Texas Holdem Sit and Go Tournament Strategy
Texas holdem sit and go tournaments are one table poker tournaments that can usually be completed in less than an hour. The most popular variation is no limit Texas holdem, but you can also play limit and pot limit at some rooms.
While a few land based casinos have started offering sit and go tournaments, the majority of them are played online. Some poker rooms offer two or three table tournaments, but the traditional sit and go is a one table event with 9 or 10 players.
A common payout structure for a 10 seat game is 5 times the buy in for first, 3 times the buy in for second, and 2 times the buy in for third.
Here's an example:
In a sit and go tournament where the buy in is $100 plus $10, the first place finisher wins $500, second wins $300, and third wins $200.
In a tournament with 9 players instead of 10 a common payout for first is $450, second place gets $270, and third place wins $180.
If you're going to be a long term profitable sit and go Texas holdem player you need to know your break-even point.
It's helpful to understand exactly how many times you have to finish in the money and how many times you need to finish at certain positions in order to break even in the long run.
In the long run you should finish in each of the first three positions roughly the same amount of times. While this isn't 100% true for every player, it's close enough to get an idea for calculating how often you need to get in the money to break even.
We find it easier to visualize and understand if we base all of my long term projections and calculations on 100 events. So in this example we're using a buy in of $100 plus $10 over 100 sit and go tournaments.
Our total cost of entry is $110 times 100 for a total of $11,000.
For a 10 person table the average win spread over the three top spots is $333.33 when you get into the money. So you have to get in the money 33 out of 100 time in order to break even. You get this number by dividing $11,000 by $333.33.
If you're playing at a 9 seat table the average win is $300, so you need to finish in the money 37 times to finish slightly better than break even. 36.67 times is the actual break-even point.
A good goal is to finish in the money 40% of the time.
- When you finish in the money 40% of the time, your profit in the first example is $2,333 per 100 tournaments. This works out to $23.33 per tournament.
- In the second example 40% works out to $1,000 per tournament, or $10 per tournament.
Realize that with one fewer entrant in the second example it reduces your average win rate if you finish in the money the same percentage of the time, but it also makes it easier to reach the same percentage.
To make the same amount per tournament on average at a 9 seat table as a 10 seat table you need to finish in the money 44.44% of the time instead of 40%.
In the Money
Of course the goal is to finish in the money in every Texas holdem tournament you enter, but figuring out what it takes at each stage of the tournament can involve a few more calculations.
It helps to understand how many chips you need to finish in the top three spots in a sit and go. Many tournaments start with stacks of $1,000 so it's easy to determine the average stack size for the final three.
Of course you only need a single chip to get into the top three, but by using the average you can quickly determine where you stand at any point in the tournament.
- In a 10 seat sit and go each player will have an average of $3,333 when the field is reduced to three players.
- In a 9 person tournament each player will have an average of $3,000 chips.
When you find yourself in a position with over $2,000 in chips with four players remaining you're in decent shape, but you can't afford to let down or make any big mistakes. If you're in the same position with $4,000 or more in chips you can usually slow down and only play your best hands.
This information also gives you a good idea of how many times you need to double up to get where you need to be. You might start feeling pressed when you get down to $500 chips, but you only need to double up twice to get to $2,000.
Even if you're down to $200 in chips you only have to double up three times to get to $1,600.
The blinds force action in sit and go tournaments just like in ring games and multi table tournaments, but they force action faster in sit and go's.
The blinds go up quickly so you have to play aggressively early in order to build a large enough stack to survive until you get into the money.
We've seen many players complain that sit and go tournaments are reduced to luck because of this, but it's simply not true. The best poker players win more often than poor players in the long run, so it can't all be about luck.
Skill is what determines sit and go winners, not luck.
What you have to do is adjust your game so you take the rising blinds into account.
Reducing Players and Hand Strength
Another interesting thing that happens while you play sit and go tournaments is the number of players goes down as the tournament progresses so the relative hand strength changes.
Few poker players are able to play their best game at both a 10 person table and a 6 person table, but a sit and go combines both of these as well as short hand play that ends with heads up combat.
Hand strengths change depending on how many players remain. Here are some examples:
If you get a pair of kings at the table with 9 other players, they have 18 of the 50 remaining unseen cards. 4 of those cards are aces. This means that the odds are that at least one of them has an ace in their hand.
When you get a pair of kings and only have 3 opponents they only have 6 of the remaining 50 cards so it's much less likely one of them holds an ace.
Of course a pair of kings is a strong starting hand in any situation, but if an ace lands on the flop you can judge how likely an opponent is to have one in both situations.
With a full table a pair of nines from early position should usually be folded, but when the table is three or four handed it becomes a strong starting hand from any position.
Any hand that contains an ace also greatly improves in value as the tournament goes on. You don't want to play aces with poor kickers at a full table but with three players they're usually strong hands.
Two Distinct Strategies Plus a Bonus
Most successful players use one of two different strategies.
The first strategy is folding all but your best hands until you're forced to play because the blinds are getting too high. When you do enter a hand you play aggressively, usually over betting, in an attempt to get all in every time you play. This gives you a chance to double up with your best hands until you get a large enough chip stack that you can adjust your play until you get into the money.
If you play in sit and go tournaments with many of the same players over and over a few of them may get wise to this strategy and stop giving you action early in the tournament. But most players don't pay attention and will give you action on most hands.
This strategy works well for many players, but the key is learning how to value starting hands while you have an average stack and when you get low and are forced to play because of the blinds.
The mistake many players make is losing patience and playing hands that aren't as good as they need to be or jump into a pot before they have to.
If you have enough chips to pay the blinds for three more rounds you have plenty of time to pick up a good hand to make a move with.
We've seen players push with middle suited connectors and small pairs at this point, and it isn't a good play. If you're down to your final round of blinds you can play these hands, but you don't need to before.
When we're looking for a hand to push with when we get short stacked in addition to the top normal hands here's a list of the types of hands, somewhat in order from best to worst, that we want.
- Any hand with an ace, but suited is better
- Medium pairs, 7 and above
- Any two face cards
- Any king with a suited second card
- Suited queen
The other winning strategy is playing a wider range of hands with high aggression from the beginning of the tournament. The idea is to bully the table and steal many blinds and small bets.
If the table lets you play this style you may be able to build enough of a stack that when one of your opponents lands a strong hand you'll have enough to take the loss and continue playing.
One main problem with this style is you rely on too much luck early to stay in the game and not run up against a big hand.
More players are successful playing the first style than the second, but some players are good enough to make money with the second style.
Successful players who use the second strategy are really good at using their position, stack size, and knowledge of the other players and situations at every point in the tournament.
A third strategy is an all-in system. The basic concept is every time you play a hand you move all in until you reach the money. Once you reach the money you usually adjust your play to maximize your chances of winning.
The reason we list the third strategy as a bonus instead of three different strategies is because the first and third strategy are similar. This strategy stems from a multi table Texas holdem tournament strategy that can be used to give an inexperienced player a chance.
An inexperienced player is given a list of starting hands and they fold everything not on the list and move all in with anything on the list. It's not a long term profitable play in multi table tournaments, but with some thought and practice it can work at some levels of sit and go play.
Notice that all of the strategies discussed here are based on aggressive play. The blinds go up too fast for passive play to be profitable in the long run. You have to play in an aggressive manner if you hope to turn a long term profit at the Texas holdem sit and go tables.
Just like Texas holdem ring games, the competition gets better as the buy ins go up in sit and go tournaments. This isn't always true in multi table tournaments.
At the lower buy in levels you can usually turn a profit by playing solid poker, remaining tight and aggressive, and focusing on not doing anything stupid. As you start playing for higher stakes the competition gets better, but most tables will still have a few poor players. At the top buy in levels the overall competition is much better, but you'll still see a few players who don't seem to know what they're doing.
During the online poker boom when Party Poker was the biggest poker room in the world you could play in many low limit sit and go tournaments, with buy in levels of $10 plus $1 or so, and simply fold everything except high pocket pairs and get into the money enough times to break even or turn a small profit.
The games were filled with poor players and all you had to do was be patient. We distinctly remember playing in a few games where we didn't play a single hand until we were in the money.
Things have changed and you have to play a few hands even at the lowest levels today, but the same basic concept still seems to work well. Be patient, focus on your best hands early, and play solid ABC poker.
At the higher levels you have to combine solid poker fundamentals with knowledge of the other players. The top buy in levels have a much smaller number of regular players so you need to start building a database of information about them as soon as you start playing. You need to be able to exploit playing tendencies and poor playing decisions at this level if you want to win enough to overcome the rake.
The rake is the extra add on instead of a charge per hand. In a $10 plus $1 sit and go tournament, the $1 is the rake, or fee the poker room collects.
Texas holdem sit and go tournaments require a different set of advanced skills than larger tournaments and ring games, but they can be quite profitable if you're willing to learn the best strategy.
Even if you're an experienced Texas holdem player, try your hand at the lower buy in levels until you grasp the subtle strategy adjustments you need to make. Remember that it could take hundreds of tournaments to get a real picture of your success. Don't be in a hurry to move up to the next level until you're convinced you're playing winning poker.