The Fox and the Farmer

Limit Hold'em Tournament Strategy

Holdem TournamentsWritten by Chuck Thompson in 1993, the basic principles remain true as ever. Thanks to Chuck for letting me reprint it.

Long distance runners will tell you there is a certain point in a marathon, around the eighteenth mile, when a participant reaches "the wall". At this critical stage of the twenty-six mile race, the athletes who can deal with the wall separate themselves from those who fall victim to it. It's a when-the-going-gets-tough-the-tough-get-going sort of thing.

A typical table of players in a Limit Hold'em tournament will start out playing tight. Halfway through the first limit level, as players become more acclimated, play will loosen up and begin to resemble an ordinary $20/40 game. As weaker players are eliminated and the tournament moves into the third limit level, the table play will toughen up and become the equivalent to a $30/60 game. In the fifth level, the play will be like a very tough $75/150 game.

It's in the seventh level that you reach the wall. Only fifteen percent of the field remains in contention. Half the remaining players will finish in the money; the other half will have put in a long exhausting day for nothing. At the wall, the average amount of chips in front of each player is about five and a half large bets.

About seventy percent of the remaining players are farmers, bent on protecting what they have and trying to figure out a way to finish in the money. The other thirty percent are foxes, energetic speedsters out to steal from the farmers and the other foxes. The foxes, many of whom have familiar winner-circle names, will not be thinking about finishing in the money. They will be thinking about winning the tournament.

The Limit Hold'em tournament started with ninety percent farmers and ten percent foxes. Those farmers who have managed to reach the wall have had more than their share of good luck. The foxes, with their aggressive style and tournament savvy, tend to make their own luck. They have held only average cards but have stolen their way to the wall.

The pots that the foxes have stolen in getting to the wall are peanuts compared to the pots they will now steal at the wall and beyond. A typical table at the wall will be so snug that three out of four hands dealt will have no flop. The foxes will be in fox heaven picking up blind after blind. Each set of blinds represents three-quarters of a large bet, a significant amount when added to an average holding of only five and a half large bets.

When the final cut is made (around the ninth limit level) and the remaining players are all in the money, half the field will be foxes. There will be a huge sigh of relief from the farmers who have made the final cut. The foxes will now be slightly more on guard lest some of the farmers, who are now in the comfort zone, begin playing out of character and splashing their chips. This guarded period will be a short-lived one, and soon the foxes will be back to their stealing ways.

When the tournament is down to the final four players, usually there will be three foxes and one lucky farmer. If the farmer's luck can hold for another hour or so, he just might win his first tournament.

Back to the wall. If you've reached the wall, either through extraordinary luck or through some foxy play combined with good luck, you now have to decide whether you are going to be a farmer or a fox.

It is hoped that you will be at a table of mostly farmers. Your first job is to notice how many chips are in front of the players who have the blinds. If either of these players is nearly all in, you'll need a fairly decent hand to raise the pot. Also, if either of these players previously has shown a tendency to call in the blinds with a weak holding, then you'll need an even better hand to raise, regardless of how many chips the players has in front of him.

Second, look at your own chips. For you to be a fox, you should not let your chips fall below three and a half big bets, the amount of chips necessary to raise before the flop and still have full compliment of bets for the remaining streets. It's not that you intend to use all these chips. Your hope is that nobody calls. But you need to have the chips so that your would-be opponent knows he can't run you down cheaply. In other words, if you have just three and one half bets, you should be willing to make your steal-raise with a weaker hand, simply because you must take the initiative in order to keep your chips up and survive another round of blinds. This is where theme song from Damn Yankees becomes meaningful: "You Gotta Have Heart."

And foxes have heart -- lots of it. If you think making an opening raise with a poor hand is not worth the risk, since you are so close to being in the money and you might pick up pocket aces the very next hand and win a monster pot, then you are thinking like a farmer. If your chips get down to just a couple of large bets or less, you can no longer be a fox; you will have to hope you can pick up a decent hand since a confrontation is likely.

Don't let the early positions scare you. You can be a little more selective, but you simply must make your move if you have borderline fox chips. This is particularly true if you have a fox or two on your right, because these foxes will be stealing in front of you, diminishing your late position opportunities.

If a farmer raises in an early position -- heaven forbid -- you need a fantastic hand to confront him. If a fox raises in an early position, you will still want to have a very strong hand to take him on. Even if you are certain you have a better hand than the fox, you may very well be out-flopped or outplayed. However, if this fox is stealing so often that you don't get a chance to steal, then you are simply going to have to confront him, even with something as weak as A9 or KT. If you do confront him, you must reraise and take the lead. You want to give yourself your best chance of winning the pot if you both have nothing.

When you are doing the stealing, you would like to have a hand with some showdown quality, such as Ax or 33. But when you consider the likelihood that you will win the blinds without a confrontation, it really doesn't matter much what you hold. The fact that you raised is much more important than what you raised with.

While you are gaining confidence and becoming more and more fox-like, and the field is getting smaller and smaller, you might hear some farmers telling bad-beat stories to each other on the rail. In most cases these stories will be about some maniac (fox) who raised the blinds in center field with an 8c5c and took out the farmer's pocket kings to eliminate him from the tournament.

Sure, the fox "got lucky." But remember: This is the wall! The rules are different here. Anybody who sits around waiting for AA, KK or AK at the wall has very little chance of succeeding.

Funny thing about Hold'em... any two cards can win!

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