Pre-Flop Hand Selection in Early Levels
Pre-flop hand selection in the early stages is one of the most vital elements of tournament play. If you are playing the wrong types of hands to start an event, you are probably playing the wrong hands throughout the tournament all the way till the end. The exact event that you are playing is going to bear some relevance in how you hand select, but you should always have a general range of hands in mind. You shouldn't be going into any tournament without a real game plan in mind.
Hand selection, like just about anything else in poker, is going to be dependent upon a number of different factors. You can't simply say that you should play these hands and those hands while disregarding things like position, stack size, your opponent, and so on and so forth. There's always more to look at than just what cards you are holding. The value of any hand is always going to be subject to the circumstances that are at play. Though you are going to need to make constant and ever changing adjustments, there's no reason why you can't get a feel for the ideal pre-flop hand selection in the beginning of tournaments with a relatively small amount of practice.
Your relative position is something that you should always be taking into account. When it comes to deciding which hands you should and shouldn't be playing at the start of a tournament, your position will not matter quite as much as you might think. The reason for this is that the blinds are usually going to be disproportionately small when compared to your stack size.
If you are playing with several hundred big blinds, you'll be able to better play in a large number of pots without exposing yourself to a significant amount of risk. This is absolutely crucial in all tournament play, minimizing risk. If you are putting yourself in spots where your stack is on the line early on but you aren't in a dominant position, it means that you are simply making too many mistakes that could have been prevented. As much as position may not be a massive factor, you should still give it some attention.
Early position play is never going to be favored. Since the objective is to play in a lot of pots for a low price, you should be trying to become the most involved when you have position on your opponents. One of the reasons why position is valuable is because it allows you to make moves such as stealing the blinds and light 3 or 4 bets. In the beginning of a tournament, however, this isn't something that you should be working into your game, and it's also one of the reasons why position loses some of its value. Being one of the last to act will just give you that added edge where your actions don't face such unknown results. You can comfortably call behind, check behind, or whatever you would like to do. Don't stress out about position at this stage in a tournament, but don't totally discount it either.
Your Stack Size
Your stack size is seldom going to remain static in a poker tournament like it would in a cash game. You are going to frequently make adjustments that correspond with the amount of chips that you have at any given time. You can't be making plays that you did when you were short stacked if you now have a massive stack and vice versa. In the earlier levels of a tournament, you are likely to be right on par with the rest of the field or just a bit ahead or behind. There will be those random times where you double or triple up early, but they aren't going to be all that common. Stack size isn't going to play a massive role in hand selection just as position didn't.
Now that you have a couple of the underlying factors out of the way, the next step is to consider the actual types of hands that you are going to play. These are always subject to change of course, so don't take them as absolutes.
Any pocket pair is worth seeing a flop with at this stage of the game. If you can get to the flop for the price of a raise or less, there's no reason to be getting out of the way. Your hand has a fair amount of showdown value built in and it will also have the potential to stack other players if you can manage to hit a set. Pocket pairs are always deceptive when they are able to improve and you can play them without putting your life on the line when a tournament just begins.
Suited connectors don't have quite as much value when the blinds are low. One of the reasons for this is because they rely heavily on their fold equity and their potential. You aren't going to usually be in a position where you can shove over someone and get them to fold when you land a huge draw. This isn't to say that this scenario is necessarily desirable, but the opportunity isn't going to present itself regardless. If you can play in pots with solid suited connectors like 8s 9s, you should still do it, but don't expect to win too many massive pots as a result. It can happen as the event progresses, but most players just aren't up for huge pots right away unless it's a cooler type situation.
Big pocket pairs should really speak for themselves. You should be playing these hands and you should be playing them fast. When you get a hand like pocket queens, kings, or aces, your best play is to just raise a fair amount pre-flop and to fire out as many barrels as you can. You need to be careful that you aren't overstepping your boundaries, however, as it can be easy to get caught up in a hand and to overplay it as a result. If you start to face real resistance and there's a good shot that you are behind, just give it up. A benefit to playing the early stages of any tournament is that there's always plenty of time left to go, so there's no need to force anything if it isn't likely to work.
Weak hands just aren't worth playing at all. There are going to be times in tournaments where they do make sense, like when you are short stacked and have to shove in late position hoping for a fold, but they don't really have any place early on in a tournament. You are better off just letting these go until you are absolutely forced to play them, because otherwise it's just a waste of time and chips.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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