Tournament Poker Hands

Playing to Win a Tournament

Poker Tournament Hands"I found out that if you are going to win games,
you had better be ready to adapt." -- Scotty Bowman

One difference between ring game poker and tournament poker is that tournaments are a single unit unto themselves. In ring games, we should play hands in a holistic fashion -- if you do something on the flop, you should be prepared for the various possible consequences of that action on the turn and river. The nature of ring games is each hand is basically a unit unto itself. You (or your opponents) can even quit after any hand. In contrast, the repercussions of tournament action extend much more beyond individual hands. While the basic unit of ring games is the hand, the basic unit of a tournament is the tournament itself.

Watching the end of an online No Limit tournament, Mary had John four to one in chips, and John was playing in a very predictable way. This was bad, but Mary's reaction was almost as bad. She played each hand against John as individual units. In ring games, hands matter. In tournaments, especially No Limit, hands are nothing at all. Mary could lose ten hands in a row, and win the tournament on the eleventh! Since John was playing so predictable, Mary's game should have been focusing on waiting for the best situations to exploit his predictability.

Suppose every time John was on the button, he raised all-in. And then suppose that when he was in the big blind he would never play any hand for a raise except AA. Okay, this is so predictable in the extreme, but notice that some things become plainly obvious. First, Mary should raise the minimum every hand on the button, regardless of what she has. If John reraises her, that means he has AA and she gets away with a minimum loss. Every other time she would win the blinds. Mary should be looking to play for all John's chips whenever she picks up one of the top half dozen or so hands in her big blind. AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AK, AQ... eventually she would get one of these hands, and then she should take on John's all-in raise as a big favorite over a random hand.

What she should not do is call one of his raises with 22 or JT. What she should not do is think "John is stealing my blind without looking at his cards." That particular fact doesn't matter. He is ALWAYS stealing. There is more going on than this one hand. We don't care about that blind, or who wins this hand. We only care about the tournament as a whole.

Unfortunately for most players, they don't see that there is a bigger picture in tournament situations, partly because the bigger picture doesn't really exist in ring games. In ring games you should set up future opportunities, but every ring game hand that you play has a value of its own. Hard currency is exchanged. In tournaments you want to win the LAST hand, and basically couldn't care less about any hand before that.

If you have a head-up opponent playing predictably against you, then you must remember that at all times, not notice it each time it happens! If every time you check your opponent then bets all-in, you should happily check and let him win hand after hand. When you beat him, you win the tournament. You win everything at stake. Those ten pots he won had no actual value at all, because of his predictable play. YOU actually got the value, because his play was predictably exploitable.

The practical application of this is not so easy, but it is something that should be going through your mind at the end of a tournament. The important thing is not that you face a turn bet of $XXXX when you hold JT and the board is KT62. Oftentimes your mind should focus on a hand that will be played three or five or ten hands from now. Do not do what maximizes your potential in this hand. Do the action that maximizes your potential in the tournament.

Winning hands is not your goal. Winning tournaments is.

More on the difference between ring games and tournaments