Early Poker Tournament Strategy


Early Rounds of Poker

When I set up big poker tournaments back home off the coast of Maui, the prize pool is set up a bit differently. The only real winner is first prize, seeing as the champ is entitled to eat every losing fish, squid, and shark alike. Perhaps it's a brutal way to reward the rest of the final table, but we play poker the right way in the aquatic world. It makes the fish a bit more hesitant before they raise with 72 offsuit.

Yes, our most reckless players are usually those bottom-dwelling, side-swimming, hook-chasing fish and the shark breeds usually finish them off at the tables. You thought those nicknames were for nothing? They know that it could potentially be their last hand of anything, period. Besides, I'm the only one who can really put the Hammer down with that holding.

Even though you land-hugging humans play such a wild game, I have become an expert in your online games. I'd like to give you a brief lesson on playing early on in tournaments. You can choose to ignore my advice, but you'll just end up being shark bait (every pun intended).

Playing the Early Rounds of a Tournament

Most poker tournaments, even offline in the smaller casino events, are structured about the same way. Players are given a very small amount of chips (about 1000-2000) and the blinds start off pretty low (5/10 to 20/40) but escalate quickly (about every 8-12 minutes online in normal-speed tourneys). Essentially, you should be playing a very tight game as the first couple of tournament rounds pass you by. The reason for this is simple and lies in the risk/reward ratio. Let's say you've just started an online tournament with 1000 chips and the blinds are 5/10. What do you have to gain by bluffing at this point besides the miniscule amount of the blinds? They're so low at this point that you can afford to play only your premium hands from the right position.

When you do pick up a premium hand in the early rounds of a tournament, such as pocket Aces from first position, you'll want to raise the hand even more than you normally would. Online amateur players won't see much of a different between a 40 chip raise and a 50 chip raise, so to protect your Aces I would recommend at least a raise of 6-7 times the big blind. This may seem like a lot, but you have to look at the risk/reward ratio from your opponent's eyes as well. The risk of the tiny minimum bet is very low compared to the possible reward of flopping a monster and doubling up. You don't want to allow trash hands into the pot when you have a great hand preflop, but one that is very vulnerable after the flop.

Using the same model, it doesn't cost you much to take a stab at the flop with mediocre starting hands. While this may be true, you should at least keep it relegated to hands with a lot of drawing potential. Playing Q-6 offsuit isn't wise in any position at any point, but hands like 4-5 and 7-8 suited may be worth a look if you can do it cheaply. These are hands that can often draw to straights, flushes, and other hands like two pair. Low suited connectors can be some of the most profitable to hit with because they're so well concealed. Most opponents don't put you on such a low hand when they try to make their read of your possible hands. Personally, I would rather have a hand like 4-5 suited than Q-J suited, because many players will be play their hand too strongly when a Queen or Jack comes on the flop. If you get played back at when you're holding hands like this, you're usually outkicked. How awful would it be to go out on the first hand of a tourney with Q-J suited? You ought to be filleted right there on the spot!

While you may, at times, be able to see a cheap flop in these opening rounds, you'll often run into at least a couple of players at your table that just can't get comfortable in their seats. They can't seem to settle down until they've doubled up their stack. They might be holding something decent, but usually they're not. You'll often see many players just shove in their whole stack during one of the first few hands. I don't recommend calling them with anything but pocket Aces or Kings. Even A-K is questionable, because you're only about a 50/50 favorite to win against any pocket pair. Even against lesser unpaired cards, you're not a shoe-in. Save calling big bets with A-K for later in the tournament when you can afford to take some hits. The risk factor is too great to call your entire stack off this early in the tournament without a monster. You came to play poker, I hope, and not a crapshoot.

Early in the tournament, you're also still sizing up your opponents, so it's tough to get a good read on them. Use this time to begin to study your opponents and learn their tendencies. This is a good time to learn who the tighter players at your table are, so you can lay the hammer down on them when the blinds get out of control. Hey, I'm the Hammerhead and I can lay the hammer down even on a blind-steal!

Essentially, you're just going to be getting comfortable in the opening rounds of the tournament. You're not going to be rewarded very handsomely for trying to run over your opponents at this point, so just keep it tight and play your premium hands. You can consider playing suited connectors, but only for the minimum bet in late position. When you do get a real hand, raise it preflop and hope to get some action from overeager players. A quick double-up with pocket Aces can do wonders for the nerves. Get comfortable, let the oxygen run through the gills, and keep an eye on your opponents. Until next lesson, I'll see you at the coralů erů tables!

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