Final Table Poker Tournament Strategy
It gets pretty frustrating because they are constantly running away from the table at crucial times. I guess they actually have to return to the surface every so often in order to get oxygen. Pansies. I get oxygen through my blood by constantly moving around in the water. By continuously swimming in a circle around my seat, it makes it tough for my opponents to get a good read on me. Plus, when I really feel like putting on the intimidation, I'll just start circling the entire table. You should try it the next time you play down at the casino cardroom.
So, you're down to the last 9 or 10 players of the tournament. A lot of poker players say that playing Sit 'n Gos is good practice for a final table. While there are some structural similarities, such as the single table dwindling down to the final player, but the psychology of a tournament final table makes it play much different than a SnG. At the start of a Sit 'n Go, everyone has just paid the buy-in and will have to make it to the top places or they'll lose their buy-in. Unless it is a very small multi-table tournament, the players at the final table have already made some money. In tournaments with large fields, they've made quite a bit. This tends to allow for more gambling early on, as some players are satisfied just to have made the final table. Also, in a Sit 'n Go, all players start out with the same amount of chips. There is an enormous variance in chips at the final table of a big tournament and everyone certainly does not start out even. Some gutless players who are just waiting it out may have even allowed their chip stack to sink to less than the big blind. He's obviously gone within a few hands unless the Poker Gods really have it in for giving this guy a miracle run.
Playing the Final Table of a Tournament
How you play the final table is going to depend upon what you wish to accomplish overall in the tournament. If you're just looking to increase a few places and guarantee yourself a little more money, then you'd probably be wise to play extremely conservatively at this point. If you have enough chips to cover the blinds for the next few rounds, you can probably wait it out (unless you're dealt a premium hand) and increase a few places. You'll make some extra money, but have no shot at winning the tournament outright. This is a perfectly acceptable strategy if that meets your goals. You'll probably make a few bucks and feel satisfied with the tournament overall. After all, you did beat almost everyone in the tourney. Almost everyone. That's what I, as the Hammerhead, have a problem with. I want to win it all.
How do you do it? At the final table, you'll need to work a combination of good starting cards, well-executed bluffs, tactical blind-stealing, and some dumb luck. When you're hitting good starting cards, your decisions are pretty easy. If you have a decent amount of chips and there are a few shortstacks at the table, your decisions are even easier. If you're on the big blind and you get raised all-in for not much more by a shortstack, you're going in with any two cards. When you're on the small blind, try to steal the big blind often if he's not very aggressive. Is everyone playing tight at the table? Put the hammer down on them! Just keep raising until they place back at you. You want to take advantage of the complacent player that I described in the previous paragraph. They're not willing to take many risks, so just take their money when you can. It's simplistic, but your best strategy is to knock out players when you've got the best of it, and let others be the aggressor when you don't. You don't want many confrontations with aggressive players if the table is still pretty full. Since they're aggressive anyway, let them take out some players until you get some better cards.
As with any cash game or tournament, you need to have stronger starting cards at a full table. There are two simple reasons for this: firstly, there is a greater chance that someone else is holding a better starting hand than you. Secondly, you can afford to wait longer in between hands. The blinds don't hit you as often at a full table. When you start to get down to the last 5 or 6 players, you're going to have to increase the action. The blinds are going to be hitting you too often to wait around, and you're going to have to bluff more often. When the table gets shorthanded, the hand is often decided before the flop. The whole game turns into one big folding and blind-stealing event until someone wakes up with a hand. I don't recommend stealing the blinds without at least one indicator that it will be successful. If you've got a hand, you're not really stealing the blinds. If you've got some semblance of a hand, it's only a semi-bluff and you probably have a better hand than the blinds do. If you don't have a hand at all, fold your hand or try and make a small raise. Unless you really have a mountain of chips, there's no sense in throwing them away if the blind decides to play back at you. If you are on a complete bluff and get raised, you simply muck your hand. Don't call just for the sake of calling.
As you get down to fewer and fewer tables, the value of hands increases. Top pair with a mediocre kicker or even Ace-high will often win the pot. If you do see a flop and hit a set, a straight, or better, it might be a good idea to slow play the hand. Since you'll typically be up against only one or two opponents, you can probably afford to give them a free card so long as there isn't an obvious draw out there. If I'm on the big blind with 7-7, the button raises me with A-K, and we see a rainbow flop of 6-7-Q, checking a giving a free card is a good idea. Of course, you don't know that he has A-K, but there aren't any obvious draws out there, either. If you check and he continues his preflop raise with another bet, you can think about it for a few seconds and just flat call him. Then, if an A or K comes on the turn, you're probably going to bust him. A quick check-raise might be the key to putting him all-in, as he probably figures you for a smaller Ace.
If you make it to heads-up play, the key is to take control of every hand that you can regardless of the stack sizes. You want to steal, steal, steal, until your opponent fights back. Also, if you're raising most hands, your opponent will have no idea as to the strength of your hand. The chances are that your opponent won't have a hand to call your raise with, but he also figures the same thing about you. Don't be afraid to test your opponent with a semi-bluff reraise. Of course, he could have a hand once in a while, but most raises in heads-up play are bluffs, especially preflop. You also can't be timid about going all-in or calling all-in bets, as this is going to happen often. Any pocket pair, two face cards, or Ace-anything can go all-in heads-up. A lot of the time, you'll be in a coin flip situation with your opponent when you're both all-in, but a lot of the time they'll just fold. You're going to get run over in heads-up play if you aren't willing to take risks or have courage. Sometimes, you've just got to put your fins over your eyes and shove everything you have into the center of the table.
When you make the final table, decide what your goals are for the tournament. If you're happy to just advance a few places, you can watch the action go by and let a few players get knocked out. If you want to take it all, you want to steal the blinds at the right times, and raise lots from late position. As the number of players at the table gets smaller and smaller, you'll need to open up your game and play more hands. When you get heads-up, don't be afraid of a battle and try to get your teeth firmly implanted around your opponent's neck. With my guidance, proper play, and a few strokes of luck, you'll be sitting atop all the clamshells, tournament title in hand. When you win your first multi-table tourney, I expect you to throw me a bone or two. No, really, they're one of my favorite parts. Mmmm, that crispety, crunchety, milky-white buttery… I mean, I'll see you at your next lesson with the Hammerhead!
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