Dominating Small-Buy-In Poker Tournaments

by Michael Stevens
on April 23, 2018

I won’t claim to be any sort of poker savant, and while I play the game seriously, I’m not a poker pro by any means. I make the bulk of my living as an advantage-play casino gambler, battling the house in blackjack and video poker for the most part. For me, poker is a way to blow off steam and an escape from the often rote and mechanical world of table game advantage play.

At the poker table, I’m free to mix up my moves, applying creativity in conjunction with strategy to try and outwit my opponents. And while most casino games have long since been mastered through mathematical analysis, Texas hold’em still offers an unpredictable game where random chance, bluffs, and the human element all conspire to influence the outcome.

Simply put, I love playing poker for pleasure over profit. Even so, the goal for every poker player is winning – to win this pot, the next one, and eventually, the entire tournament.

I’ve had the pleasure of winning a tournament or two in my day, and let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like it in the world. The adrenaline rush, the sense of accomplishment, and of course, the top prize payout all combine to create an experience you won’t soon forget.

To help you experience that feeling for yourself, I present my guide to dominating small-buy-in poker tournaments.

Game Selection Is Crucial

Game selection, although often overlooked, is an important part of your poker education. You might want to avoid a game where the lineup includes a bunch of pros.
Be wary of how tough the game you’re in is, and try to avoid the toughest game in the house!

Phil Hellmuth, 14-time WSOP bracelet winner

On my most recent trip to Las Vegas, just a few weeks ago, in fact, I happened to arrive right as two mid-level tournament series were taking place. I had a choice between playing a few prelims at the Venetian DeepStack Extravaganza, or the WSOP-C event at the Rio. Both series offer several events that fall within our small-buy-in classification, and both venues are known for running top-notch tournaments.

Thus, I had two seemingly evenly matched series to choose from.

Based on prior experience playing both, however, it didn’t take long at all to decide on the WSOP-C. Affectionately known as “The Circuit” by touring pros, this offshoot of the larger WSOP travels around the country hosting small-stakes series. Most of the prelims are priced at $365, and each stop is capped off by a $1,675 Main Event.

Conversely, the Venetian DeepStack Extravaganza is an in-house affair, hosted several times each year by the Venetian poker room. But while the buy-ins are almost identical, with a slew of prelims priced at $300 or so and a $1,600 Main Event, tournaments at the Venetian tend to attract tougher tournament players.

Maybe it’s because these guys and gals grind there every night, creating a roomful of card sharps just waiting for tourists like me to saunter in. Or perhaps the bigger-name pros look down on the WSOP-C as the “minor leagues,” so they stay away from the Rio until the real WSOP arrives. In any case, I’ve found the WSOP-C to offer softer competition, so I chose to play there over the Venetian.

That’s just one example, of course, but it illustrates the importance of game selection.

During any series or circuit stop, you’ll have a dozen or more prelim events on the schedule. And in a place like Sin City, there’re usually two or three mid-level series taking place at the same time. Without a sensible approach to game selection, you can easily put yourself at a disadvantage simply by signing up to play much tougher opponents.

In the first WSOP-C Rio event I entered – a $365 No Limit hold’em tournament with re-entries and a $250,000 guaranteed prize pool – I found myself sitting alongside senior citizens and tourists looking for a good time. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of competent players on hand, but on an overall scale, the caliber of competition was rather weak.

And while the cards didn’t cooperate for me on that day, a genuine amateur who just happened to be visiting Vegas that week wound up winning the whole shebang. For just $365, Randy Khami outlasted a field of 1,074 entries to take home $57,462 in winnings, along with his first WSOP-C gold ring. For a casual player like Khami, who had never cashed for more than $1,400 before, playing against the softer WSOP-C field gave him a chance to live every poker player’s dream.

On the other side of the Strip, a similarly sized prelim event at the Venetian saw professional Jon Turner take the title. Turner, better known as “PearlJammed” from his days as an online beast, simply added to his more than $2.7 million in live tournament earnings. Confronted with highly talented pros like Turner, players like myself and Khami are the proverbial “dead money” at the table.

Therefore, one of the most important steps you can take toward dominating small-buy-in poker tournaments takes place before you ever buy in. Practicing savvy game selection gives you the best chance to overcome the odds and wind up enjoying a deep run.

Study Your Structure Sheets Closely

I grew up playing tournaments with fast structures. It was fun for me as a kid, just playing was enjoyable so I didn’t mind playing in tournaments with 20-minute levels and huge jumps.
I’m not a kid anymore, though, and I find fast paced structures to get boring very quickly.
I simply don’t enjoy the pre-flop aspects of the game nearly as much as the post flop part of the game, but the faster the structure, the less of an opportunity you have to really take advantage of the weaker players at the table.

Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu, the all-time tournament earnings leader with over $36.5 million in live cashes

Another aspect of game selection that allows you to maximize your ability while limiting your skill liability is studying structure sheets.

As “Kid Poker” himself observes, most small-stakes daily or nightly tournaments run by local casinos use a turbo structure. In other words, the starting stacks are on the smaller side (5,000 to 10,000 chips, for the most part), while the blinds escalate quite rapidly at 15- or 20-minute intervals.

Conversely, a “major” tournament like a series Main Event or higher-priced WSOP prelim gives players larger stacks (15,000 or 20,000) and longer blind levels (30 minutes to one hour).

And within each individual structure, skipping certain blind levels can wreak havoc on the overall gameplay. When the blinds jump from 400/800 to 600/1,200, for example, missing out on that 500/1,000 level instantly shrinks your “effective stack.”

Just in case you’re in the dark on that poker slang, your effective stack simply measures your chip count against the current big blind.

Let’s say you have 10,000 chips when the big blind is set at 100. In this case, you’re sitting on 100 big blinds, which is quite comfortable. You have room to maneuver, make creative plays, and mix it up during post-flop rounds without fear of going broke.

But just a few levels later, with the big blind increased to 500, your 10,000 chips now equate to just 20 big blinds. You’re still doing fine at this point, but your options are much more limited. Any opening raise you make will utilize a decent chunk of your stack, so you have to be much more conservative pre-flop. Players often talk about being “handcuffed” at the 20 big blind or lower level, with their plays reduced to folding or shoving all-in.

Using the same two tournaments mentioned earlier, you can see how a slightly different structure serves to influence the game.

In the $365 buy-in WSOP-C event I played, the starting stack was 10,000 chips, and blind levels lasted 30 minutes each. Level 1 started at 25/50 blinds, and the first antes kicked in at Level 5, with the blinds sitting at 100/200 and a 25-chip ante. Thus, my 10,000 chips were worth 200 big blinds at the beginning, and 50 big blinds when we started anteing up.

But by taking a look at the Venetian structure sheet, you’ll find that a $400 buy-in bought 18,000 starting chips, and the blind levels lasted 40 minutes apiece. The opening blind level was 50/100, and the antes kicked in at Level 4 (100/200/25).

In this case, your 18,000 starting stack was worth 180 big blinds at the outset, slightly less than the WSOP-C event. But when the antes arrived, signaling the real start of any tournament, that same stack held a value of 90 big blinds – almost double what you’d have in the WSOP-C event.

Had I run through these calculations beforehand, I probably would’ve hit the Venetian instead. Those tournaments live up to their DeepStack title, letting players have a lot more wiggle room during the middle and late stages of the game.

Studying structure sheets is an essential poker skill, as you’ll be able to plan ahead to gauge just how shallow or deep your stack will be at any stage.

Look, Listen, and Observe

While live poker gives you the opportunity to take in a huge amount of information about your opponents, it also provides you with lots of down time where little is happening.
If you do not focus well, you will miss loads of vital information that will help you adjust to your opponents’ specific tendencies, allowing you to win significantly more money. When playing poker, turn off the distractions and play poker.

Jonathan Little, two-time World Poker Tour champion and author of Strategies to Beat Small Stakes Poker Tournaments

With the pregame prep out of the way, it’s time to tackle some actual poker tips.

One of the leading poker instructional authors of the era and accomplished player in his own right, Jonathan Little lays it all on the table in the quote above. Unless you’re willing to play poker, and not just cards, you’ll never be ready to dominate these small-stakes tournaments.

Most players in the modern age come to the tournament table with a backpack, a hoodie, and a pair of headphones. These tools are used to make the long days more comfortable, but for most grinders, they’re also a source of escape.

Let’s face it; Texas hold’em tournaments involve a whole lot of folding, especially in the early stages. With just 10% of hands falling into the “premium” category, you’ll be ditching a ton of 10-2s and 7-3s before the flop. Folding eight out of nine hands during a single orbit can be mind-numbing, to say the least, which is where music, texting, and the overhead TVs come into play.

But while your opponent is zoning out, you should be taking the exact opposite approach. Try to watch every hand play out, even when your cards have long since been mucked.

Watch to see which players are opening several times an orbit, signaling a loose approach to hand selection, and which ones turtle up into a fold-fest. After the flop, try to track an opponent’s continuation bet tendencies. Some will fire a c-bet every single time after opening pre-flop, while others will only continue when they have the goods.

And at showdown, always take advantage of the exposed information available to you. Texas hold’em is all about deception, so learning exactly which two cards an opponent held – and how they played the hand – is invaluable to the thinking player.

Understanding Pre-Ante and Post-Ante Play

Tournaments usually have not only blinds but antes after the first few stages. That means that there’s more in the pot to begin the hand, and whoever wins the struggle for the antes gets a bigger prize.
Once the antes kick in, if you can win more than your share of preflop pots, you’ve already accomplished much of what is necessary to succeed in tournaments.

Nate Meyvis, tournament pro and host of the Thinking Poker podcast

Back in the section on studying structure sheets, I paid special attention to when the antes kicked in – and so should you.

The first few levels of a small-buy-in tournament are essentially meaningless, as the tiny blinds and lack of antes produce pots that just aren’t worth fighting over. Even so, you’ll invariably see players fall by the wayside and go bust before the antes ever start.

I know this because I was one them.

During my most recent trip to the WSOP-C Rio, I succumbed to the same danger I’m warning you about right now – playing too many hands during the pre-ante period. When I sat down to my first table, I was surrounded by players who would be generously described as “casual” players. These were grandparents, tourists, and cash game grinders who just didn’t seem to pose a threat at the time.

My plan was as follows. Mix it up early with speculative hands, play a loose aggressive style, and try to take advantage of my seemingly overmatched opponents. On the very first deal, I picked up A-10 off suit and played it aggressively, especially after flopping a 10-high board. Unfortunately for me, my foe found two pair on the turn, and within one hand, my 10,000-chip starting stack was carved down to 8,250. I wound up chasing from there, trying to catch up, until I was the first one eliminated from that seemingly soft table.

The problem with overplaying the pre-ante levels is readily apparent, but as I proved, even decent players can fall prey. Basically, until the whole table is forced to ante up, the pre-flop pot just doesn’t contain enough chips to justify chasing it aggressively.

Let’s say you’re sitting on that 10,000 stack in Level 3, with the blinds at 75-150 and no ante. The pre-flop pot holds just 225 to begin with, and even if somebody makes the standard 350 opening raise and catches a caller, the pot will only have 775 up for grabs. But more often than not, you’ll be opening for 350 just to win 225, which doesn’t really add up in terms of risk versus reward.

Fast forward two levels to when the first antes have arrived, and the math changes considerably. With blinds of 100/200 and a 25-chip ante, every pre-flop pot (assuming a full nine-handed table) has 525 sitting in the middle. Here, a standard opening raise of 450 gives you a shot to claim 525 chips without a fight, forming a positive risk-to-reward ratio.

For this reason, many of the more skilled players and pros don’t even bother to contest the pre-ante levels. By skipping the pre-ante play altogether, they start the game competing for pots that actually have some value relative to their stack size.

I’m not an advocate of skipping levels, and I always show up on time to play from the start time whenever possible. But still smarting from my early bust-outs at the Rio, I recognize the importance of playing a snug, tight game with antes in play.

Additional Resources

The strategic approaches needed to dominate the middle and late stages of a small-buy-in tournament are about as diverse as it gets. Between different playing styles, in-game circumstances, bankroll considerations, and a whole host of external factors, playing properly is a matter of perspective.
Owing to the fact that I’m not a pro poker player, I figure the best way for you to perfect your mid- and endgame play is by learning from the best.
To that end, I recommend Jonathan Little’s seminal book on the subject: Strategies for Beating Small Stakes Poker Tournaments. You can check it out here, but suffice it to say, Little is the leading authority on teaching recreational players how to take their game to the next level.

He’s written more than a dozen books on poker instruction, but this one focuses on the daily/nightly and prelim events that millions of players call home.

Other books to check out include the Harrington on Hold’em series by WSOP legend Dan Harrington, Ace on the River by bracelet winner Barry Greenstein, and the Thinking Poker podcast by Nate Meyvis. I’d also check out poker tutorial platforms like Upswing Poker, Run It Up, and Run It Once, all of which were pioneered by top-tier tournament pros.

Conclusion

Dominating poker tournaments with a low buy-in is a good goal if you want to eventually become profitable in events with bigger buy-ins. Use this guide to help you start winning more money in low buy-in poker tournaments.

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