I have been playing poker since I was five years old. At that time, my grandfather taught me how to play. He would crush me every time, but that made me a stronger player. When the poker boom hit, I switched from traditional poker games to Hold ‘em, otherwise known as No Limit Texas Hold ‘em, NLHE, or NL. I also played some Fixed Limit.
The majority of my play was focused on cash games (ring games) because the blinds never move. I did well in these games, and I began to play in some tournaments at Harrah’s Cherokee. Thanks to a weak field, my ITM% (in the money percentage) was just shy of 40%. This is strong since only 10% of players make the money in a poker tournament.
After seeing so much success in those tournaments, I decided to raise the stakes and see how I would do in WSOP Circuit events. This has been a recent endeavor, and I don’t travel the circuit. My play is limited to one Circuit stop at Harrah’s Cherokee. However, I did make a short trip to Vegas last year, and I plan on doing so this year.
I’ll get to the point. While I admit to not being an expert tournament player, I’m always learning and improving. I also think that my limited exposure to the WSOP Circuit events has led to decent results. Since I play under a different name, I have rounded up the # of entries below:
1st of 100
14th of 2,500
105 of 670
11th of 560
50th of 1,400
22nd of 700
These aren’t extraordinary results, but they at least indicate that I’m a threat in any poker tournament. I’m sharing the information in this book for free. If you would like more detailed information, I would highly recommend Poker Notes, Poker Blog, and The Perfect Range. If you would like to read a poker story, then I would highly recommend The Dark Side of the Felt, A Fishy Poker Tournament, Felt Hopper: Florida, and/or The Poker Office. For now, let’s get to those poker tournament secrets.
Secret #1: Climb the Pay Ladder
Most poker players fail to understand the importance of the pay ladder when in the money. Instead, they continue to play their cards as if they were playing in a cash game. That is 100% wrong. In fact, when you’re in the money, the pay ladder is more important than your cards, and you should pay a lot more attention to it.
For example: You have 35,000 chips and the blinds are currently 1,000/2,000. You have 17.5 Big Blinds. A lot of people will begin to shove their chips into the middle when they’re under 20 Big Blinds. That might make sense in theory, but in reality, they’re not paying attention. Don’t be that person!
Look around and gather all the imperative information. If you were knocked out right now, you would net $250. Not bad, but certainly not the reason we play poker. Do you really want to shove with a marginal hand and risk netting $250 after you invested the entire day (or more)? Did you happen to notice that there are two stacks shorter than you at your table? And that’s only at your table. There are three other tables running. Do you really think ALL of these players will dodge being felted? Even if they’re not aggressive, at least one of them will fall victim to the blinds (and antes if applicable). If three more people get knocked out before you, then you’re going to move up the pay ladder, possibly by several hundred dollars. And if you hang around that long, then you might have a shot at several thousand dollars, or more!
In other words, at this stage of a tournament, the objective isn’t to play poker on the felt, but to play poker with the clock, blinds, and pay ladder. Sit back and take fewer risks. As you do, you will watch other players blowup. I promise. I have seen this happen to some of the best players in the world. If you’re patient, they WILL get knocked out, and you will make more money.
Secret #2: You Didn’t Have to Call There
Why did you have to call there? Because you had AK-off and your opponent shoved pre-flop?
I see this nonsense all the time. It makes no sense. I recently asked one very well-known poker player about their opinion on playing AK-off pre-flop late in a tournament. Most people would shove and hope for the best. This person’s answer made perfect sense: “I’m going to be aggressive pre-flop, but I’m not going to get married to it. If I get a caller and miss the flop, I’m going to cut my losses immediately before I end up in trouble.”
Simplicity is brilliance. Think of it this way. If someone four-bet you pre-flop and you’re holding AK, what is the best-case scenario? The best-case scenario is that you’re flipping against a pair of QQ of lower. The worst-case scenario is that you’re up against AA. You might also be up against KK. The scenario that you’re hoping for is possible but highly unlikely, which is that you’re up against AQ, AJ, AT, KQ, or KJ.
You never have to call. If you want to be a winning tournament player, then chip preservation should be your first priority. Avoid coin flips as much as possible. You want to outplay your opponents, not flip a coin. However, there is an exception to this rule. If you’re a weaker player (this is fine), then you want to take the skill aspect out of the equation and shove as much as possible vs. stronger players late in a tournament. They won’t want to call because they know they’re stronger and want to wait for a better spot, which will give you an edge.
Secret #3: Spot Cash Game Players
Cash game players have a tendency to play WAY more hands than professional tournament players when playing in a tournament. This leads to one of two scenarios:
Scenario 1: They play too loose and lose all of their chips quickly.
Scenario 2: They play LAG (loose-aggressive) early and build a massive chip stack.
Let’s ignore Scenario 1 because it won’t impact us. In Scenario 2, we want to sit back and wait for this player to make errors, which they most certainly will. I don’t care if your Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey, Doug Polk, or Stu Ungar. If you play too many hands in a poker tournament, you will be increasing variance to a degree that you can’t handle.
In most situations, the cash game player will give his chips away to other players at the table (odds are they don’t go to you) by attempting to outplay everyone and putting themselves in –EV spots (-expected value spots).
It’s absolutely imperative that you don’t fall into the trap of becoming impatient and try to force the action so you can accumulate some of those chips. This would be a very bad idea. Remember, a good cash game player wants to outplay you. Therefore, that player isn’t going to fold often. The best way to get their chips is to sit back and wait for the right spot. They will pay you off.
It’s possible that you will be put in a spot where you must make a tough call. Against these players, if they place a big bet on the river, it’s usually a bluff. They’re playing poker “by the book,” which means they’re almost always going to bet for value on the river if they’re holding strength. Use this information to your advantage and call those big bets, but ONLY against LAG players, which are often cash game players.
Secret #4: Watch How They Stack Their Chips
This one is plain and simple. When you first sit down, watch how other players arrange their chips. Did they put the most valuable chip on top of their stack or in front of it? If so, this is an experienced player. If the tournament begins and someone has left their most valuable chip at the bottom of their stack, then they’re likely an inexperienced player.
If it’s early in the tournament and you see someone stack their chips by color right next to one another so they can easily grab three chips and make it $1,125, then they’re likely an experienced player. On the other hand, if you see someone stack their chips five-high and they’re taking up a lot of space because they have so many stacks, then they’re likely a fish.
Against a strong player, you want to tread carefully. At the same time, they’re easier to bluff. Just don’t bluff often. Only when the time is right. Against a weaker player, you also want to tread carefully, but in a different way. They’re more likely to call value bets when you have strength, so keep betting when you think you’re ahead. DO NOT try to bluff these players. They are much more likely to call you.
NOTE: Some very advanced psychological players will send fake tells. One example is to purposely stack their chips like a fish. While this is possible, it’s extremely rare and the threat of it should pretty much be ignored. Most strong players want to focus on the game opposed to getting involved in that stuff.
Secret #5: Do They Play Hands out of Position?
A good tournament player won’t play many hands out of position. A bad tournament player will be impatient and raise from UTG (Under the Gun) with a hand like QJ or 22. If you see someone playing like this, make a mental note that it’s only a matter of time before they lose all their chips. This will be correct 99% of the time. Therefore, you want to wait for the right moment. If that player is raising often, don’t go to the game, let the game come to you.
In other words, don’t call their raise with JT-off with five players behind you. That’s suicide. Wait until you’re in late position and you wake up with something stronger, such as KQ-suited or better. This is a very playable hand against a loose cannon.
Despite the fact that you have been playing tight the entire time, this player is unlikely to fold. In fact, they might bet into you regardless of the flop texture. This is your moment. You want to maximize your winnings on this hand. I can’t tell you exactly how to play it because every opponent is different, but this information should at least give you a head start.
Secret #6: Player Makes Change for the Dealer
The antes kick in and everyone is throwing in green $25 chips. However, there will usually be one or two people who don’t have any green chips, so they toss in a black $100 chip and wait for the dealer to make change. In most cases, this is how it will play out, but not always. If you see someone quickly make change for the dealer to move the game along, this is likely a professional player.
Yes, it’s very easy to make change for $100. That’s not the point. The point is that this person has the confidence to make change for the dealer. A newbie is NEVER going to do that. The person making change has likely had a lot of experience playing in tournaments, and you should make a mental note of it.
Secret #7: Establish a Tight Image
This is an oldie but goodie. In fact, it’s so important that it needs to be repeated as much as possible. When you get to the middle levels of a tournament, there is going to be a spot where you need to bluff and get away with it in order to take down a big pot. Winning or losing that pot will often mean the difference between cashing and a DNC (Did Not Cash).
In order to greatly increase your odds of getting away with this bluff, you must have a tight image. Translation for those who are new to the game: You must play few hands and only show premium cards when there is a showdown on the river. This will send a message to other players that you don’t mess around. They will notice this trend, and it will work in your favor down the road. If your opponent views you as a tight player who only plays premium cards, then they’re much more likely to fold. When you’re in that big pot and you miss that draw, you’re going to want to stab at it.
Secret #8: Don’t Mess with the Chip Leader
This should be obvious, but we all make mistakes – including me! Did you see that 50th of 1,400 in the introduction? Yeah … that could have been a lot more lucrative. I probably cost myself tens of thousands of dollars by deciding to go to battle with the chip leader that day.
Going up against the chip leader is almost never a good idea, simply because it’s difficult to make a strong hand in No Limit Hold ‘em. Since it’s difficult to make a hand, you’re usually going to find yourself in a difficult spot. Remember, the pot is a dangerous place to be in this game. Why would you want to be in a dangerous place against someone that can deliver your tournament death?
The only way you want to play against the chip leader is when you’re absolutely certain you have the winner, or at least when you’re ahead. You can also make a strong argument for set mining. Otherwise, avoid the chip leader.
Secret #9: Avoid Positive Tilt
Most players don’t know what this means, so don’t worry, you’re not alone. Positive tilt refers to accumulating a lot of chips and feeling like you’re invincible, which then leads to you donking those chips off. In fact, this negative momentum often leads to you giving back what you recently won as well as the remainder of your chips. Once that snowball begins rolling down that enormous mountain, it’s almost impossible to stop.
If you’re honest with yourself and you know that you have a tendency to get emotional while playing, then you can avoid this scenario by walking away from the table. Go grab a water, make a phone call, text someone, go to the bathroom, or simply take a short walk.
I know what you’re thinking. You won’t want to leave when you’re running good. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Play your heater for what it’s worth. After losing your first hand while on that heater, get up and walk away. This will lock in those profits and prevent you from going on positive tilt. You will come back level-headed, which is exactly where you want to be. Good poker is like an out-of-body experience, and you can’t experience that if you’re emotional.
Secret #10: Buy-In Late
I saved the best poker tournament secret for last. I used to think that buying-in late to a tournament was a stupid idea. I couldn’t have been more wrong. A few points here:
- Most tournaments these days are reentries. If you buy-in late—right before registration closes—then you eliminate the possibility of rebuying. This will save you tons of bullets over the course of your career. And who knows what you can do with those bullets! Most tournament poker players go broke because of rebuys. Therefore, simply avoid rebuys. This is not complicated yet so many people attempt to complicate the game. Remember, the smartest players play the game beyond the felt.
- If you buy-in late, then you’re never going to go out early. Look at this from a very simple standpoint: The later you buy-in, the closer you are to the money.
- When you register late, you’re going to come in at a decent blind level. This is good news because you will play disciplined opposed to being tempted to messing around with low blind levels early, which can get you into a lot of trouble.
- Most people at the table won’t know how you play. A huge advantage.
- You will have saved time and energy. Poker tournaments run long, and you need all the energy you can muster. If you wait 1-4 hours to sit down, you will have saved energy. You can use that time to relax, exercise, or eat a good meal. These are all positives prior to a poker tournament.
I hope this information has helped you become a strong tournament player. If you apply these tactics, you should see improved results. Feel free to send me a Friend request on Facebook. I might be over the limit, but you can still follow the page. It has become somewhat of a mix between a poker forum, updates on my books, and silly stuff not related to poker.
If you would like to read one of poker books, simply scroll up and click on the button that reads: “Check Out Tyler’s Books.” Hope you enjoy!
My Poker Books:
A Fishy Poker Tournament
The Dark Side of the Felt
The Perfect Range
The Poker Office
Felt Hopper: Florida