Good poker strategy: 'Change gears'

Sep 29, 2009 5:10 PM
The Inside Straight by Joe Awada |

In a few weeks, the World Series of Poker will resume for the main event’s final table, and all eyes of the poker world will once again be focused on Las Vegas as nine players vie for poker’s grand prize.

In the meantime there are tournaments ongoing virtually everywhere, from daily events in Las Vegas poker rooms to large-scale tourneys such as the Hold’em Series at Commerce Casino in Southern California.

Now, "tournaments" can mean anything from single-table sit-and-go tourneys, to multi-table tournaments (MTT), to million dollar, high stakes events.

But playing in any tournament requires a certain amount of discipline, and I’d like to share a few guidelines that have served me well over the years.

 At the start of many large tournaments there are an abundance of inexperienced players ("poor players," if you will), who are often loose and reckless.

 This can be dangerous for a good player because you never know what this type of player is going to call a hand with. Thus, be especially cautious at the start of a tournament and guard your chip stack.

My friend, professional player Chip Jett, once said he was in an online tournament and fell asleep. When he awoke he found himself in third place, without ever having played a hand!

That’s an extreme example, but the point is you must be patient.

Secondly, you must constantly adjust your style to the escalating blinds. At the start, blinds are small and not as critical as they are later in the tourney. Thus, you don’t have to kill yourself defending your blinds – you may even want to "lull" a stealer to sleep by not defending fiercely at the outset, setting him up for a rude awakening later on.

Incidentally, the size of your stack will go a long way to determining your strategy. Many times, the most aggressive players have the biggest stacks at the end of the first day or round, but they find as they go deeper into the tournament they have to adjust to the better quality of players they’ll be facing.

I think that’s key throughout – the ability to adjust or "change gears" by switching from tight or conservative play to loose or aggressive play, as the situation demands.

Naturally, play to win, not to just finish as high as possible. Tournament payouts are heavily weighted to the top three spots, so gun for the top spot. You’ll probably have to take some chances along the way, but by making the right decisions, you’ll have earned the right to be a little lucky!

Finally, don’t let the heat of the moment get the best of your emotions.

You learn the game and all of its nuances, you study the odds, you carefully gauge your opponents and, most important, you constantly evaluate your own play to ensure you are always getting better.

And, yet, you can lose on one hand to the unlikeliest of opponents.

We’ve seen it happen, time and time again … which, I suppose, is the nature of poker.

We’ve seen this in top events like the World Poker Tour. Throughout the event we will see top quality professional players fall, seemingly to "inferior" opponents. Many times those players made a mistake in judgment, took a bad beat or went on "tilt" and made a poor play.

Unfortunately, those kinds of things occur. Remember, players are human. We are all subject to mood swings and can easily become victims to our emotions.

Many times while watching a poker match on TV we’ll see a player make a strange call or an unusual all-in move.

What we don’t often see is what transpired moments before – something that might have caused the player to react emotionally.

While we can’t throttle our emotions, we can recognize when we are feeling out of sorts, and act accordingly.

For instance, when you’re feeling a little hyper, depressed or on edge, perhaps you shouldn’t play poker for a while.

During these swings, any bad beat, snide comment from an opponent or even a dirty look, can put you on "tilt" and cause you to misplay a hand.

Those kinds of errors may not be disastrous when playing limit hold’em. But when you play no limit in a tournament, any mistake can be a fatal or crippling one.

So, keep your emotions in check. You should be enjoying what you’re doing, anyway. If not, take a break and get an attitude adjustment.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Joe Awada