Many people consider my style of play in tournaments chaotic and unorthodox, but the truth is that it is a calculated strategy that I have spent many years developing. I'm going to discuss my approach to tournaments that have a good mix of great, decent and weak players, specifically in regard to how the antes affect my play. I'll make a lot of generalizations, but this is basically how I play in World Poker Tour events and in tough preliminary events.
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that novice players reading this should adopt my strategy and start playing speculative hands more often. If you are still figuring out the game, it is better to stick with a more standard, tight-aggressive strategy. After you become significantly more experienced than your opponents, you can begin to experiment with a looser style.
First, let's start with some theory. The larger the antes (especially in relation to stack sizes and the blinds), the more you gain from winning a pot -- and the more you lose from not winning a pot. This means that if the antes are large, you should play looser than normal. Let's assume we are playing nine-handed, and the blinds are $3,000/$6,000. If the ante is $1,000, and you are facing a raise to $16,000 in the big blind, you are getting $34,000 to $10,000 to call, or 3.4 to 1. If instead the antes are only $500, then you are getting only $29,500 to $10,000, or 2.95 to 1. In the first case, you should be more likely to defend the blind than in the second case. The same concept holds true from any position, not just the big blind.
That much should be obvious. However, after playing hundreds of live tournaments, I've found that most players do exactly the opposite. In the early stages of tournaments, you will often see four or more players to a flop. Later in the tournaments many pots are taken down before the flop even comes out, and when it does, there are usually only two players still in the hand. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, the stacks are generally deeper during the earlier stages. Many players feel that a few big blinds won't affect their stack, and if they can hit a big flop they might double up for little risk. This logic is reasonable, especially for strong players playing against weak competition, but many players take this too far, especially in the early levels. In the later stages, the game is generally played more aggressively, which is in fact a reason to play tighter, but I find players making the mistake of playing tighter even when the table isn't aggressive. This usually happens because players realize the stakes are now higher, and a single hand can bust them from the suddenly more important tournament. I also think a lot of the time that players naturally go along with the flow of the table without trying to exploit it. Naturally, I do the opposite.
During the early stages of tournaments, I tend to make larger preflop raises. If the blinds are $25/$50 with no ante, and the average stack is somewhere in the $5,000 to $15,000 range, I will generally open the pot preflop to $200. If there are limpers, I will add around $50 for each limper. However, during the later stages of the tournament, I make smaller preflop raises. I generally raise to around 2.5 or 2.75 times the big blind if I am opening the pot preflop.
Why the disparity? During the early stages, it is correct to play fewer hands, and I want a better chance of being paid off on the hands that I do make. However, when the antes are large, it becomes correct to play many pots. After that point, I am less concerned with getting paid off when I make a hand, and more concerned with winning as many pots as possible. Naturally, that means cutting down on the risk in the pots I lose. In other words, by making smaller raises preflop, I lose fewer chips when I ultimately lose a hand.
During the early stages of a tournament, I tend to play very tight and aggressive. For the most part, I am much looser than the average player in tournaments, so when I say "tight," it's all relative. I also make larger bets than I do later in tournaments because I want to give myself a chance to take all of my opponents' chips if I hit a big hand, which is much easier to do if you are inflating the pot from the start. This includes raising with hands like small pocket pairs in situations you normally wouldn't, so that if you do hit a set, you have a good shot at winning a lot of chips.
During the later stages, I play both looser and more passively. As I've already said, this is the opposite adjustment that most players make. So why do I do it? Because it enables me to play as many hands as possible, and this is exactly what I should be doing when the antes become large.
My guess is that you are surprised when I say more passively. I am still aggressive for the most part, but there are two specific ways in which I am less aggressive. The first is in my bet sizing. My bets become smaller, both preflop and postflop. I am generally interested in taking down as many pots as possible, while risking as little as possible. Also, the value of taking someone's stack becomes lower as the average stack size becomes lower. In the early stages, my standard continuation bet might be for 85 percent of the pot, while in later stages it might be as low as 50 percent of the pot. The other way that I am more passive is by not 3-betting (reraising before the flop).
There are several reasons why I just call more before the flop. With big hands like aces and kings, most players assume they should reraise before the flop. However, you will often win a lot more money just by smooth calling. When the stacks are deep (i.e., early in a tournament) it is best to try and pump the pot as early as possible, but later in tournaments, with smaller stacks, it is better to just call.
Since I am also calling a lot with speculative hands like 7-7 and Q-J suited, I might miss the flop completely but be given an opportunity to bluff. By just calling with my stronger hands, it looks a lot stronger when I call before the flop, and I'm given more credit when I bet or raise after the flop. Also, since I am just calling much of the time with my big hands, it becomes a lot harder for someone behind me to reraise after I just call a raise. They never know if I've woken up with a big pair.
Another reason I just call before the flop is that I generally like to keep the pot small. Note that this does not make me a small-ball player, because I will still push small edges when all of my chips are on the line, which is the opposite of what a small-ball player will do. Sometimes you will encounter a table so tight that those constant small raises before the flop and small bets after the flop are all you need to win a substantial amount of chips over time.
Using this loose strategy, my stack sizes tend to vary wildly. I am playing so many pots that my stack is constantly moving up and down. In my opinion, this is not a bad thing, due to the top-heavy prize structures of tournaments. With a style like mine, I am very likely to build up a big stack early on, which usually pays dividends in the long run. Players are generally less likely to play back at me when I have a big stack because they know I am not afraid to look them up if I suspect they may be making a play at me.
If the pots are inflated by antes and my opponents aren't correctly loosening up their play, I'm going to fill in the gaps, trying to steal as many of those pots as possible. Even if I lose a large percent of them, in the long run, I will win more chips, simply due to the risk versus the reward of my small raises and small bets, against the large size of the pots because of the blinds and antes.
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