How to Play in a Poker Tournament

Tournament poker has been a popular event since the 2003 win of the appropriately named Chris Moneymaker at the World Series of Poker Main Event. Three years later, the Main Event boasted 8,773 participants, enabling winner Jamie Gold to deal himself a first prize of $12 million. Poker tournaments differ from regular casino poker games in that they run for a fixed length of time; each player "buys in" to start with the same amount in chips. Only the top finishers get paid, while the rest go home with only memories. While poker's main attraction is its element of luck, playing in a poker tournament requires skill to capitalize on that luck when the cards are going your way and to moderate its effects when the cards are going against you. The following steps give you advice on how to play in a poker tournament.


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    Be familiar with the type of poker being played in the tournament. You should have playing experience with the type of poker played in the tournament, the best hands, and the likelihood of what you or your opponents can make from the cards you've been dealt. Many poker tournaments are based on one of the "hold 'em" games such as Texas hold 'em or Omaha, in which the first 3 cards are dealt to the center of the table and players make their poker hands from these community cards plus 2 in their hands.
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    Know the types of poker tournament. Poker tournaments can be classified as 1 of 4 types:
    • Elimination. Also called "freeze out" tournaments, elimination tournaments have each player beginning with the same amount of chips on buying in. Players are divided among multiple tables, and as a player runs out of chips, he or she is eliminated. As the number of players dwindles, surviving players are moved to tables with other winners, and play continues until only 1 table is left, and then until 1 player wins all the chips. The pot is divided among the top finishers, with the winner earning the lion's share.
    • Rebuy. Rebuy tournaments allow players who lose all their chips within the first 2 hours (or other time period) to buy additional chips to keep playing. This leads to more aggressive initial play and to larger prize pools than in elimination tournaments with the same "buy in" cost.
    • Shootout. Similar to elimination tournaments, except that each table plays down to a single winner. Depending on the number of initial players, the shootout process is repeated until there are only enough players to seat at a single table. Shootout tournaments are usually considerably shorter than elimination tournaments.
    • Satellite. Satellite tournaments are preliminary tournaments in which players play for the stake to enter a larger tournament.
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    Know how long the game will run and how far along it in you are. Poker tournaments are not games that are won with quick, early victories; they are games of attrition. You may be helped by a big win early on, but you'll still have more game to play after that. To help you pace yourself, break the game down into early, middle, and end stages.
    • The early stage begins with blinds (forced bets by the players to the dealer's left) with relatively few chips in them. Some players play this stage aggressively, while other players fold weak hands, never bluff, and let the aggressive players take each other out. Conservative players don't get into a pot early without at least a pair of jacks or better, or an ace and king, while some players will get into such a pot with a lone ace if they see the chance to make a flush with it. More aggressive players try to get as many hands in as possible, looking to take out weaker players and build up their stack of chips so they can outplay other players later in the tournament.
    • In the middle stage, with moderate-sized blinds, many players who've been playing aggressively start to become more conservative as the thought of winning money crosses their minds. Other players, who've been more conservative in the early stage, start to loosen up, entering pots with ace-queen, ace-jack, and king-queen combinations as well as those mentioned for the early stage, as the opportunity presents itself, as well as taking a blind when the cards support it.
    • In the late stage, when the blinds are at their largest, play loosens up still further, when having at least a pair or an ace with any accompanying high card is justification for competing for the pot, except when more than 2 players are contending for it, in which case you'll need better cards.
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    Take your playing position into account when you make your plays. Just as it's usually best to play conservatively in the early part of the game and more aggressively later on, the same is true for how to play a given hand. If you play early in the hand, you should usually play more conservatively against the players who come after you, while if you play late in the hand, you should play more aggressively against your predecessors.
    • A related rule of thumb for playing a hand is the Gap Rule defined by David Sklansky: It takes a better hand to call a bet than to open with.
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    Keep track of your chips with respect to where you are in the game. How many chips you have determines how risky you can be when playing. A bet of 5,000 chips is not a major risk at 10 percent of a hoard of 50,000 chips, but it's a major risk of 2/3 of your stake when you have only 7,500 chips. While playing, compare your stack against the following:
    • How many chips you have against what your opponents have. If you have more chips than most or all of them do, you're in the lead or close to it and can play more conservatively to keep your lead or be aggressive to force other players out. If you have fewer chips than most or all of them, you have to take more risks just to try to catch up.
    • How many chips you have against the blinds being played. There are usually 2 blinds in games without antes, a small blind and a big blind. The big blind usually starts equal to the minimum bet, and the small blind is half of that, rounded to the nearest practical amount. Blinds increase (usually by 25 to 50 percent per round) as the tournament progresses, forcing players with smaller stacks to play more aggressively to avoid falling behind ("getting short").
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    Know the strategies most likely to be used by other poker players at your table. Although most tournament poker players are experienced enough to avoid giving "tells" with their facial expressions, you can observe how they play the game and from it make an educated guess about what kind of hand they're holding. Professional poker player Phil Hellmuth has devised a system of classifying tournament players with animal names according to how they play. Hellmuth's zodiac of players is described below:
    • Mouse. A mouse player is quiet and highly analytical, putting chips in the pot only when he or she has the cards to back it up. Because of this, when a mouse does raise, it's apparent the mouse has the cards to back up the bet and other players fold quickly. This playing style is good early in the game, but not usually sustainable when the mouse lacks significantly more chips than are in the big blind.
    • Jackal. The jackal plays aggressively no matter how many chips are in front of him or her, frequently going "all in" to bluff cautious players out of their chips. They are similarly vulnerable to being bluffed by other players.
    • Elephant. Elephants like to play as many hands during the game as possible, rushing each hand to a speedy conclusion so they can play the next one. Accordingly an elephant won't raise often but will call, and is willing to lose small hands in order to win big later. If you hold good cards, you can often score against an elephant by stretching out a hand with small bets.
    • Lion. Lions are the masters of the game, players who know when to bluff (sometimes more than once), when to check, when to call, and when to raise.
    • Keep in mind that the other players will also draw their own conclusions about the hands you've got from the way you play. It can be beneficial to bluff every so often when you've given other players the impression you only play good cards.
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    Be willing to change your strategy when conditions dictate. In spite of the advice given in the previous steps, there will be times when a given hand doesn't follow the progression of hands in the game, or you may get a sense that another player is telegraphing his or her moves. In those circumstances, it can be beneficial to adjust your playing style to take advantage of the opportunity. Likewise, you may have to fold an otherwise good hand because the risk exceeds the potential reward. The only way to know when to adapt is to have played enough to develop an intuitive feel for the game.


  • Another way to gain experience in the ins and outs of tournament poker is to watch an online tournament from beginning to end. This will give you some idea of the value of bluffing, as well as various playing styles.

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Categories: Card Games