Too loose, too tight, not aggressive enough, ineffective bet sizing.
The list of common mistakes beginners make when playing poker tournaments is pretty lengthy.
Avoid those mistakes, though, and your results in poker tournaments will improve immediately.
Keep these four points in mind when playing in any poker tournament and you’ll see dramatically better results.
1. Be As Tight As Possible in the Early Stages
Many poker players play way too many hands during the early stages of a tournament.
Sure, you’ve got plenty of chips and you can afford to see a lot of flops in hopes of hitting big with your small pairs or suited connectors.
But in the long run this is a losing play. Just because you have a lot of chips you’re not obligated to spew them away with weak hands.
Calling a preflop raise with a hand like seven-six is rarely a good investment. You’re not going to hit a big hand like two pair or a straight often enough to justify calling before the flop.
If you’re a beginner, it’s possible you’re going to misplay a weak hand even more after the flop. It’s quite possible for you to hit a very expensive second-best hand and lose a lot of chips.
During the early stages of a tournament you’re playing with very deep stacks – often more than 100 big blinds. Inexperienced players tend to make a lot of mistakes when the stacks are deep.
What you want during this stage are cards that are easy to play and have a good chance to be best when going to showdown. You want cards like these:
- Big pairs: You’re either going to hit an overpair which will usually be best or you’re going to hit a second or third pair which can easily be discarded.
- Ace King / Ace Queen: You’re either going to hit top pair with an excellent kicker or you’re going to hit nothing.
- Medium and small pairs: You’re either going to hit a set or you’re going to have a worthless hand.
All those hands have one thing in common: After the flop you usually know very well where you stand. That’s something you usually don’t know when playing weaker hands.
Take a hand like Sure you might hit top pair on a flop – but there are still a lot ways for you to be beat (e.g. against an overpair, a better kicker or a set) and it might be very expensive to find out whether you’re ahead or not.
During the early stages of a tournament you should just lean back, play your monster hands, relax, get some reads on your opponents and enjoy the atmosphere.
A lot of professional poker players even take it so far as to skip the first levels of a tournament entirely. While they might take a pass on some possible profits they also take a pass on the risk of losing their entire stack during those early levels.
A healthy stack during the later stages of a tournament is worth much more than a slightly bigger stack with the risk of elimination.
2. Rev It Up Once the Antes Arrive
After the early levels almost all tournaments start to introduce antes. These are forced bets (usually one-tenth of a big blind) which every player has to put into the pot before the hand starts.
Once those antes come into play, you should start widening your ranges and play looser before the flop.
The reason is simple: with antes in play there are more chips to be won. By that time stacks are also usually somewhat shallow so winning the blinds and antes will often bolster your stack considerably.
Let’s take a look at a straightforward example: You’re in the fourth level of a tournament (still without antes) with 5,000 chips and 100/200 blinds.
You’re at the button with it’s folded you and you contemplate stealing the blinds with your rather weak holding. If you succeed you’ll earn 300 chips. This is equal to 6% of your stack – definitely nice.
But is worth risking being reraised (and forced to fold) for this gain?
Now let’s take a look at the same situation with antes. While the blinds remain the same now every player has contributed 25 chips to pot.
Thus in total there are 550 chips to be won. A successful steal now increases your stack by 11% – making it much more worthwhile to try and steal the pot.
That’s why you should try to steal more pots before the flop once antes come into play: Even winning small pots usually means your stack increases substantially.
When considering stealing the blinds and antes you don’t only consider your cards but also your position at the table and the way the players behind you are playing.
If you’re in late position and nobody has entered the pot you might get away with a lot of steal attempts with weak holdings — especially if the players behind you are very tight.
During the early phases of a tournament it was correct to play very, very tight because you had a deep stack (compared to the blinds). But the more the blinds increase, the less it is correct to play too tight.
If your stack equals 100 big blinds you can fold for an hour and you won’t lose that many chips. But with only 15 big blinds in your stack and antes in play you’ll be blinded out after an hour.
You have to loosen up and be aggressive in the later stages of a tournament or the blinds will just eat you alive.
3. Good Poker is Aggressive Poker
No matter the stage of the tournament aggressive play is almost always the better play.
You don’t limp, you raise. You don’t call, you re-raise. You don’t check the flop, you bet.
The one doing the betting is the one wearing the pants and the one with the best chance to make a deep run.
There’s a very simple reason why aggressive poker is more successful poker: The player who calls can only win by having the best hand. The player who bets can win by having the best hand or by making his opponents fold.
By no means does inviting you to play aggressively mean you should spew your chips like there’s no tomorrow. It just means that when you decide to play a hand, you should also play it aggressively.
If you’re the one doing the betting, you’re the one deciding how much to bet and you’re the one shaping the play on the flop, turn and river.
A good exercise for any poker player is to play one tournament without ever calling unless it’s an all-in. You only fold or raise.
Interestingly this approach (while certainly not optimal) will often times yield much better results than playing without ever raising – an approach many beginners tend to take.
4. Small Bets with Big Chips
Many amateur players get their bet sizes very wrong in the later stages of a tournament, which can be very costly.
Many players open up with a pot-sized bet or make it 3 (or even 4) big blinds when raising first in. While this is fine and dandy during the early stages of a tournament, it’s considered a rather huge mistake in the later stages when the stacks are shallow.
Once you’re in the middle-to-late stages of a tournament you should make your open raises only slightly bigger than the minimum raise.
For example with 2k/4k blinds you don’t raise to 12k, but to 8k or 8.5k.
The reason is plain and simple: with shallow stacks a small raise accomplishes almost the same as a bigger raise but is less risky.
During the late stages of a tournament you are usually stealing the blinds or are re-stealing against other stealers and most of the time your cards are rather weak. You want to minimize the damage to your stack when being caught and thus you raise small.
While it’s true that you’ll give your opponents grandiose odds (especially to the player in the big blind) you’ll find that once the stacks are shallow enough most players don’t care about odds anymore but simply want to conserve their stacks.
And they’re right to do so because usually it’s better to keep a somewhat healthy stack than to risk part of it in a dubious endeavour.
Also: Small raises give you more leeway for future plays in the hand. Let’s say you have 15 big blinds and a speculative hand like in late position.
If you open up with a raise to 4 big blinds you’re basically pot committed. Should someone behind you push all-in you’ll either have to call with a weak hand (because you’re getting the proper odds) or you’ll have to fold and forfeit a quarter of your stack.
Both alternatives suck and both can be avoided by just raising to 2 big blinds. Now you’re not pot committed and avoid potential headaches.
Raising too big before the flop in the later stages of a tournament is probably the number one mistake beginners make and it’s extremely lucrative to exploit those mistakes.
Very often those players put in 40% of their stack before the flop but fold to an all-in move. That is, regardless of their hand, a tremendous mistake. Don’t do it!
TLDR Edition: Tournament Tips For Beginners
Play tight during the early stages and don’t jeopardize your stack with expensive second-best hands Loosen up in the middle and late stages and steal the blinds and antes, even with weak holdings. When playing a hand, play it aggressively. Only call (instead of folding or raising) if you absolutely have to! Don’t raise too big in the late stages, min-raises are perfectly fine.