Tournament Poker Strategy

Tournament poker strategy

For many players, poker tournaments are the favorite format of choice, offering a challenge and an exciting opportunity to win big for a small buy-in.

Tournament poker strategy, especially for multi-table events, is quite different from cash games. This is due to the fact that in tournaments the level of blinds is constantly increasing and players tactically need to maintain the level of their stack all the time so that it does not reduce to preflop push-fold decisions.

Unfortunately, there is no special tactic in tournament play that is guaranteed to be profitable. But learning the strategy and working on the game will help you count on winnings in the long run. Because if you want to become a professional, be prepared for the fact that only results at a distance are important to you.

Poker Tournament Strategies in Disciplines

There are many different tournament formats in poker. All of them differ in structure, blind growth, number of players at the tables. The events can be distinguished by the structure of the growth of the blinds: regular, turbo, hyper-turbo.

    • MTT

    Big multi-table tournaments lure beginners with huge life-changing prizes and encourage the best poker players on the planet to constantly progress and compete with each other. MTT poker strategy for players includes the special features at the early, middle stage, bubble and at the final table.

    • Sit&Go

    Key features of tactics in SnG games that distinguish them from MTTs is the increased influence of mathematics on decision making. Given this factor, the player needs to thoroughly study the push-fold strategy, GTO poker and ICM factor.

    • Spin&Go

    This format is very popular and loved by recreational players. The opportunity to win a huge jackpot in just a few minutes is the dream of all amateurs. But not every participant understands how important a strategy here is. If you plan to play these events on a regular basis, you should thoroughly study poker math and short stack play. This will help to improve the understanding of the process of Spins and the achievement of results in them.

    • Fifty50/DoN (Double or Nothing)

    This is the format of SnG tournaments, in which half of the registered players get into the prize zone. The best online poker tournament strategy here is to double your stack and then apply pressure on others. Depending on the room, the prize fund can be divided either absolutely equally or by the remaining chips.

    Poker Tournament Tips at Different Stages

    Any tournament can be divided into several stages. Let's consider the main features of every stage in detail, since the choice of strategy heavily depends on it.

    Early stage of the tournament
    Early stage of the tournament
    • Be patient

    Use the initial stage of an MTT tournament to get more information about your opponents. Don't get into deep and difficult hands early on where you could lose a lot of your starting stack.

    • Don't steal blinds

    In the early stages, stealing the blinds will not increase your stack significantly. For example, at 25/50 level, you would have to bet at least 100-125 chips to try to win 75. In this situation, it is absolutely unprofitable to try to steal the blinds with a marginal hand, since you can lose even more postflop.

    Middle stage
    Middle stage
    • It's time to steal the blinds

    When it comes to the ante stage, the math comes into play. The risk ratio relative to the potential payoff gets better and blind stealing tactics become very profitable.

    • Make some traps

    The main tournament poker strategy in the middle stage is to make unconventional decisions to maximize profits. If there are a lot of aggressive players at the table, then you need to use a counter-strategy against them, giving them the opportunity to donate their chips.

    Late stage and bubble play
    Late stage and bubble play
    • Aggression

    This is what should be in your head when a “Hand-for-hand” sign hangs over the table. Naturally, you should play this way if you managed to get a big stack. If you have only a few blinds and you are praying to get into the money, then the ICM model will come to the rescue.

    • Don't risk

    If you have a comfortable stack to get into the prize zone, you shouldn't risk being eliminated from the tournament. The poker tournament strategy for beginners on the bubble is to sit out wisely and hit the money.

    Final table play
    Final table play
    • Know your opponents

    If your opponents are patiently waiting to move up a couple of payjumps, then (if you have a big stack) you should regularly steal the blinds and pressure short and medium stacks. If they are actively trying to double up to reach the final 3, then you can just wait for them to eliminate each other, and the opportunity to move higher will appear. This is the main strategy of online tournament poker for many players.

    • Analyze and decide

    If you get to the final table with a short stack, you will need to make a decision quickly. Are you taking the risk of being busted right now, or are you patiently waiting for the cards and playing exclusively on ICM? The answer will depend on the payout structure, style, level of play of your opponents and your stack relative to the stacks of the rest of the participants.

    The bubble stage is the moment when the game gets tough. On the one hand you don’t want to get knocked out directly before the prize zone, but on the other hand you want to win hands and have a comfortable stack. Of course, the size of your stack will matter.

    Short stack bubble strategy

    You need to make a game plan and to estimate how small your stack is in comparison with other players in the tournament. After that, you should decide what is more profitable for you: to sit and wait the minimum payments or take a risk to get a more comfortable stack.

    Big stack bubble strategy

    It’s always much easier to play with a big stack at all stages of the tournament. When you have a big stack, you don’t need to worry about getting into the minimum ITM. Your main goal on the bubble is to continue improving the stack. You must always exert pressure on players with medium and short stacks. The only thing you should worry about with a big stack is an ability to hit the brakes on time and not to donate a significant part of your chips to opponents.

    All these tips are correct either for online or live poker tournament strategy.

    Playing Tournament with Various Stack Size

    Your behavior at the poker table will depend on the size of your stack. You will be severely limited in actions with a short stack while having more power with a medium-sized one. As a chip leader, you will be an arbiter of the fate of your opponents.

    Small Stack Play

    Sooner or later, each poker player faces situations when they get short-stacked, meaning they have fewer chips than the rest participants of the tourney. Such stacks typically have 10-20 BB (or even less). It’s usually difficult to compete with such a short stack, as every hand you enter may be the last for you.

    You have fewer possible actions to take at the table, and there is no single optimal strategy line to stick to. You will need to adjust to other participants, each time based on different factors. Besides, larger bets are usually placed on the later streets (turn and river), so you will rarely be betting postflop, having not enough poker chips to further battling. This will enable deep-stacked players to exert tremendous pressure on small stacks.

    You should focus on tight players to exploit them by applying a min-raise from LP (late position) in an effort to steal the blinds. If you face a call, then try c-betting (2.5 BB or 1/3 pot) postflop. This will be your second shot to take away the pot.

    Keep in mind that you must look for perfect moments to resteal versus loose open-raisers. At the same time, it’s vital to be aware of when to move all-in wide and narrow. Versus loose opponents with medium-sized stacks who open in LP, you can shove wider. Versus tight openers who also have a small stack, the shove must be much narrower as they will unlikely open with a weak hand. The same can be applied to opponents with deep stacks who don’t care much about failing an all-in versus small one.

    Nathan "BlackRain79" Williams suggests playing relatively tight with a short stack in MTTs. He emphasizes that you should never be afraid of getting kicked out of a tourney!

    Nathan Williams
    Nathan Williams
    Successful poker player and coach

    «The best poker tournament tips for a short stack is to play tight preflop, fold all speculative hands like suited connectors and suited aces, bet small postflop with both your bluffs and your value hands, play your draws fast and use the squeeze play often»​.

    You should more carefully select hands that you are willing to play on the postflop with. At the same time, you should be ready to invest all your poker chips in the right spots. Here are the cards BlackRain79 considers best to shove all-in when having a small stack:

    • 66, 77, 88, 99, TT, JJ, QQ, KK, AA.
    • ATs, AJ, AQ, AK.
    • QJs, KJ, KQ.

    As you may have noticed, these are broadways and premium (strong) hands. If you have a really weak hand or trash, better don't fight for the pot.

    Even though you will be short stacked, many people would rather fold unless they have very strong hands. It is supposed to mean that you are able to take the pot in two ways: by causing your opponents to muck their cards (fold equity) and by completing your drawing hand.

    Medium Stack Play

    When your stack is medium (21-35 BB), your MTT poker strategy should be focused on players with shorter stacks. There are more actions to be taken compared to fighting with a smaller stack, but one wrong decision may easily change everything; therefore, steer clear of those with deeper stacks, since they can jeopardize your participation in the event.

    At this point, search for weak opponents who have little chips left and exert pressure on them to boost your stack. An ideal moment to do that is when your “victim” opens preflop: use a 3-bet to place them in a challenging position (fold cards or shove).


    • CO Hero (30 BB)
    • MP (20 BB)

    MP opens to 2.5 big blinds pre-flop, Hero (in the cut-off) 3-bets to 7 big blinds. Now, the opener is in a difficult situation as has to decide what to do – fold or play for the stack. This is a perfect spot for Hero to amass chips because he can lose only around 25% of the stack while the opener is risking all of his chips if he shoves unsuccessfully.

    Accordingly, you should wait for such spots where your rivals will make decisions for their entire stack, and you will risk somewhere about 20%-30% of your chips. It’s necessary to apply similar maneuvers playing in position, as it reduces the likelihood that your opponent will call your 3-bet.

    At the same time, you should steer clear of loose players who will easily call your 3-bets, as well as opponents with big stacks who stick to aggressive behavior and constantly move all-in. It's because you will risk all of your chips. When you receive a call from your opponent, it’s prudent to make a postflop c-bet (1/3 of the pot) with the intention to grab the pot.

    Big Stack Strategy

    When you are lucky to have a deep stack (55 BB or above), then you should follow an extremely aggressive line, trying to find perfect spots to exert pressure on participants with stacks of 30-40 BB.

    In this case, you should generally steal a lot of pots, open wider, and apply light 3-bets versus weak players. Also, have no fear to call with any playable cards in CO or BTN. For instance, if the Hijack with 40 BB in his stack opens to 2.5 big blinds, you can easily call him as you are in position and get him covered. Thus, the Hijack will be more cautious towards his postflop actions.

    A big stack gives you the opportunity to exploit players with smaller ones by forcing them to make a hard choice. For example, apply 3-betting.

    At the same time, you have to defend your open-raises by calling 3-bets from your opponents. Especially, when you are in position. Tend to play cards, with which you feel confident to invest money in the pot when facing aggressive behavior on the turn and river. For instance, KQs is a solid hand to defend versus 3-betting, while QJo doesn’t suit for such a spot.

    Although you can play a wider range of hands and enter the game more often, you should still be cautious and avoid playing massive pots, where other players can double up from you. Try to reach a showdown only if you have a premium hand, otherwise do your best to grab the pot on the preflop or flop stages. Remember that an aggression like this is a tournament poker strategy for advanced players.

    Bankroll Management Tips

    Before starting an active game in MTT tournaments, you need to learn how to properly manage your bankroll. Professional poker players are often hit by variance and even following right poker tournament strategies does not save them from financial losses.

    How do you deal with a losing streak when your strategy isn't paying off? You need to play within your bankroll and have more than 100 buy-ins in your limit. There are three types of bankroll management:

    • Aggressive – up to 100 buy-ins
    • Normal – 100-150 buy-ins
    • Deep – 200-250 buy-ins

    MTT is a discipline of heavy variance, so be prepared for the fact that you can not get into the prizes for days. If you play tournaments that are too expensive, you run the risk of losing all your money, falling into an unsuccessful streak. But if you have a cash reserve and you know how to play poker, you will be profitable at a distance.

    Is this bankroll management good for cash?
    Is this bankroll management good for cash?

    The poker strategy for cash games is very different from the tournament one. Therefore, cash has its own recommendations regarding the needed number of buy-ins.

    Final Thoughts

    There are always a large number of amateurs participating in poker tournaments. They are attracted by the opportunity to win big money after paying a relatively small entry fee. For example, poker rooms hold events with a buy-in of $11 and a prize pool of $100,000.

    But getting into prizes is impossible without strict adherence to the chosen strategy. Tournament professionals obviously do not become overnight, so you need to constantly work on yourself. You can find a lot of tournament poker strategy videos on the web that can show you different spots to analyze.

    For a poker player, a strategy isn't the only thing that matters. Practice is also important, because with it comes experience. You will find an event to play without problems, as poker rooms offer thousands of different events every day. There you can find your best tournament poker strategy and decide on your style of play.

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    💎 How do I get better at MTT poker?

    To improve your results in multi-table poker tournaments, you need to constantly work on theory and practice. To work with the theory, you can watch educational videos, streams of professional players, study articles and materials on forums. The main practice is to play online and offline, as well as to do a detailed analysis of the hands played and the mistakes made. It is very important to adhere to the principles of bankroll management.

    🎯 What is the best strategy to win a poker tournament?

    The tournament strategy seriously depends on the game stage: early, middle, bubble and late/final table. The task of each participant is to go as far as possible and win as much money as possible. The most popular strategy is the tight-aggressive play, which consists of a strict choice of starting hands and the use of aggression with strong hands. You can find more detailed tips on how to play at each stage of the event in our article.

    💡 How do you run deep in MTT?

    In poker MTTs, it is very important to be able not only to get into the prize zone, but also to make the so-called deep runs, since the main money is paid out at the final table. To do this, you need to understand the situation in the tournament and constantly analyze it: the number of players remaining, stack sizes, the style of the players at the table, payjumps. The key success factor is that your strategy should change during the tournament. It depends on the stage of the game and the size of your stack.

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