Darse's No-Limit Hold'em Tournament Primer

Here is a basic strategy for playing in No-Limit Hold'em tournaments.

I originally wrote this as an essay for rec.gambling.poker, in response
to a frequently asked question.  Some time later, I was told that about
two-thirds of the players in a large r.g.p. tournament (L.A.R.G.E., the
Los Angeles Rec.Gambling Excursion/Extravaganza) had printed a copy of
the primer -- including the top three finishers!

In 1995, Mason Malmuth asked me to be a contributing author for a new
poker magazine called "Poker World".  This revised essay was slated to
be a feature article in the second issue, but unfortunately the magazine
folded after its first issue, for technical reasons.  (The magazine
"Poker Digest" took its place for a few years).

Caveat Emptor, and all that stuff.

  - Darse.

A Primer for Playing No-Limit Hold'em Tournaments

No-limit Hold'em tournaments are becoming increasingly popular these days.
They are a change of pace from the regular grind, and give players a
chance to win a big prize if they're lucky.  A player who is knowledgeable
about the best tournament strategies can also hold a big edge over the
opposition.  Conversely, inexperienced tournament players can be at a
significant disadvantage, even if they are fairly good at limit Hold'em.

For a player who is new to the tournament environment, but ready to give
it a try, the natural question is "Where do I start?".  The aim of this
article is to give a simple "crude but effective" strategy that will give
even a novice tournament player a decent chance of finishing in the money.

First, the disclaimer.  It takes a lot of learning and practice to become
a strong poker player.  For most people, it requires hundreds of hours of
reading and playing, often over the course of years.  Tournament strategy
adds a completely new dimension to this expertise, and there is no way
you're going to become an expert overnight.  It is equally impossible for
a single magazine article to explore the full depth and complexity of
poker and tournament strategy.  

What we hope to accomplish is simply to give a succinct set of guidelines
which will help the relatively inexperienced tournament participant close
the gap, and perhaps even hold a slight advantage over the opposition.
These ideas have been field tested, and they are surprisingly successful.
The reason this system works so well despite its simplicity is probably
because many players, including veterans, fail to make the appropriate
adjustments to tournament conditions.

The primary goal in a tournament is simply to stay alive -- to outlast
the more reckless players and to still have some chips when the field is
reduced to only the paying positions.  The approach we recommend is to
play tight but aggressive, to avoid large confrontations (except when we
expect to have much the best of it), and to seize good opportunities,
especially late in the tournament.

Although the main objective is to survive as long as possible, that does
*not* mean you should fear being eliminated.  To be successful, you must
make the most of your good hands and situations.  In tournaments, safety
is worth money -- but ironically, it is the most courageous players who
are the safest, not the most passive ones.

In no-limit poker, all you can ask for is to get all the chips in the
middle when you figure to have the best of it.  You might have KK and lose
to AA, or be caught by someone with 52s -- it happens.  If you lose, you
lose, but don't let that make you second guess a good decision.  There is
no reason to regret such a loss, and you should do exactly the same thing
if the opportunity arises again.  With that philosophy in mind, let's now
look at some specific tactics for no-limit Hold'em tournaments.

How to play before the flop

Rule 1:  Play only very good starting hands.

In early position, play only premium starting hands, such as Sklansky's
group one and group two hands: AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AKs; TT, AQs, AK, AJs, KQs.

In late position, add a few more solid hands, such as those in group
three: 99, AQ, ATs, KJs, QJs, JTs, and perhaps AJ, KQ.  Play small pairs
only if it's cheap to see the flop and you expect to win a large pot if
you hit a set.

The idea is to play very few hands, but to usually bet and raise with
those you do play.  Contrary to popular perception, playing tight is not
the same as playing passively.  When you fold before the flop, it should
be thought of as an aggressive action.  You are simply refusing to invest
your money on a bad or mediocre holding, and are preparing to use every
one of those saved chips when you believe you have the best of it.  Being
selective in your starting hands helps you to survive in at least two ways.

First, in the time you are folding hand after hand, other people will be
playing, and some will be eliminated.  This brings you closer to the prize
money, even if the number of chips you have hasn't changed.  This is a
unique feature of percentage pay-back tournaments (events with more than
one prize, which is the standard).  If you're interested in learning more
about this mathematical fact, the best theoretical analysis of tournament
strategy can be found in "Gambling Theory and Other Topics", by Mason
Malmuth.  But since not everyone is inclined to read such a treatise or
spend hours absorbing its implications before entering their first
tournament, we've tried to have most of those principles built-in to this
simplified system.

The second advantage to playing only premium hands is that you minimize
the occurrence of situations which require delicate judgement.  Many
typical players frequently put themselves into difficult situations that
require careful handling, where a single error can cost them their whole
stack.  As a relatively inexperienced player, you want to avoid these
dangerous spots as much as possible.  By playing only very sound starting
cards, you will usually have a very strong hand, a very strong draw, or a
hand you can fold easily after the flop.

Rule 2:  If you are the first one in, enter with a raise.

Because of your tight hand selection, you will usually have the best hand
when you do play, so you want to make others pay to play.  This first
raise should be a meaningful size, regardless of your actual hand --
you'll play pocket Aces the same way as KQs, and your opponents won't know
what you have (except that it isn't junk).

In the early going, when the blinds are small compared to the average
stack, your raise can be quite a bit more than the big blind, say between
five and ten percent of your total stack.  For example, if everyone starts
with 1000 in tournament chips and the blinds begin at 5 and 10, consider
opening with a raise of 50 or more.  Later, when the blinds are larger
relative to the average stack, a good guideline is to raise the size of
the pot after your call.  For example, if the blinds are 100 and 200 and
you are under the gun, raising another 500 (making it 700 to go) is a
respectable amount.

Rule 3: If there are other callers in before you, raise if you have a
	large pocket pair, otherwise call.

With earlier callers, the pot will usually be large enough that you want
to fight for it immediately if you have a premium pair.  Raise the size of
the pot or more with AA, KK or QQ.  Now you are satisfied to either win
the pot right there, or to have someone pay such a high price to play an
inferior hand.

With lesser hands, your advantage isn't likely to be as great, so you'll
wait until the flop to see where you stand.  Notice that this advice is
somewhat at odds with Rule 1, and there is some middle-ground between
them.  The difference with having early callers already in the pot is that
they are more likely to call a raise, so your chance of winning the pot
uncontested is greatly reduced compared to being the first one in.  On the
other hand, if you have a good hand like AK, and there is just one caller
in before you, you may still want to raise in order to limit the number of
callers and increase the price of admission for those who do call.  You
should be more inclined to just call if your hand is suited or there is
more than one caller already in the hand.  You should be more inclined to
raise with good pairs or unsuited hands with an Ace, especially if the
only caller is a loose player (unlikely to have a particularly strong hand).

If there are several callers, you can call a small bet (say up to five
percent of your stack) with a small pocket pair, in the hope of hitting a
set on the flop.  As you gain no-limit tournament experience, you may also
wish to call in this good situation with suited connectors like 76s or a
nut-flush draw like A5s.  However, be advised that these hands require
more skill to play well, and may not be worth the trouble.

Rule 4:  Use caution in responding to a raise.

If you have not yet acted and someone has raised, play only if you still
expect to have the best hand.  If you have already entered the pot, either
with a raise or late call, and the pot is therefore substantial, a few
more hands can be played, but you must still exercise extreme caution.
Many starting hands that are normally good become highly vulnerable in
this situation.

Do not hesitate to fold hands like KQs or 99 if you respect the raiser --
you are likely to be either a slight favourite or a large underdog, and
this is not the best place for you to invest your money.  The danger with
cards like KQ is that you could hit your hand (a King-high or Queen-high
flop) and still be far behind (to AA, KK, AK or AQ, for example), in which
case you are likely to get eliminated.  Avoid the large confrontation, and
wait for a better moment to commit your stack.

If you have AA, KK, or QQ, or some other hand you believe to be superior
to the raiser's, then re-raise the size of the pot or move all-in with
your whole stack.  These are the best possible hands you can start with,
and you must not be shy.  To make the most of them, the right time to act
is now, before the flop.  As before, you will be delighted if you win the
sizable pot without a fight; and if you get called, you will be getting a
high pay-off for a reasonable risk.

With a hand that is not as strong but could well be the best, such as AK
or JJ, you can call and see the flop provided it doesn't cost too much
(say another ten or fifteen percent of your stack).  Now you'll commit to
the hand if you get a favourable flop, and get out if the board suggests
added danger.  If the initial raise is so large that you cannot get this
information for a reasonable price, then "discretion is the better part of
valour", and you should usually release the hand.

Note that the value of your hand also depends on your perception of the
opponent.  Against a player who seems to raise too frequently (suggesting
they often do not have a very strong hand), you might re-raise all-in with
JJ, or play AQ the same way you would normally play AK.  Unfortunately,
this can also lead to difficult decisions later in the hand, so you should
not go out of your way to punish a player you feel is bluffing too much,
until you acquire more experience.

How to play after the flop

Rule 5:  When you hit a flop you like, bet big and raise big.

Once you see the flop, you will usually know where you stand.  If you have
an overpair (eg JJ: T-7-4), hit top pair (eg AQ: A-7-2) or a set (eg 22:
K-J-2), then you are ready to play.  You have waited patiently for this
good opportunity, and now you are willing to go the distance.

Betting the size of the pot is normal, but for our purposes a larger bet
of about twice the size of the pot may be preferable.  The reason for such
a large bet is that you are not too interested in getting called unless
the price is high.  You do not want to let a weaker hand draw cheaply, nor
do you want to be put into a potentially awkward situation if it can be
avoided.  By making these oversized bets (relative to the size of the
pot), you quickly force your opponents to make a critical decision for
their whole stack.  They must either fold, in which case you win with no
risk, or they must risk a large loss when you likely have a significant
advantage over them.

Choosing the size of a bet also depends on how many chips you have.  You
should bet up to about one third of your stack (leaving enough for another
meaningful bet on the turn), or else go all-in.  If you are up against a
single opponent, you should base these proportions on the smaller stack,
since that is the maximum number of chips that can actually be wagered.
For example, suppose you and your opponent each have 1000, and the current
pot is 150.  A bet of 300 now is a strong action, because it leaves you
enough for one large all-in bet on the turn if your opponent should call.
If you *or* your opponent had only 500, then a bet of 300 probably isn't
as effective.  You could choose to either bet 150 now (leaving 350 for
next), or simply move all-in immediately, depending on the circumstances.

If you've hit a flop you like and someone else bets, you can make a large
raise or move all-in immediately (unless there is a very good reason to
believe you are beaten, in which case you should fold).  Your opponent's
bet has indicated a good hand, but you have a golden opportunity to win a
large pot if your hand is just a bit better, which is quite probable if
you've started with the recommended hands.  Once again you must play with
courage and conviction, even in the face of possible elimination.

If your bet or raise is called and the turn card is not terribly
frightening, make another large bet or move all-in at that time.  You can,
of course, still lose, but very few hands will be getting proper odds for
a call and it will take a very good hand to beat you.  Again, that's all
you can reasonably ask for.  Most of the time the player that calls you
will be the underdog, and you have played well regardless of the outcome.

Of course, life isn't always so easy, and there will be times when you are
not so certain of having the best hand.  Perhaps someone moves all-in in
front of you, and you have top pair but a mediocre side card (eg. AJs:
A-T-5).  Perhaps the board is paired (eg. AK: K-5-5), has a possible flush
(eg. KQs: Kc-Tc-5c), or you have only second pair (eg. JJ: Q-8-5).  There
are far too many possibilities to discuss here, but you must simply use
your best judgement, based on the number of players in the pot, your
knowledge of the opponents, and other factors.  To be a tough player, you
sometimes have to accept some risk, and demand that your opponent prove
they have your decent hand beaten.  At other times, you must have the
discipline to throw away a good hand when it looks too dangerous to
continue.  Make your best guess and act decisively (usually raising or
folding, rather than calling).  If your decision turns out to be
incorrect, so be it -- you've learned something for the next time.

Rule 6:  When you hit a good draw, bluff if the conditions are right.
	 Call only if the one-card draw odds are correct.

Bluffing is an essential component of poker tactics, and no basic strategy
can be sound without including a certain frequency of bluffs.  Put simply,
if you never bluff you are giving away too much information to your
opponents when you bet.  Even mediocre players will soon learn that you
almost always have a strong hand when you bet, and they will learn to
correctly fold, which is to your detriment.

In this basic system, you will use your good drawing hands for bluffs
because although they are weak they have a lot of potential for forming a
strong hand should you get called.  If you flop a four-flush or or an
open-ended straight draw, you will usually have overcards as well (eg AJd:
Kd-Tc-5d, KQc: Jh-Tc-5d), giving you a hand with many outs, even against a
top pair.

First you must decide if a bluff is warranted.  Against players who almost
always call, or against many opponents one of whom may call, you should
decline bluffing because the chance of success is too low.  More usually,
you'll be up against one or two typical players, and a bluff will be both
reasonable and profitable.  Bet exactly as you would with a strong hand,
forcing the opposition into a critical decision immediately.  (More
experienced players who normally use a wide variety of bet sizes can
improve their expectation with a well-chosen bluff size, but that is
beyond the scope of this simple system).

In particularly good situations, such as acting last after a couple of
reasonable players have checked, you can also bluff with as little as
Ace-high (eg. AQ: J-8-5).  This is a semi-bluff because you may actually
have the best hand, but still have a decent chance to improve if you get
called.  You may also discover that your bets are commanding a lot of
respect because you have already won several showdowns with strong hands.
This is a good time to increase your bluffing frequency, especially in the
later stages of the tournament when there is a lot to be gained from a
successful steal.

If your bluff gets called and you fail to improve your hand, you should
generally check on the turn.  Often your action on the flop will earn you
a free river card, especially if you have good position.  If your opponent
does bet, release the hand unless you are getting correct odds to call
(which normally won't be the case).

If the turn is a friendly card and you're first to act, either bet or
check-raise, depending which plan you think will win the most money.  If
you're last to act, bet or raise now -- do not slow-play the hand unless
you're *certain* you can win more that way.  Generally speaking, your
opponent has much more incentive to call on the turn (to see that last
card), and you want to be called with your monster hand.  If you only
hit an overcard instead of the big draw, then bet as you would normally
with top pair (you don't want to give up a free card, and may get called
by the previous top pair).

Many players fall in love with their big drawing hands, but this is a
serious error.  In limit Hold'em, these hands can be quite powerful
because the small bet sizes ensure that it will almost always be correct
to call on the turn as well.  In no-limit poker you can't look beyond the
next card, because your opponent can make such a large bet on the turn
that you are forced to fold (or make a bad play by calling).  Having said
that, it may still be a good play to call a small bet (say one third of
the pot or less) with your good drawing hands, especially if you act
behind the bettor and expect to win another large bet if you hit your
draw.  In principle, you don't mind taking a reasonable risk for a large
guaranteed pay-off, because you're going to need some luck to defeat the
good players anyway.

Rule 7:  Late in the tournament, fight for the blinds with big cards.

Tight play is effective early in a tournament because you are essentially
refusing to risk a lot when there is relatively little to be gained.  As
the blinds and antes grow larger, there is more to be gained from winning
the hand, so more risks can be taken.  The increasing blinds also mean
that more critical decisions will be faced earlier in each hand.  At the
latest stages of the tournament, your choices will often be reduced to
either folding or going all-in before the flop, and you must know how to
adjust to this new style of play.

Since the higher stakes will quickly erode your stack, you will probably
need to win the blinds fairly regularly in order to survive.  Once the
blinds have reached the stage where you have only enough chips for one
meaningful raise, you must be willing to go all-in with any hand that
figures to be the best against the remaining players in the hand.  This
could mean committing your whole stack on a hand that you would have
normally folded early in the tournament.

You won't attempt to steal with garbage hands, however.  You can think of
this as a semi-bluff, where you might well have the strongest hand at the
moment, but still have a chance of drawing out in the event that you get
called.  For example, if there are no callers yet, you might jam with A7
on the button, or with 88 from middle position.  You could easily get
called and then lose in this situation, but since it will take a good hand
or a lucky draw to beat you, you are satisfied to accept this risk.

The strength of the starting hand needed for a good semi-steal play will
depend on the size of the blinds, the number of players yet to act in the
hand, and their style of play.  Generally, you are looking for at least a
medium pair or two large cards (especially if one is an Ace).  Suitedness
is not terribly important, so you would much rather have KT offsuit than
54s, for example.  (Note that this is exactly the reverse of the situation
early in the tournament, where playing KT could be a fatal error).  As
always, there is a lot of room for your evaluation of the situation.  If
in your best judgement you are unlikely to win the blinds with a raise, it
may be better to wait for a stronger hand.  However, if the other players
believe you only play strong starting hands, you may be able to use this
to win the blinds a few extra times before they catch on.

By the same reasoning, at the later stages of the tournament you must also
be more willing to defend your blinds when you have a reasonably solid
hand.  For example, it may be too conservative to fold KJ to a possible
steal attempt, even if you have to go all-in to call.  Against frequent
raisers, you might even decide to call with any Ace.

Rule 8:  Treat your last few chips as though they were precious, because
         they are.

If your stack is so small that you do not even have enough for a decent
raise of the big blind, then you actually need a stronger hand to call,
since you don't have that added chance of winning the hand uncontested.
Now you are simply waiting for cards which you fully expect to be the
best hand going in.  If it doesn't come, keep waiting until the big
blind forces you all-in (or close to it), and let your luck decide the
issue.  The mathematics of tournament poker show that your last few
chips are actually worth more than each of the chips in a tall stack, so
entering into a border-line situation is not in your favour.  For more
on this phenomenon, the reader is again referred to Mason Malmuth's
studies of tournament strategies.

If you are in the blinds, it will often be correct to call even with a
very weak hand.  For example, if you are in the small blind and calling
the big blind will put you all-in, you should call with _any two cards_
(unless there was a raise indicating a very strong hand, and even then it
may be correct to call).

Once you are in the money, remember that the main objective is to survive
as long as possible.  This could mean making some unusual looking plays.
For example, suppose you have only one chip left and are dealt QQ, but a
player before you calls the big blind all-in.  Since there is a decent
chance of a player being eliminated this hand, your best option could very
well be to fold!  For the same reasons, you may elect to fold KQs after
another player raises all-in, even if you think you have a pretty good
chance of winning.  By avoiding the large confrontation, you might lock up
a higher finishing position, and win substantially more money.

To recap our recommended basic strategy, start by playing only very good
starting hands and play them aggressively.  When you make a strong hand,
such as top pair with a good kicker, be prepared to go the distance.  When
you do play a hand, use your best judgement and be decisive -- either make
large bets and raises, or fold if you think you're beat.   Do not be afraid
to bluff when a good opportunity presents itself.

As the blinds increase in size, add more strong hands (pairs and big
cards) and fight for the blinds.  Avoid large confrontations when possible
but seize opportunities when they arise.  Play to survive, but do not play
passively.  When down to your last few chips, wait for a strong hand
before committing them, and continue waiting until the big blind finally
forces you to play.  Learn as much as you can about your opponents and the
special nature of tournament play, and above all, have fun!

  - Darse.


The article does not go into very much detail on the late stages of a
tournament -- that is a problem you would like to have!  Suffice it to
say that you should try to steal the blinds frequently (much more than
your "fair share") whenever it has been folded to you.  Most players
will be playing far too tight at this stage, and there is an enormous
+EV opportunity for stealing a few extra blinds.  You should also have
garnered a healthy amount of respect from your previous tight play.

Copyright 1995 2005 by Darse Billings