Tournament Starting Strategy
'Wait and see' or 'come out firing'?
starting out in a tournament, what should your strategy be? I have seen a couple
of suggestions in print, which I will loosely categorize as "wait and see" and
"come out firing." Let's look at each.
Wait and see: This school of thought reasons as follows: "There are likely to be a number of weak players at your table. They are your targets. The hallmarks of the typical weak player are that he plays too many hands and calls too much. To play aggressively against a calling station is a stupid strategy. Try to make a hand and get it paid off. Give the blinds a chance to go up and the weak players a chance to go broke before you start fooling around or playing aggressively. Then, you may be able to exploit your tight table image and do some stealing."
Come out firing: This school of thought reasons as follows: "You want to play pots against the weak players before they give their chips to someone else (who will be harder to beat). Even though you have enough chips at the start not to be under money pressure, the blinds keep going up, so you need to prepare yourself for this certain future situation by going after chips right away. Otherwise, you will get eaten up by the blinds after a while."
Both of these tournament philosophies sound plausible; which one should you select? Before I give you my opinion, I would like to ask you a couple of important questions, because I do not think there is one strategic idea that even comes close to covering all the bases.
1. What type of tournament is it? Surely, you do not think there is a single strategy that can be used for a one-table sit-and-go, a three-hour online tournament, a one-day tournament with a $200 buy-in and rebuys, a two-day tournament with a $1,000 buy-in, and a major championship like the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour events.
In the short and cheap events (the two usually go hand in hand), most of the contestants play like they are double-parked. Even though the blinds go up rapidly, it is not unusual for most of the field to be gone by level three. You can play aggressively, pushing a solid but not spectacular hand, but starting right out leaning on the blinds and bluffing are not part of the best path to cashing.
At the other end of the spectrum, when the buy-in may be 10 grand or more, and many of the entrants have traveled thousands of miles to play, there is a natural reluctance for any player to lose one big pot and fly back home. Also, your opponents are likely to be better players, who understand that top pair is not congruent with the nuts, and they may throw a hand away when it looks like an opponent has them beat. The top players often start right out in high gear in such an event, and are willing to risk some chips to win a big pot. They do a lot of bullying. Having a deep stack enables them to do this without exiting the event after losing one pot.
2. What kind of cards are you getting? Your game plan may be to run over the table, but the poker luck-distributor may not endow you with the cards for that game plan. Common sense should tell you that your hands should have something to do with your strategy. There is a big difference between two kings and 9-8 suited, and there is a big difference between 9-8 suited and a 6-3 offsuit. Doyle Brunson has claimed in his book that with position all the time, he could beat the game regardless of his cards. I claim that I would not play in a game in which Doyle has position all the time. In the real world, you get position only as often as the other players, and have to post the blinds just like everybody else. I do not think it is good tournament strategy to look at your hand only when you are in the cutoff or button seat, and fold the rest of the time.
Your hand matters; it affects strategy. During my poker career, I have played against many of the world's great poker players, past and present. In world-championship play, I have had Doyle Brunson, Dewey Tomko, Johnny Moss, Johnny Chan, Stu Ungar, and many others at my starting table. I have played many times against people like Berry Johnston, Jay Heimowitz, Dan Harrington, T.J. Cloutier, Sarge Ferris, Mike Sexton, and so forth. Nearly all of them had periods of time, like an hour or more, when you hardly were aware they were even in the game. They of course wanted to play aggressively, but sometimes underwent a drought of decent cards. So, they were forced to fold. The only exception was Stu Ungar, who never went a round without getting into a pot. He was in fast-forward mode when he wasn't in hyperdrive. He of course was a three-time world champion, but the one time I played with him, he did not make it to the dinner break on the first day. If you can play as well as Stu played, maybe you do not need to see what kind of cards you hold, but that is a mighty big if. And who is to say that Ungar might not have done even better if he had an ounce of patience.
The best tournament advice I ever got from anyone was given to me by Dewey Tomko. He said, "Every time a player leaves the table, a player comes to the table, the blinds go up, or someone loses a big pot, the character of the game changes. Pick up on the change and adjust accordingly." Obviously, this is the direct opposite of forming a game plan before you sit down, and then sticking to it. So, my advice to you is not to start with a preconceived notion of how you are going to play the early levels of tournaments. The type of event, opposing players, tempo of the game, and your cards will all help dictate which general approach you should take when starting out in a tournament.