The Middle Rounds of Tournaments

Middle Round Strategy

Alright, so you've managed to survive the early rounds of the tournament. You haven't taken too many risks, you've played good cards, and you're in good position to make a move on the leader board. As I mentioned in my last lesson, the only prize that ever matters to me is first prize, because I get to eat all the juicy crustaceans and aquatic vertebrates who've busted out before me.

That's my self-imposed rule on big tourneys under the sea. Since I am a hammerhead shark, and the tournament director, I don't really have to worry much about suffering the same fate as my unfortunate fishy friends. Still, I play every tournament to win. Not only am I motivated by the top prize, but also because of the psychological and competitive satisfaction of wiping out every other player who's entered. Poker is one of the few games or sports that you can win (if you placed in the money, you did win something) but still feel unaccomplished. Play every tourney to win, or why play at all?

In laying out how to play well in the early rounds of the tournament, I taught you to play a tight-aggressive game and play somewhat cautiously. It makes sense not to take too many risks without great cards early on because you're not playing for much. The stakes are small at the start of a tournament, and you don't have much to gain by running over your opponents. You also want to create a solid table image that will allow you to play aggressively and win more pots uncontested.

When you're playing no-limit cash games, you can usually just sit back and wait until you're dealt strong starting hands at the right opportunities. In tournament play, unless you're getting uncommonly good luck from the virtual dealer, playing too tight can end eat away your stack. Online tournament play is fast-paced and the blinds rise quickly. If you've survived to the middle rounds, you're going to have to constantly be making moves in order to just maintain your chip count.

Playing in the Heart of Tournaments

The first adjustment that you'll need to make is to open up your starting hand requirements. You'll find that as the blinds get higher, your opponents will be playing tighter and tighter. You should take advantage of this and try to take control of the hand before the flop, or win the pot right there. Let's say that you have about 2,000 chips left and the blinds have just been raised to 200/400. One round through the blinds is going to deplete about 1/3 of your total chip stack. If you're going to play a hand other than the blinds at this point, you should play it for a raise. It doesn't make sense to make a weak call here, as you're blowing off 20% of your chips and you haven't taken control of the hand. If you're down to 5 or 6 times the big blind, you should probably adopt a raise or fold philosophy.

Let's stay with the example of your 2,000 chips and 200/400 blinds. You're one off from the button with A-10 suited. There is one limper from middle position and everyone else has folded. What should you do? You should consider going all-in at this point. A-10 isn't exactly a monster, but this is a good hand to go all-in with if you have a smallish stack and your opponents haven't really shown any strength. What you'd really like to do is steal the blinds and get the limper to fold. This way you've picked up 1,200 chips without having to make any decisions on the flop. If you do get called, you'll probably still have a good shot at doubling up. Seeing as the standard raise is 3-4 times the big blind, if you have only a little more than this amount you should consider going all-in. It psychologically looks stronger to your opponents that you're willing to put your whole stack in with your hand. It also prevents you from having to make any further decisions or mistakes in the hand. Once you're all-in, you'll just have to watch the cards come out. Also, don't overlook the value of raising all-in with lower suited connectors. If your opponent has two face cards, you still have a great shot (at least a 40% chance) of winning the pot. Don't let your stick dwindle down to 2 or 3 times the big blind, or you won't have much left to play with. When you're shortstacked, you're just going to have to go all the way with the best hand you can pick up.

On the converse, it also makes sense to play aggressively if you have a healthy stack. If you're the chip leader at your particular table, take advantage of it. Your opponents know that you're in the lead for a reason, so you might try to run over opponents with smaller stacks who seem like timid players. You can also take more risks when you've got a lot of chips. Look at the risk/reward ratio. If you've got 4-to-a-flush on the flop, and an opponent with a stack the size of yours goes all-in, you should probably make the call. You'll only lose about a quarter of your stack if you miss the flush, whereas you get to bust out another player and add to your mountain of chips if you hit. The reward is much greater than the risk in this situation. When you do find yourself with a huge stack mid-way through a tourney, be careful. Don't bluff your opponents too often or try bully players who fight back. You can get yourself into a lot of trouble if you get too greedy or go up against another above-average stack. Try to increase your lead slowly, especially if the cards aren't falling your way.

The middle rounds are really the heart of the tournament. This is where most players are either busted out or make their stand and build their chip stack. Because the blinds increase so rapidly, you'll have to loosen up your game in order to really make a run at winning the whole thing. Strictly playing only premium cards will usually lead to a slow death-by-blinds or a finish near the bubble. Most players tighten up severely as the bubble draws near. You don't want to employ this strategy. The bubble is just an arbitrary line drawn in the sand. I understand that many players want to guarantee a prize, but the prizes at the bottom of the money list are usually very meager. Typically, you're just going to win your money back plus a little chump change. Why play hard for hours only to earn a few bucks? If you have the right cards or you're in the right situation, play your hand strong no matter when the money is coming. I've heard of players, who think they're justified, folding pocket Aces preflop because they don't want to finish on the bubble. This is madness! If you ever do this, I will personally give you an excellent tour of the inside of my stomach.

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