Texas Holdem Tournament Strategy
Some of the top professional poker players are able to consistently win while playing both Texas holdem ring games and tournaments. But most players focus on one or the other to maximize their skills and chances for overall profit.
While the basic game and rules are the same, the strategy and skill set is slightly different between the two types of play.
You need to learn how to be a winning Texas holdem player by studying the rules, learning starting hand strengths, learning about pot odds and other basics before you should start trying to use the advanced tournament tactics on this page.
But once you're ready, the tips and tricks listed below can help you transition from an average player to a consistent winner.
In order to develop the best strategy for Texas holdem tournament play you need to understand the structure of the current tournament.
The structure includes the following details:
- How much it costs to buy in
- How many places get paid
- How many players are entered in the tournament
- The size of the starting chips stacks
- How big the blinds are and how often they go up
- How much each place gets paid once you get into the money
How fast the blinds go up is one of the most important things to keep an eye on. In tournaments where the blinds go up quickly you're often forced to take more chances early to avoid getting into a position where the blinds are too high in comparison to your stack.
One way players track their progress is by figuring out how many big blinds or total blinds they have. Once you reach a point where you only have enough for a few circuits you need to start looking for an opportunity to get all your money in the pot for a chance to double up.
On the other hand, tournaments with large starting stacks in comparison to the blinds and a slow blind structure let you sit back and play a slower game.
Your playing style and preferences may help you do better in a fast tournament or a slow tournament, or maybe at this point you don't know. As you improve your skills you'll be able to play both types.
The important thing is to be able to adjust your play based on the current situation.
Of course structure can also refer to no limit, pot limit, and limit play, but the majority of Texas holdem tournaments are no limit. For this reason most of the advice on this page is designed for no limit poker players. Most of the same concepts are easily adapted to limit play.
Texas holdem tournaments are made up of pots of all sizes. Many small pots are spread between the big ones where player push their chips all in.
One mistake that many inexperienced tournament players make is focusing on small pots. While it's true that many small pots add up to the same amount as a big one, the amount you have to risk is often not equal.
To win a large pot you might have to go all in. So to win $1,000 you have to risk $1,000.
But in order to win a small pot you almost always have to risk more than the amount you can win.
If you make a raise to steal the blinds you have to bet at least twice the amount of the big blind, and usually more. So you might have to bet $100 to win $45 in blinds.
Or you have to pay to see the flop and then fire a bet after the flop. Even if everyone folds after the flop you risk a bet half the size of the pot or higher.
From a simple risk versus reward ratio it often costs too much in possible risk for the reward of a small pot in a tournament. You have a limited number of chips and you only have to lose a few of these situations before you end up losing more than you hope to win.
You usually need to win some small pots along the way if you hope to win a tournament, but you have to learn when to take a shot at them and when to avoid the temptation of risking too much.
You should only try to steal the blinds when you have a decent hand that has a chance to win if it has to see the flop. Hands like middle suited connectors and small pairs played from late position when you're the first one in the pot can be profitable. But remember that the blinds have the same chance to land a big hand as you do.
Another situation where small pots can be worth going after is against individual players. It's often hard to get a solid read against opponents you don't know, but sometimes pots are ripe for picking.
Almost any hand where no one raised pre flop that has a non-threatening board is worth considering making an aggressive wager. Often the first player to show aggression takes down the pot.
How many times do you need to double up to get into the money or reach the final table?
In order to answer questions like these you have to break out your math skills. Don't panic though. These are pretty simple math problems, and you can use the calculator on your cell phone to help.
It's simple to calculate the average chip stack needed to get into the money or to reach any other point in the tournament.
Here's an example:
- If 100 players enter a tournament
- Rach player starts with $3,000 in chips
- The total amount of chips in play is $300,000.
The next thing you need to know is how many players get paid.
- When 15 players get paid, the average chip stack will be $20,000 when you reach the money.
- If 10 players get paid the average chip stack will be $30,000 at that time.
You can use the same method to calculate the average stack size for any tournament and or reaching any point in a tournament.
It's the same simple process even if you're playing in a huge tournament.
Here's an example:
- A tournament with 893 entrants pays out the top 80 entrants
- Each player starts with $10,000 in chips.
You want to know what the average chip stack will be to get into the money, to get in the top 20, the top 10, and the top 3.
The first thing you need to do is find out how much the total amount of chips in play is. You multiply 893 entrant times $10,000 each for a total of $8,930,000.
Then you divide this amount by the remaining number of players at each point.
- $8,930,000 divided by 80 = $111,625
- $8,930,000 divided by 20 = $446,500
- $8,930,000 divided by 10 = $893,000
- $8,930,000 divided by 3 = $2,976,667
So why is this information important?
One of the key skills that winning Texas holdem tournament players possess is the ability to understand where they are and where they need to be at every point of the tournament.
If you know you need to double your starting chip stack eight times to get in the money you might decide it's not worth risking 25% of your stack fighting over the blinds that represent 3% of your stack. I realize that for the most part this is good advice in any situation, but risking too much too many times is a sure way to an early exit from the tournament.
This information also gives you a solid idea of where your stack needs to be to reach any point. In the example above with 893 entrants, you need to have around $100,000 to feel pretty safe of being in the money. You need almost a million to feel safe about reaching the final table.
Most poker players have been taught that they need to get in situations where they're the favorite to win. If you do this over and over you'll win more than you lose in the long run.
But in Teas holdem tournaments there's a dark side to this that you have to understand if you're going to be a long term winner.
In a big tournament you'll be forced to put your tournament life at risk numerous times. Of course you always want to enter these situations as a favorite, but even if you do eventually the odds will bite you.
If you get all in before the flop you're never a 100% lock to win. Even pocket aces lose to any other random hand sometimes. When you play pocket aces against a single opponent they win around 85% of the time.
Do you see the problem with winning only 85% of your all in decisions in a tournament?
Even with the best hand possible if you get all in 10 times during a tournament the odds dictate that you're going to lose between one and two times.
Of course if you lose a single all in decision you're out of the tournament.
And the truth is that most of the time you're going to be required to get all in as a smaller favorite than pocket aces.
So how does anyone win a Texas holdem tournament? Is it all luck after all?
If you ask most players if they'd call an all in bet with A A pre flop 10 times in their next tournament they'd quickly say yes. And the truth is you have to be willing to do this because you know you have to double up numerous times to win and this is one of the best opportunities to do so.
But if you want long term success you need to focus on getting your money in when it won't cost you your tournament life if the odds catch up with you or in situations with stronger chances of winning.
I know some of you are saying that there aren't any situations better than pocket aces. If you think about it for a few minutes and take your blinders off you'll start seeing what I mean.
When you have a full house against an opponent's flush you might be able to get all your money in with 100% chance to win. Other hands can play out where you might have over a 90% chance to win.
If you have a bad run of short term variance you won't be able to always avoid risking your entire stack, but the best players do a good job of not getting in situations where they're forced to go all in against a bigger stack.
When you get heads up against a player with a smaller stack even if your all in bet with the better hand loses you'll still have some chips.
Every Chip is Important
Have you ever heard the saying a chip and a chair?
What it means is you still have a chance to win a Texas holdem poker tournament as long as you have a single chip and a seat in the tournament. You can probably even find a few stories about players who've been able to come back and win a tournament after being down to their last chip or few chips.
While it won't happen often, you can go on a streak of doubling up 8 or 10 straight times. If you double up 10 straight times the single chip turns into over 1,000 chips. Most tournaments don't use $1 chips, so if your last chip is worth $100, you'd go from $100 to $100,000.
This is the type of information you need to keep in mind if you want to give yourself the best chance to win.
It's not important that you ever get low on chips and hit a lucky streak and get back in the tournament. What's important is that you never waste a single chip in tournament play.
In ring game play you might risk a chip in a poor situation to set up future play or to keep an opponent honest. If you use certain strategies correctly you'll probably be able to get your chip and more back in the future.
But a tournament has a limited future and most of the times you can't afford to build a long term play in a tournament.
I know this may sound opposite of the advice I gave you above about not fighting for blinds and small pots, but it's not. You always have to weigh the risk versus the possible reward. It's true that the blinds you steal add a few chips to your stack, but you only need to be called by a better hand every once in a while to lose a large portion of your stack.
Exploiting the Bubble
When a tournament gets close to the cut off between finishing out of the money and in the money aggressive players can often take advantage of players who're just trying to sneak into the money.
In an average tournament when its gets close to the cut off over half the players can probably fold every hand until they reach the money. Many of them start playing this way, but the truth is that almost no one can look down at pocket aces, kings, or queens and fold them.
The big stacks can afford to play their good hands and some of the smallest stacks are forced to play any decent hand because the blinds are going to put them all in soon anyway. You don't want to pressure either the small or big stacks without a good hand, but many of the medium sized stacks are in perfect position for you to steal their blinds and small bets.
You still don't want to have poor hands, but above average hands are usually good enough to be played aggressively against the medium stacks on the bubble.
You also need to realize that there's no reason to play aggressively if you're safe and can fold your way into the money. Don't take chances if you're not comfortable. Sit back, wait for your best hands, and take advantage of someone else's aggression if you land kings or aces.
Don't make the mistake of assuming other players don't have a hand when they play aggressively on the bubble. It may seem like they're pushing you around, but just because they're aggressive doesn't mean they have a poor hand. They might have a strong hand.
Are you willing to bet your tournament life on an average hand?
Should you ever fold pocket aces?
This is a common question when talking about getting into the money in a tournament and it's fairly easy to construct a situation where folding them is the best play. The actual question should be should you ever fold pocket aces pre flop?
I've never folded them pre flop and probably never will because any situation I can come up with where the correct play is to fold isn't very realistic.
Usually if you finish just in the money you win somewhere between one and three times your buy in. While this is much better than a loss, if you're able to win the entire tournament you can win 100 times your buy in or more in a large tournament. The prize money for winning, or even reaching the final table, is often many multiples of your buy in.
The World Series of Poker main event is a good example. The entry fee is $10,000 and most years if you reach the final table you're guarantee close to a million.
Folding aces pre flop isn't the way to give yourself the best chance to win. Even if it assures you sneak into the money, the long term advantage of the times you're able to double up outweigh the reduced amount you get from just finishing in the money.
If you didn't enter the tournament to win, why did you enter at all?
Here are a couple situations where the correct play is to fold pocket aces.
The next player to exit the tournament won't win anything but after that everyone finishes in the money. An early player at your table moves all in and a second player calls. Both of these players have bigger stacks than you. In addition, you used your mortgage payment to enter the tournament and you'll lose your house if you don't finish in the money.
Your odds of winning against two random hands are less than 75%, so one out of four times your tournament life will end if you call.
If the payout for finishing in the money is twice your buy in, from a strictly pot odds type discussion you should call every time. You double your money 3 out of 4 times is exactly the type of math you're usually looking for.
But what you're ignoring is you have the chance to win much more than twice your buy in if you move deeper into the money. The best way to improve your chances to win the tournament is triple up. This is an excellent chance to improve your chances to win.
If you hadn't done something foolish like risk your house for a poker tournament you need to make the call in this situation. The results will suck roughly one out of four times, but the other three times will more than make up for it in long term winnings.
An actual straightforward situation where you're mathematically correct to fold pocket aces on the bubble is if five or more opponents are all in. You're no longer a favorite with pocket aces against five opponents.
I've never seen this happen on the bubble in a tournament and doubt I ever will.
But if I'm ever in this situation I'm going to call because when I win my chip stack will put me in a strong position to win the entire tournament.
Once you master the basics of solid Texas holdem play the thing that sets you apart from most players is your ability to add small things to your game and outthink your opponents.
Most of the details on this page involve outthinking your opponents. Once you learn to play smarter than most of the other players you'll quickly see an improvement in your results. Focus on what you've just learned and never stop looking for the extra edge.