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Stepping up to
tournament play

Dec 2, 2003 2:47 AM

In recent months there’s been a lot of interest in, discussion surrounding and excitement over live poker.

Much of that excitement has been fueled by the unprecedented coverage tournament poker has received on the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour series, which airs Wednesday nights.

As a result of so much TV exposure there’s been a lot of speculation among poker players ”” from beginner to expert ”” over what it takes to compete at the tournament level. Here are a few thoughts for those players thinking about throwing their flea-bitten poker hats into the tournament ring.

Beginning and even middle-limit live action poker players make the mistake of attempting to transfer their regular style to tournaments. As a result, most only survive to the middle rounds of tournaments. To be a successful tournament competitor, one must treat the format as an entity totally separate from live poker. Rising blind pressure, time constraints, prize award structures, and constantly changing table composition force every player to react differently than in a regular game. Consequently, hand values, position, chip status, and playing style are all relative to the tournament stage and much more volatile than in a normal game. This is a brief outline of how a top tournament player might prepare before entering.

1. Build a position chart. Start with a standard positional strategy format such as in Sklansky’s books. Then alter the chart for the different stages of a tournament and chip position relative to blinds or antes. Figure an opening stage, middle rounds, run for the money, and final table as the minimum. Transition to each stage is determined by structure (see No. 2). Early, middle, and late positions should have a range of playable hands for survival mode, even keel mode, and optimum mode. To determine the current mode, set a chip limit for each round for even keel. Below that is survival mode; double or more is optimum.

2. Analyze the structure. Blind and ante levels for each round, coupled with the time per round, make up the structure. By estimating the average number of hands per level, a player can figure how many blinds will be paid and how many hands can be folded before a player is forced into action. The higher the number, the greater chance for a skilled player to win. Tournaments that double every 10 or 15 minutes with no rebuy are more like shotgun eliminations; one bad hand or bad beat and out. Rebuy stage is a preliminary process to assemble chips for the first round after rebuys are done. A player should have an idea how many chips are comfortable and work to that number. Set an even keel amount for each level, or if time permits more skill, set it for every stage. A suggested method might be to use a multiple of the blinds. Experienced players might need only five times the big blind, but others might need to be at 10 times the big blind to be comfortable.

3. Create a generic player’s chart. Most players classify their opponents somehow. Even if a person labels opponents passive, trap, aggressive, maniac, the key is to attempt to decipher how these players will make bets and raises relative to a position chart as above. The faster a new table can be analyzed as to opponent playing style, the better opportunity a player will have to make or save bets.

4. Make a "moves" list. Stealing blinds with a late position raise, betting from the front with a bad flop, and so forth are examples of moves. Most players develop an assortment of moves, but are not always organized about when to use them. Most moves only work against specific players, so along with knowing what style and hand selection to use against each player group, assemble the moves that will be profitable as well. Some players actually change styles depending on their chip status, so be careful that all the elements are in place before making the move. For example, a passive player may suddenly turn aggressive if on very short money when raised in a blind or get speculative with a big chip lead. Tournaments do not permit players to wait for hands, so moves are an essential aspect of maintaining chips that must be mastered.

Preparation of the above can all be done well in advance with the exception of analyzing the actual structure. It may take as much as a month to design all the charts and another month to make them second nature, but the difference in confidence and results will be astounding. Compared to the amount of time spent playing, this time is a drop in the bucket. Preparation and knowledge allow players to take advantage of luck.