Thursday, June 16, 2005

MTT Strategy

I've had quite a few IM conversations lately about tournament play, so I thought I would talk about that for a while. Specifically, the mental process I go through while playing. Please keep in mind - though certainly open for debate - this is what I have found works for ME. I am not preaching that this is how everyone should play, to each his/her own. I would love to hear what process others go through in their tournaments though.

There are four general stages to any given tournament:

1.) First hour
2.) Making it to the bubble
3.) In the money
4.) Final table

First hour

I am always amazed at how people play the first hour of a tournament, especially rebuys. Players will go all-in time after time just to attempt doubling up (or tripling, etc.) in the first hour, spending tens (or even hundreds) of dollars in the process. I can understand that some of the prize pools justify a "whatever it takes" type of mentality, but in the long run I have to wonder how far ahead most of these players are. (Actually, I have a pretty good idea...)

What works for me most of the time is to play uber-slow. I rarely play more than 12-17% of hands in the first few hours of any given tournament. When I am playing in this "zone" I always get to a point where I feel that I wouldn't recognize a good hand if it got up and smacked me. Then I say to myself:

"You will know when to play, and don't play before you know".

It may sound kind of silly, but it is the truest thing I can write on here. When you play with that knowledge, you don't have to wonder about your hand. The cards really don't matter, and you don't second guess your decisions. When you slip into this zone of playing - it is a beautiful thing. Now don't get me wrong - I am making it sound like this is a warm fuzzy place where you don't have to flex a single brain muscle, but it is actually the opposite. This is when my mind really starts working. I slip into a moment of clarity where I automatically calculate pot odds and implied pot odds, I can read my opponents more clearly than before, etc. The thought process becomes automatic, rather than forced. I begin playing with rose-colored glasses on, so to speak.

I know that a lot of people are going to argue this point. To each his own, really, but I am just describing what happens to me. No, it doesn't happen in every tournament, I could only be so lucky. However, the longer I play this way, the more often it does occur.

So many people say to me that they get too stressed out while waiting for hands, so they start playing junk because they are afraid of blinding out. Yeah, it does happen, but patience is rewarded in poker, and all I can say is wait for the right moment. You WILL know.

Making it to the bubble

My strategy here is basically the same as above. I play off other player's impatience more than anything. I think most people are concerned about building larger chip stacks at this point so they tend to do so out of position, with lesser cards, and without well-thought out decisions. When I am on top of my game, I don't worry about increasing my own chip stack at this point in a tournament, it just happens on it's own if I play correctly.

At this stage, I am only playing to get past the bubble. I let go of any thoughts of making the final table, and try to concentrate on the here-and-now. I slip into a ring-game mentality, which I think has helped more than anything. When you play ring games, all you are concerned with is the hand in front of you, not what is going to happen in ten minutes or an hour.

In the money

I allow myself a few moments to enjoy the fact that I have earned my buy-in back, but now it is time to get serious.

Though every aspect of playing poker is important throughout the entire tournament, this is when I find positional play is absolutely key. It is assumed that the blinds are large enough to make a difference at this point, so protecting them is a lot more important now than before.

I have also found this is when most opponents start playing the way I was while waiting for the bubble. Most seem to tighten up, and often you see everyone folding to the big blind. People are very concerned about making an error here, so this is when I will step out with more bluffs, scooping the blinds if nothing else. It takes practice making the transition from a tight player into an agressive one though, especially after hours and hours of folding.

I used to be overly concerned with my overall placement, stressing out if I was not in the top 20 or 30 chip leaders, but I have started to let that go. I keep the final table in sight, and try to stay in the top half of the field or better, but it is no longer my main concern. It is rare, actually, that I will look at exactly what place I am in, until it comes time to be concerned with the larger money spots. Let's be honest - unless you are playing in a very large buy-in MTT, there is very little monetary difference between 180th place paid, and 30th.

Final Table

I am not going to get into much strategy here. Honestly, if you are at the final table of a MTT you either have skills or got extremely lucky, both of which are important in poker. I think that final table play is an individual thing, and what works for me may not work for everyone. The only general advice I would give is to loosen up your starting requirements a bit, but don't play every hand. Find a balance somewhere in the middle, and play your position to the max - blinds are golden at this level.