I was just in a big poker tournament on the weekend on poker stars. I managed to win a free entry to the PS Sunday Hundred Grand. My sharkscope rating was 'hot' and I was pretty confident about my level of play going into the tournament. However, the tournament had about 20,000 players which means that even if you are Gus Hansen, Daniel Negraneau, or Sammy Fahra, you'll need to be running quite good to make any money.
My first strategy in poker tournaments is to get a quick understanding of table dynamics. With nine players at a table, often there are four or five players who are relatively unremarkable. Generally, there are at least two or three who really stand out. The first type of player that I try to avoid, I call 'maniacs.' Maniacs by my definition are basically loose-aggressive players on steroids. They have a tremendous range of hands that they play or that they will raise with, so it can be really hard to put them on a hand. From my experience, there are some maniacs that absolutely love ace rags and others that love nearly anything suited with suited connectors being amoung their favorite hand to play. They are dangerous because they can raise and bluff you off your hand, or they can bluff into catching a better hand. Occassionally, they will flop the nuts and follow the same betting pattern which will complel you to call and loose tons of chips.
With 3000 starting chips, one guy who I quickly labelled a maniac, raised about three hundred chips with ace four off suit. At the time, this raise represented about 15x the bb which is why I characterized this player as a maniac. Early on during large on-line tournaments, it doesn't make too much sense to make such a big raise. First of all, you may not get any action even if you have a premium hand which he did not and this will only result in stealing a blind of 30 chips while exposing a risk of 300 chips. Fortunately, he managed to get two people to call and this highlights the danger in playing the maniac early on in the tournament. I generally prefer to let them burn out or bust out. If I have to play vs a maniac, I prefer to have them covered with chips, so that I can afford to call them. Even maniacs play tighter when they are playing vs a bigger stack that can knock them out.
So here's the problem of calling a big raise early on vs a maniac even when you have a premium hand. One caller had suited AQ and the other caller had AK off suit. Both had the maniac's hand dominated preflop. Of course, the flop was A49 rainbow. The maniac bet hard to the river and was called which netted him a big payout.
The second most important player to look out for are the calling stations. Though they can be a great resource when you have a very strong hand, you can get sucked out by them all day long. Say for example you flop a pair of kings with an ace kicker. They may have a hand like king jack and catch a jack on the river. No matter how much you actually bet, they will often call to the river regardless.
There are several different player characteristics which I've previously described in an earlier post--calling stations, maniacs, rocks, loose-aggressive players, fish, tight players, chasers, etc. In addition to the individual player types at your table, it's good to get an overall gestalt of the table itself. Though it is more like a spectrum, the table dynamic has two polar opposites-tight or loose. At a tight table, players rarely make preflop raises or if they do, they are not very large. On the opposite end of this continuum, you will find donkey poker with three or more players all in preflop nearly every hand. The table dynamic is always in flux and you will generally find that it gets looser as the blinds increase.
After table dynamics, characterizing player types, the third thing that you have to do is get a sense of the range of hands that players at the table typically play and the amount they bet corresponding to that hand. At this tournament, I noticed that one player really loved suited cards such as king five suited or jack ten suited. He won a couple huge pots by chasing a river flush on the first one and by catcing a set of tens on the second hand.
I was in a hand with this player and to my recollection, I was playing KJ off suit. Two suited cards were on the flop, but I had caught top pair with a decent kicker. He bet into his draw and I called him. One other player called to the turn, then folded. At the river, I wasn't worried, but when I put someone on a hand I try to make my decision accordingly. He made a huge river bet and I nervously called. Turns out he had king nine suited and missed his flush. This was a huge pot which illustrates how you can make a lot of chips by making a tough call. After this pot, I had about 4500 chips which put me in the top 2500 players at the time, though it was only about the fourth hand in the tournament.
Early on in a tournament, I prefer to play small ball poker which involves playing several hands depeding on the cards as well as your position. It requires decent reading skills and can get you into trouble. For example, I called a small raise from the first maniac with AJ on the big blind. I managed to flop a jack which was top pair on a rainbow flop. He bet 200 chips and I re-raised and he simply called. He bet 200 on the turn and I called... Then he bet another 200 on the river and I called again. There were no flush or straight draws by the river and I still had top pair with a decent kicker. He had made a small raise from the button, so I wasn't too sure what too put him on except for a bluff or maybe a rags and he caught a rag. If he had bet a larger amount, I probably would have had to fold as my hand was not that strong for such an early hand in the tournament. Novice players often follow that betting pattern when they are bluffing of betting a constant amount. Loose-aggressive players typically will escalate their betting while bluffing. For this reason, I did put him on a hand, but not a stronger hand than mine. To my surprise, he had value bet me to the river with a flopped set of sixes. I didn't not expect this betting pattern from this particular player and I resultantly lost 800 chips.
Position is very important at the poker table as well. Having positions means to be call/bet/fold after the other player. Later positions are considered and advantage, however, I find that there is one big exception to this rule. With loose-aggressive players, it can be a huge disadvantage if they have early position on you. For example, I had position on the maniac above with suited AK. He raised 250 chips out of position and I called from the sb. With no ace, king, or flush draw on the flop, I was in a difficult situation. He raised 400 chips out of position and I was in a situation where I had to fold. If he had ace rags, he may have caught his kicker which meant that I only had three outs to the river. If he had a pocket pair, then I had only six outs provided that he didn't flop a set. Chances are, he had a hand like ace queen and I had him beat on the flop, but since he bet 400 chips out of position, I didn't want to be put in a situation where I had to call or raise and risk a huge portion of my chips with absolutely nothing. If he had a set, I would be drawing dead and get knocked out and best case scenario he had ace rags and still might catch his kicker and knock me out.
Here's where my bad luck continued. The blinds were now up to about 250 chips which is definitely the point where it's worth trying to steal when you have a hand like ak or suited aq. I raised a few times on the button with AJ and AK--about 3-4x the bb. Both times, the player on the bb called and defended their blind. As well, both times the flop was low junk rainbow cards. I followed up with a decent continuation bet and got re-raised both times and had to fold. The third time this happened, I was once again on the button with aj off suit. I raised 3x the bb and the bb countered by raising all in preflop. I knew that he loved aces with high kickers, so I knew that I would either be dominated preflop or chopping. I had a strong feeling that he had the same hand, but didn't want to risk my entire stack on this, so I folded. Turns out one of the short stacks called him and he did actually have the aj too.
After winning a few small pots and rebuilding my stack, once again, I ran into some trouble. I raised 4x the bb with AQ suited way out of position. The only action came from the bb who was short-stacked. He re-raised me and I called. I flopped a queen on a flop that also gave me the nut flush draw. He bet 500 chips and I re-raised to 1000. He went all in and I called. Turns out he had the big blind special--pocket cowboys and my flush never hit so I lost about 1/2 of my chip stack. It's always hard to put the bb on a premium hand especially when he is shortstacked. Either way, top pair/kicker with a nut flush draw is not a hand I would ever fold to a short-stacked big blind. I had 13 outs on the flop which gave me the slight advantage with about 52% odds on him. I remember reading in Daniel Negraneau's blog of him being in a similar situation and losing the exact same way. Given how pot committed I was after I re-raised him on the flop, I would've made the same call if his cards were subsequently face up.
My final hand of the tournament was even harder to fold. By this time, I was down to about 2600 chips which was now well below the tournament average. The blinds were now about 350-400 chips. The player on the button who was the previously described manaic raised the minimum. I was on the bb with king jack and I called. The flop was k4k rainbow. He bet the flop for about 400 chips. I called... the turn was a ten... He bet 800 and since I now thought that I had him trapped, I re-raised him which nearly put me all. He insta went all in and I called. Turns out he was sitting on pocket fours and had flopped a boat with fours full of kings. I only had seven outs on the river and none of them came. That was all she wrote...