Tournament Play vs. Cash Game Play

Continued from: Moving Beyond the Fundamentals

There is another factor that must be considered when playing strategically correct poker. The difference between correct tournament poker and cash games is much greater than it may seem. It took me a long time to realize the difference, but I think that may make it easier for me to explain it. When we play cash games, assuming we have a sufficient bankroll (and if we don't, we should play lower stakes), we should be willing to push even very small edges and not be afraid to move all-in as only a small favorite to win a pot.

Tournament Poker Play

If you have about a 1 in 3 chance of filling a flush and it costs your last 800 dollars in play to make the call, you should call as long as the pot is offering you better (even slightly better) than 3 to 1 on your money. You should also not mind calling all-in with a pocket pair smaller than your opponent's AK for instance. Any time you have a pocket pair and your opponent has two cards that are larger than your pair, you are a small favorite to win the hand. Usually, about 52% to win. Therefore, you have a slightly positive EV (estimated value) on your play. This is what I mean by "pushing a small edge". If you can get all your money in with the best hand in a cash game, you should rarely pass on the opportunity. If you lose, you can just pull more money out of your pocket and continue.

That example, I hope, outlines one of the differences of tourney and cash game play. In a cash game you don't mind being bad beat for all the money in front of you since you can reload and hope you get the chance to get it all-in with the best of it again.

In tournament play, it's not that simple. In tournament poker you can't just reload and look for another chance to get all your money in with the best hand, as a matter of fact you want to avoid getting all of your money in the middle in tourneys. Any time all your money goes in the middle, you could go broke. Even if you think you are probably a favorite to win a hand, you wont always call for most or your entire stack. You will commonly look for big edges and push those. Phil Hellmuth says that he has folded pocket kings before the flop several times when there are multiple players in the pot who moved and called all-in. I'm not advocating that strategy at the amateur levels, but it's not hard to see why a top level pro would not want to "gamble". If he was pretty sure he could out play his opponents, why take a chance for an ace to come out and end his tournament career? Besides, he could have been up against aces and been a dog in the hand. Personally, I'm not savvy enough to get away from KK before the flop. If the aces get me, they get me, but I'm not a world champion poker player either. So one thing to remember when switching to tourney poker is to not push small edges.

In tournament play you should look for great, not good, spots to get your money in and weak players to enter pots with. Another big difference in tourney poker vs. cash games is that people are more willing to gamble in cash poker games than in tourneys. They tend to play more conservatively in tournament style games, even at low stakes. This is something you have to take into consideration when moving from one format to another. The main reason that tournament poker is so much different than cash game poker is due to the pay out structure. You have to remember that most tourneys pay out a percentage of the total field, sometimes as high as 10 % or more. What that means in terms of EV is that tournament EV is somewhat different than cash game EV. I can't overemphasize the importance of this. We still want to win pots; we just have to stay focused first on survival and look for clearly good spots to get involved. Tourney EV and cash game EV is different, but I don't want to make it more complicated than it is.

Let me just say this: in a tournament the player that finishes in first place has successfully captured every single chip in the entire tournament. He has them all. Imagine winning every single chip in a casino and going to cash out and they tell you that you only get to keep half the money. They're going to give some of your money to the players you beat later on in the session. You're probably not going to be real thrilled with this. But in a tournament that is essentially what happens. The player who finishes in first place has won every chip in play but will be lucky to receive 50% of the money. What this means in terms of game theory is that the player who wins is penalized, so to speak, for winning and those players who lost all their money the latest are rewarded for surviving longer than the other players.

If a tournament was played in a "winner takes all" structure there would be very little reason to deviate from cash game strategy, but for a number of reasons illustrated here, we can see that proper tourney play puts extra emphasis on survival. You are rewarded for losing your chips later than others, and you are penalized for winning them all. That means that we shouldn't (and can't) play with the sole intention of taking every chip in play. Survival becomes our top priority. It's important to note that our survival will depend on our ability to accumulate chips in the face of ever-increasing blinds, but we should never go out of our way to push small statistical edges that could commit us to going bust. We should also avoid getting all our money in the middle unless we are a huge favorite or we are very sure we will not be called. In tournament poker you are looking for great, not good, opportunities to get very lucky. You have to survive long enough to get lucky. If you get blinded out, you get blinded out. You won't help your string of bad luck by playing bad cards. Just be patient and weather the storm. If correct cash game strategy is "tight is right", then correct tournament strategy is "tighter is righter."

In the early rounds you should only be playing the category A- C hands for the most part. You are looking for opportunities to double up. In tourney play the main attribute is patience. The cards will come eventually. If you do find yourself on a run of cold cards, dying a slow and painful death on the short stack, it's not as bad as it seems. Remember, people love trying to put other people out of the tournament and will therefore often call your all-in moves with garbage when you're on the short stack.

Incidentally, it is almost never strategically correct to go out of your way to eliminate a player. It simply is not your job. Eliminating a player benefits you no more than the rest of the players at the table, and you should never be willing to take even slightly the worst of it (a negative EV play) to try and take a player out.

♣ Continued at: Playing Hold'em Against Weak Players

♣ Back to the index of Dead Money's guide to hold'em strategy.