From The Ground Up A Beginners Guide To Building A Solid Poker Game Part 5 – Basic Tournament Theory
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Hey everyone, Gloves here again with another article in my free online poker “From the Ground Up” series. This article will be focusing on some of the key differences between tournament and cash play as well as how to translate the concepts taught in my other articles to tournament play specifically.

I also plan on giving a brief introduction to a concept called ICM (independent chip model), although I’ll probably devote another entire article to it soon. I hope you all have enjoyed your Christmas and New Year’s holidays and the wait for another article hasn’t been killing you! I think I’m leaning towards writing an article every 2 weeks now to give you guys more time to digest the concepts and ask any questions that spring to mind. Now that the holidays are over the schedule will normalize again! Let’s get to the poker! 

Tournament play has 4 major differences from cash play (note that “tournament” from here on out will refer to either big tournaments or sngs of any size). MTT 1 300x187 From The Ground Up A Beginners Guide To Building A Solid Poker Game Part 5   Basic Tournament Theory

> The first is the chips used.

  • > In cash game poker (ring games), you buy in directly with your cash.
  • > Every time you win or lose a pot, you directly lose that much money.
  • > Players can also add on to their stacks in any size increment they want at any time (typically up to 100bb maximum).
  • > You’re free to leave at any time, and you pocket the profit (or suffer the loss) immediately.
  • > Tournament poker, however, involves paying a buyin which gives you a set amount of chips.
  • > You play the tournament until you either run out of chips or accumulate all the chips in play (excepting a few specific tournament types).

> This leads us to the second difference – payout structure.

  • > Unlike ring game chips, tournament chips don’t have direct, immediate monetary value.
  • > You can’t leave the table and pocket tournament chips as profit.
  • > You’re paid out based on your finish position; before then your chips are worth equity but not actual cash.
  • > Typically tournaments pay out approximately 10% of the field (most of the world’s best online mtt players cash somewhere between 12-17% of the time) on a sliding scale that’s generally very top heavy.

> The third difference is the blind levels (and, consequently, stacksizes).

  • > In ring games, the blinds never change. If you’re playing $1/$2, the small and big blinds will always be $1 and $2 respectively.
  • > Because of this and the point mentioned earlier that cash players can always “top up” their stack to 100bb deep, cash poker is almost always deeper stacked than tournament poker.
  • > In tournaments, blinds consistently go up (although the number of levels in the structure and the time of each level varies by tournament).
  • > While an online “deep stack” tournament may typically start at 10/20 with 3000 chips (150bbs deep, which is deeper than standard cash play), after an hour or two the average stack could easily be 50bb or less.
  • > After the first 45 or so minutes of most online “turbo” tournaments, average stacks can be 12bbs or lower which means that the game basically becomes preflop shove-or-fold poker.

> The fourth difference is simpler.

  • > When we sit at a fullring (9/10 handed cash game table) on most sites, play will be at least 8 handed the vast majority of the time.
  • > At a 6max table, 90%+ of hands will take place with 5 or more players.
  • > Tournaments (when making deep runs, at a final table, or playing a sitngo) are more frequently short handed.
  • > In fact, to win a tournament, we have to win a heads up match against another opponent.

So how should we adjust our game to reflect these key differences? 

The first, most obvious thing to do is to make sure we can actually play the tournaments we sign up for!

  • > An online large field regular speed or deep stack tournament can easily take 6 hours to complete, if not more!
  • > Reaching the money typically happens somewhere around the 2 or 2 and a half hour mark.

> Realistically, we only make the money 10 or 15% of the time (and final table the tournament a fraction of a percent, assuming a large, multiple thousand player field, or just a few percent of the time in a multiple hundred player field), so it’s not like this will be an everyday occurrence if we’re just playing one or two tables at a time, but late in tournaments is where all the money is.

If you’ve invested 5 hours playing a tourney, have built a big stack, and are looking to convert a big score, how would you feel if you suddenly had to leave because you made plans with friends, or your wife/gf expects you to do something, or anything of that nature?

Of course, there will be emergencies that cannot be avoided. But not assuring that you have enough time to play to the end if you happen to run deep can cost you hundreds of dollars in equity from a single tournament, even something as low as a $3 or $5 buyin! Money lose 3 From The Ground Up A Beginners Guide To Building A Solid Poker Game Part 5   Basic Tournament Theory

Micro and lowstakes tournaments (on pokerstars, the biggest real money poker site worldwide) almost always have thousands of dollars in the prize pool, so you can really cost yourself a lot if you have to leave late in a tourney.

Of course, this is why many players choose to play sit n goes.

  • > An 18 man turbo sng (on pokerstars, again) takes about an hour start to finish.
  • > So if I have 2 hours to play, I can fire up a session of 18 mans, load games for about an hour, stop loading after that time passes, and run out my games before I have to leave.
  • > The time commitment for a sng is much less than for a large field tournament, where you must be prepared to commit many hours after the last game you register for starts.

While on a site like NoPayPOKER with small fields (so tourneys wrap up quicker) and less money on the line (sure, you might lose a few hundred FreeDs in equity, but that only equates to a couple bucks), this is much less of a problem.

In general you should always understand how long the games you start could take to finish, whether or not it’s 10 minutes for a hyperturbo, 45 minutes for a sng, or 8 hours for a large field mtt (multi-table tournament).

If you can’t block off the time, don’t start the game. Consider playing something shorter or sitting cash, where you can cut your session at any time.

Let’s take a brief look at how changing payout structures affect play

We’ll be taking a much more in-depth (and, you guessed it, mathematical) look at this in the near future, so this will be quite basic.

  • > Play is entirely dictated by a tournament’s payout structure.  For example, consider a winner-take-all tournament.
  • > We’re trying to make the most value every hand to gain all the chips in play.

> Contrast this with a (hypothetical) tournament that pays out the bottom 10% of the field (first 10% to bust).

  • > The strategy for this type of tournament might be to go allin every hand and hope to lose, or to raise so we have 1 chip left, fold, and go allin the second hand.
  • > Obviously this tournament isn’t real, and this will never be an ideal strategy.
  • > But for now, trust me when I say that this applies to all different tournaments.

Payout structures dictate play – a winner-take-all tournament plays different from a satellite which pays the top 50 players equally which plays differently from a top heavy tournament paying 10% of the field (top heavy meaning top 3 get a large percentage of the prize pool) which plays differently from a bottom heavy (less for top 3, more for lower places percentage wise) tournament paying 10% of the field.

A couple articles from now we’ll take an exhaustive look at this. For now just try to realize this fact and dwell on how the differences might affect strategy.

  • > A hint: flatter payout structures generally mean we should take less risks and play tighter. But try to get more detailed than that, if you have some time to think on it.
  • > Add a reason to my hint if you can, as well.

Now we’re going to have a more in depth look at the third and fourth differences, changing blind levels (and stacksizes) and changing dynamics based on how many players are at the table.

  • > As stacksizes decrease (relative to the big blind), play naturally becomes more aggressive.
  • > If we’re 100bb deep early in the tournament, raising preflop to win the blinds (1.5bb) is a miniscule addition to our stack.
  • > If we’re 8bb deep late, however, assuming a standard ante size of .2bb at a 10 man table we’re picking up 3.5bb, which represents an astonishing near 50% increase to our stack. Just for scooping the blinds!

This directly connects to the number of players at the table, as well.

  • > With 10 people at the table there’s much less pressure on us to act because the blinds come around less often.
  • > This is why in HU play it’s correct to be extremely aggressive while in ring games and early in tournaments we should be playing very very tight.
  • > The blinds are very very important, especially in tournament play!
  • > As tablesizes shrink, we’re paying the blinds that much more often.
  • > Which means to maintain our current stacksize, we need to steal the blinds that much more.
  • > But since blinds go up, maintaining our stacksize is actually shrinking our stack, as the most important measure is not the number of chips but the number of bbs we (and our opponents at the table) have.

> This cycle causes extremely aggressive (and correct) play to become the norm in tournaments when shallow stacked.

I’m going to cut the article here. I understand this is just a broad theoretical look at tournament poker. The next article will be much more practical – in fact, the most practical article I’ve written thus far.

I hope you’ve gained some understanding and this primes you for the next article, which should be out within a couple weeks.

As always, feel free to comment on the articles on facebook, on the articles themselves, on my NPP page, or by emailing me at duncelanas@hotmail.com. Questions, comments, concerns, suggestions…all is welcome! Good luck at the tables and see you soon!

Previous article – part 4

For many more free online poker lessons and the rest of Justins series see the poker lessons directory page.

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