Late Poker Tournament Strategy
I never could really figure out why any creature smaller than a tuna would enter the tournament as they have tiny stomachs to fill! Most losers get off the hook in the rare event that a fish wins the tourney. Us sharks have a distinct advantage, and get our money's worth when we take home first prize. I'm very competitive by nature, and I'm sure that you are too, so I'm going to show you how to win the tournament and not settle for just coming in the money.
Before you take any risks that will put your tournament life on the line, you should be prepared to go easy on yourself if you do bust out. I think it is much more valiant to go out of a tournament trying to increase your chip stack and win the whole thing, rather than being a wimp and just surviving as long as you can before the blinds take you out. Sometimes, I'll even let some of the losing fish go when I'm particularly impressed with their courage. Don't beat yourself up if you get knocked out because you took a chance and the cards fell the wrong way. That happens in poker, and especially late in tournaments, you need to have the heart to take a chance in order to win.
Playing in the Later Rounds of Tournaments
That being said, you'll go into the final stages of a tournament in one of three situations. Let's start with the least desirable: being on the shortstack. You have one of the smallest stacks left in the 3 or 4 tables remaining, and the blinds are getting enormous - about 1,000-2,000. Some online poker sites and real cardrooms will impose an ante on every player at about this time in the tournament. Antes at this level will probably be about 100 or more, which means an extra 1,000 chips in the pot for every hand.
You're left with about 5,000 chips, which is 2 ½ time the size of the big blind. You don't have much left to work with, so as in any shortstack situation, you need to pick a hand and go with. There is no sense in just calling the minimum because you'll be putting in almost half your stack anyway and you're committed to the pot no matter what. It would be foolish to call and then fold on the flop, so why even give yourself the choice? Just make it simple for yourself, and shove the whole thing in there. Consider doing this with a big Ace, any pocket pair, or any two face cards. You might get very lucky and no one has anything that they're willing to call you with. You can pick up the blinds and get a little bit of a reprieve. Usually, it's not going to work that way. There is almost always a large enough stack out there that's willing to take a gamble on your all-in move. If you only have a little more than the big blind, the blinds may also call you. Hopefully your hand will stand up and you'll have another chance to take a shot with better cards.
A better situation to enter the final stages is to be in the middle of the pack. You've got a solid stack, so you still have enough chips left to play better-than-average cards. The blinds, and possibly antes, are still taking a chunk of your stack away every round, but you aren't so desperate that you need to go all-in preflop. If you still have a sizeable stack remaining, you can really make a move in the later stages of a tournament. You'll often find that in many of the tournaments you play in, the chip leader often got his lead by playing a reckless and unpredictable game and kept hitting the right cards. Instead of quitting while he's ahead, he'll often continue to take chances on mediocre hands. He'll try to bully the table around and steal the blinds and antes from more timid players. This is an ideal opponent to double up from.
If you have a premium hand and you have to act before the chip leader, you may consider slowplaying it if you're pretty sure he will raise. When you reraise him all-in, he'll usually call. Even if you don't have a premium hand, consider taking on some of the wilder players with lesser hands. If you have a medium pocket pair, an A-10 or higher, and even sometimes suited connectors, you should consider raising the hand. With the blinds so high, players tend to play tighter. Take advantage of this and raise when you have a decent hand. If you get called, or raised, then you must analyze the strength of your opponent and the strength of your own hand. Most likely, you'll want to take the chance if you've already bet a significant amount of your chips.
Sometimes you'll find yourself in one of the top places going into the final few tables of play. Congratulations, but don't celebrate too early. Chip leaders are often the players who lose their stacks the fastest. Don't fall into the trap of bullying too much or taking too many risks. Calculated risks and strategic blind-stealing is a must, however. As the chip leader, you'll probably have the most respect at the table. After all, you've been winning big pots, right? Use this table image to your advantage. Find the timid players on short stacks and don't be afraid to raise them. If they play back at you and it's not too many more chips, take the chance. Just don't throw off a lot of chips too often. You're in the unique situation of still being able to comfortably afford the increasing blinds and antes. Most of your opponents won't have that luxury, so you're in good shape. You still want to stick to good cards, but if you correctly judge the tighter players, it can pay off to take risks against them. You're still in a good position to win the tournament even if you're only able to maintain your chip count.
As you near the home stretch and final table, don't be afraid to bear your many rows of teeth once in a while. If you're on the shortstack, look for the best opportunity to go all-in. If you have a comfortable stack, look for premium cards and consider trying to induce a bluff from the chip leader. If you are the chip leader, you can bully the timid players to a certain extent, but most of all you want to at least maintain your position. Keep playing hard, and keep the big prize in sight. No one ever remembers who finished in second place. Well, sometimes I do. I always remember them as the after-dinner mint.
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