away when they get short. Whether you have a moderate stack or a sizable stack, you'll need to be ready and prepared to take on those players who get frustrated and throw their money in the middle.
Beyond the players who make erratic plays out of frustration, you'll also be facing players who either tighten up or get reckless with bigger stacks. Of course, the reckless players will do most of the work for you while you'll need to be the aggressor when playing the tighter opponents. The best strategy against the players who are too nervous to stay involved in pots is to apply the pressure. Make raises, fire out on flops, and don't be afraid of the big stack. Be careful that you are targeting the right type of opponent, however. Some players are going to fight back with their big stack and you need to be sure that you are fighting against someone who is playing with scared money. Players tend to either be comfortable or uncomfortable with a big stack, so your goal is to determine which end of the spectrum they fall into and to play against them accordingly.
Near the bubble, tension starts to set in. A lot of players will be taking their time and folding over and over again in an attempt to simply make the money. Your job is to pinpoint these players and to take pots away from them. You might be surprised to see how tight some will play when the bubble is approaching. The most ideal situation for winning money on the bubble is to be up against "folders" in the blinds when you are near the button. A raise doesn't have to get through many players and the likelihood of winning an uncontested pot is greater. You too should be working towards making the money, but mid limit tournaments are absolutely full of tight players who only want to fold their way to the money. Don't be one of these players, instead use them as a means of profit.
Late Stage Strategy and Short Handed Play
The late stages of a tournament will always be more nerve racking than the rest of the event. With that being said, it means that this is your chance to really run over the competition. So long as you are able to control your own emotions, manipulating the other players will become that much easier.
Once you are in the money, you will constantly be shifting tables and playing against different people. This will cause you to change gears over and over again. The biggest adjustment that you'll need to make is going to be found in short handed play. Short handed play is in reference to any situation where you are up against less than a full table.
In short handed poker, aggression is going to be the difference. Passive players will usually lose and aggressive players will tend to be the long term winners. Even if you normally adhere to a pretty tight nit strategy, which can work in tournaments, you'll need to step up your aggression when short handed play begins.
Against the majority of players in mid limit tournaments, you are going to be able to use aggressive play to take down pots. As backwards as it might sound, lower limit tournaments tend to have the most nervous players. You can use the fear and nervousness of these players to your advantage by playing with relentless aggression. There really isn't much more to say other than to put your opponents to the test. Tournaments are always going to require a fair amount of good fortune, but winning pots without needing to go to showdown is the easiest way to accumulate chips with minimal opposition.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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