Poker Tournament Strategy and Pacing

The WPT thrust poker into a national, international even, spotlight and created new fans of a 'new' sport by televising the final tables of big money poker tournaments. Each week the audience could see a new player win over a million dollars playing cards. Following on the heels of that success, and for a few other reasons beyond the scope of this article, the PPT was created. The television coverage of the PPT starts at the beginning of the tournament and allows the audience to watch the different strategies that come into play on the way to the final table. The format for the show, and the color commentators, refer to the different mindsets among the pros throughout each 'quarter' of play. They break up the coverage by day, four days, four quarters. Below I'll talk about these different mindsets and add in a few 'quarters' that they don't talk about.

Necessary Disclaimer - The bulk of my playing experience, the source for everything I share here, is earned online and at one specific site, Ultimate Bet. UB is better than most online poker sites when it comes to starting stack and blind structure; they favor better players. I have also played poker at Pacific Poker, Poker Stars, Party Poker, Doyle's Room, Full Tilt Poker, the Interpoker network as well as live casino games and numerous home games. I believe that, with only minor tweaking, the strategies and ideas I outline below can be used or modified for use in any similar poker situation. Where this strategy does not work is where the starting stacks are too small or the blind structure too fast. Tournaments and Sit & Gos that favor the fish, that turn into games of pure chance several times before it is over, require a different strategy.

Throughout this writeup I use poker terminology. Any words or concepts that I fail to link can be found in my glossary over in poker.

The first 15 minutes, hour, day -

For a Sit & Go, the first 15 minutes; for an online tournament, the first hour; for a big money live tournament, the first day - through the rest of this article I'll refer to hours, my most comfortable translation being the online tournament. Please translate for yourself as necessary.

Characteristics of the first hour

  • At this point all of the dead money is still here.
  • The ratio between the size of the blinds and the average stack size is as small as it is going to get.
  • The tournament will lose somewhere from 25% of the field to as much as 50% of the field.

The dead money is a great temptation and a great danger. These players are dead money for several different reasons ranging from not knowing how play to not having any confidence in winning. Dead money will put too much money on a bad hand, bluff without possibility of winning or even go all in preflop to win a pot equal to 4% of their stack size. The temptation is here to play with these people relying on odds for protection. Facing an all-in preflop with pocket Kings it is hard to fold but statistically speaking the KK is still going to lose from time to time. Some of the worst beats of the tournament will happen here.

It is not uncommon to see players doubling, tripling and quadrupling their stacks in the very first hands, finishing the hour at ten times the starting stack size. It is not unusual to see monster stacks accumulated here. It is easy to feel like you are losing ground when you haven't even played any hands yet. Fight this feeling. As the dead money goes out their chips have to go somewhere; given the way poker works it is not unusual that other dead money is amongst those accumulating. Think of these as ATMs you can hit for later withdrawal. The blinds are small here, there is no hurry to accumulate. The main incentive here is to last through the first hour to when the blinds get big enough that mistakes are really punishable. Ideally, doubling or tripling before the hour is over is more than sufficient. Paying blinds for the entire first hour and finishing down a little bit is not the worst thing a player can do.

Remember, the most important thing in a tournament is who has the chips after the last two players go all-in. If you aren't there for that it matters little how or why.

Suggested Strategy - Play tight, avoid potentially explosive situations without premium hands and exceptional flops. This is a good place to limp into family pots with suited connectors or one-gaps. Position is not as important here as it is for the rest of the tournament. If you flop a set there is a great chance you will get paid off with some dead money. It is more important during this stage to survive than to thrive. The second hour will allow a good player to make up ground.

The second hour -

Characteristics of the second hour -

  • Half or more of the dead money is gone, as much as half of the field is gone. There is still plenty of dead money left though.
  • This is the beginning of blinds really making a difference. There will come short periods wherein the blind to average stack ratio isn't too bad but for the most part, from here on out, a pot size bet preflop is going to make at least a few players at the table uncomfortable.
  • Almost all of the rest of the dead money goes out here (there are always a few who survive on luck or a few who gain the confidence required to play properly). This is the first chance for the good player to really build a stack.

Shortly after the second hour starts and for at least the first half of the second hour there are going to be more than enough opportunities to accumulate chips. The dead money notices that play is more serious now, those lacking confidence make the same types of plays as the ignorant. For whatever reason, it is during this period that a significant number of players decide they don't belong here and they make really bad plays just so they can get out and go do something else. The chip leaders are way out in front, the average stack is several multiples of ten larger than the big blind and as much as half the field is at 15 big blinds or less. If the first hour went well then about a third of the table can be called all-in without risk of going out. Another third of the table can be considered an easy double-up if the right chance arrives. It is at this point that the good players will begin noticing the other good players and that real poker plays are possible and successful - bluffs, check-raises all-in, limping monsters and etc. While the first hour is almost the most dangerous for all of the risk/opportunity trade-offs, the second hour can be the safest play for a good player. From personal experience I am least likely to go out here.

Suggested Strategy - If you limped along through the first hour and finished at or a little below your starting stack then the blinds seem rather uncomfortable now for the first time. Do not worry about this. The big stacks see you as callable and tight/aggressive play should pay off just fine. If the first hour went well then you are in the top third of the field (even if still way behind the chip leaders) and you can afford to call the bad plays made by dead money and the desperate. During this hour a big hand, while not knocking anyone out, can still see a chip stack the size of the original starting stacks slide from one player to another. Concentrate during this hour on loosening up a little and taking advantage of the chips flying around. Avoid for the most part tangling with the few players who can knock you out. This isn't quite the place to be taking those risks, there is more than enough easy money still out there.

The third hour -

From this point on these levels or quarters get fuzzy at the edges. The PPT can refer to four quarters consistently because they have a consistent structure and television schedule. Depending on the size of the tournament and the blind structure some of these levels may be perfectly obvious or short to the point of non-existent. Experience will highlight the differences and teach you what to watch for.

Characteristics of the third hour-

  • The dead money is just about gone. For the most part there are good players and mediocre players left, they have as many chips as they'd like or not enough. So, four possible combinations to watch for with their attendant strategies.
  • It is not yet bubble time but people are thinking about it. They are looking at what they have now and mentally calculating what they'll need to make it to the bubble.
  • The blinds are, for the first time, starting to seem more than large, they are now outrageous. A serious conceptual shift is required to get past this point.

As the tournament goes on there are less and less small stacks. The blinds are large enough that people who do not make moves are forced to go all-in sooner than they expected. The tempo of play all around really increases. Players with good poker fundamentals but no experience in tournaments often lose in this period. It is at this point that we stop seeing family pots. A busy pot will involve three or four players, most pots are two to three.

If you made it here with a good size stack, are first or second in chips at your table, then it is important to play positional poker and to have your read ready for every hand. You can do a lot of damage here, picking up blinds or forcing medium stacks to lay down draws or decent pockets. If you made it to this point with an average stack then the blinds are probably just barely affordable; you can afford to fold them but you won't enjoy it. If you got here with less you are probably in all-in territory. Again, this is not the place to worry. At this point the players who are left are good enough to have reads on each other. If you are a small stack and have been playing tight, waiting for opportunities, they will recognize that. All-in plays are most likely to pick up blinds and see folds preflop in this hour. The big stacks trust that you have a hand and know that there are other opportunities.

Suggested Strategy -

Right now you should be calculating what the average stack will be at the bubble and taking into consideration that some of the slowest play is at the bubble. Pick out the players at your table that you are stronger than, your targets. Pick out the players that should be avoided at all costs, the aggressive with big chip stacks or the people who strike you as being really strong. This is where you get to find out if you have every club in your bag or not, every trick play is valid from here on out. Small stacks should limp monster pockets UTG, small stacks should encourage one or two players to see a flop with them when they have a premium hand. Big stacks should be forcing uncomfortable decisions. If you have experience with this level, with tournament play, then any size stack is still playable. It is not time to panic.

The fourth hour, bubble time -

As I said, it gets fuzzy around here. In some tournaments the second and third hour may take place in the same hour. In others the third and fourth hour take place in the same hour. Specifically, this hour is defined as the one that gets us to the bubble.

Characteristics of the fourth hour -

  • Novices, mediocre players and small stacks get desperate here. As the bubble peeks over the horizon they begin making rash all-ins looking for breathing room. The closer they get to the bubble the tighter they play, hoping against hope to limp over the line and get their buy-in back.
  • Tournament veterans, people who have enough chips already or who can 'afford' to lose in a tournament because they will be playing in the fourth hour next week also, are looking to make their biggest strides here.
  • Play in this hour can resemble play in the first hour with many all-ins preflop and starting hand requirements loosening up.
  • Unlike the first hour, stealing here is incredibly valuable and mostly very easy.

If you get to this point with not much of a stack you should consider loosening up a lot, looking to gamble heads up. Don't be stupid about it but do keep in mind that limping into the money is not the goal. If you have an average size stack the same holds true, like the first hour there is no reason not to expect to double or triple-up here. All of the patience through the first hours can be rewarded here in a big way. Play in position and steal anything not nailed down. If you have a large stack you have two options; take advantage of the tight play to steal blinds left and right knowing that you can easily take bad beats against small stacks, or, sit tight here and wait for the chaos to end shortly after the bubble is made. The former strategy is better, blinds are big here and every one that you steal makes an opponent that much more uncomfortable. Bad beats are likely against desperate player but the rewards way out-weigh the risks. Like the first hour, this can be a very volatile period. Big plays are heads-up and people go out with less than stellar holdings.

Suggested Strategy - In many ways this should be played like the home stretch. Just as true, though, the end of this period is the end of the 'first half' of play. Most of the players only want to make the money, they will play tight and avoid all-in decisions. The pro, the experienced veteran, is looking to make up the most chips here by taking advantage of that mentality. I'd advise you to do like the pros do - steal, steal, steal. It is here where the first advanced strategy for tournament play appears. Limping into the money is good experience but wears thin after a while, the ROI is weak. Getting into the money with an average or large stack increases the chance of making the final table or the good payouts significantly. Calculated aggression is called for.

The fifth hour -

After the bubble but before the final table, or, after the bubble but before the significant payouts, we are still in that fuzzy area where some of these levels don't exist or the line between them is hard to recognize.

Directly after the money is made look for a slew of short stacks to disappear. They held on simply to make the money and now they are looking to double-up and double-up again or are content to go out and celebrate their 'win.' For the most part you should be ignoring these players. If you have a big pocket, fine, call them. Otherwise, keep your attention on the other contenders, they are the real competition. From here to the end is some of the sharpest play in poker. The dead money is gone, everyone left has proved they belong and believes the money belongs to them.

Play during these levels can not be taught or summarized easily. Your reads on your opponents are much more important than any general strategy. However, generally speaking, all-in preflop is a big deal. There seems to be a lot less bluffing at this point, people are not going to risk missing the big money because they wanted to get stupid with a 7J. That said, the bluffs pulled off here, based on reads and other factors, are some of the best paying. The last typical that can be said about this hour is that luck is a factor in any win. It is unfortunate but true and any pro should be able to acknowledge without shame, it is a very rare victory that doesn't follow from some bad beats and outdraws. You will get all-in here, preflop or post, and not have the best hand, you will win anyways. Vice versa, you can go from chip leader to out in just a few hands with some terrible beats. This is a tough place to play.

The end -

Final table play is a tournament in miniature. Watch the WPT and you can see all of it - there is always a player or two who are considered dead money by the rest, there are bad beats, bluffs, draws, chip swings... The closer you get to the big money, top two or three spots, the more you see that bubble type play from earlier where people fold big hands rather than risk a smaller payout. This section is both covered by the above and deserves it's own article. Experience and perspective are going to be the most valuable at this point.


  • In the beginning - a lot of bad hands pick up pots here, there is both risk and reward. Keep in mind, the risk of going out is not worth the reward of doubling up at this point. Look for 'safe' opportunities or obvious plays for the most part.
  • As play progresses - the dead money goes out or gets lucky. The longer you are here the more you can resort to trick plays. Try to build a stack but keep in mind that anything can happen later in the tournament. It is worse to go out with a bad hand or on a stupid play than it is to have a small stack and reputation as a rock all the way to the final table.
  • Approaching the bubble, shortly after the bubble - This is the place to build, the risks here are similar to those in the beginning but now the rewards are actually worth it. Loosen up, think about getting first place rather than limping into the money. The more you get to this point the better you will be at getting past it.
  • In the money - Very sharp play, your chance to shine or your chance to take a terrible beat and consider a new hobby for the umpteenth time. Experience will give perspective to the bad beats, multiple trips here will statistically result in final tables and wins.
  • Final table, the bigger payouts - All of the above, condensed. Sharp play, bad beats, tight play for better payout vs. loose play for best payout; all of this is put into proper perspective only after multiple visits. Luck is always a factor in winning.

We could graph all sorts of characteristics of tournaments on a time scale. As the tourn progresses the amount of dead money starts out high and drops fast to level out. As it progresses the tricks you should pull out of your bag or have available increase steadily, not so much a curve as straight lines with little jumps here and there. The ratio of blind to average stack can be charted. The size the big stacks will be is predictable, the rate of player loss, the attrition due to fatigue and etc. Almost any data you could want to collect or look at will, over a great range of tournaments, be similar from tourn to tourn. While this could be studied and used by a novice it is better to learn it through experience. The most important factors in tournament success are experience and perspective, as they are in the other poker games. The simple fact is, no matter how good you are you can always be beat by a one-outter. Long term tournament success can only be judged after a long term.

Good luck!