Hidden Costs in Tournament Poker | But tournament poker is about more than firing chips with both hands and hoping your opponent blinks first

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Hidden Costs in Tournament Poker

After my last two articles for 2+2 Magazine, readers may have gotten the impression that I consider all smart tournament players to be maniacs, constantly stealing and re-stealing, bluffing and re-bluffing, and making borderline psychotic pot odds calls with what look to the untrained eye like garbage hands. This isn’t entirely false: escalating blinds and antes and the average player’s fear of losing the last of his chips combine to reward aggressive play. But tournament poker is about more than firing chips with both hands and hoping your opponent blinks first. The best players know how to recognize both situations where an opponent’s hand is likely to be weaker than it seems and situations where it is likely to be stronger than it seems. They also know better than to put themselves in situations where they will be forced to play for a lot of chips with weak holdings. This month, I want to discuss how stack sizes and bet sizes can provide important hand reading clues that may enable you to make some big folds. It’s important to note from the outset that most of the information you can glean is useful only for making marginal decisions. However, the ability to fold correctly with a few more hands than a less knowledgeable player can make a big difference, as these situations tend to arise most often in the late stages of a tournament, where even small edges translate into substantial real money equity relative to the buy-in amount.

Bets That Are Bigger Than They Seem When a player’s stack is short enough relative to the size of the pot that pot odds will dictate a call for the last of his chips with any two cards, he is said to be pot committed. In No Limit Hold ‘Em tournaments, it is rarely correct to fold pre-flop in a heads up pot if you are getting better than 2:1 on a call for either all of your chips or all of your opponent’s chips. Even against a very strong range of {KK, AA, AKo, AKs}, a hand as weak as 98s has 31.7% equity, and it is rarely possible to put an opponent on such a strong and narrow range. As a rule of thumb, then, I will assume in my arguments and examples that any player who will be closing the action pre-flop getting better than 2:1 on an all-in call is pot committed.

It follows that some calls or raises are larger than they appear. A player who opens for 150 chips but has only 300 chips left in his stack is effectively betting 450 chips, and you must consider this when estimating his hand range and calculating your pot odds. In other words, a thinking opponent will raise a stronger and tighter range of hands for 150 chips when he knows that he’s essentially committing 300 more than he will when he has room to fold. Similarly, once you call the 150, you should generally not be planning to fold at any time. Therefore you should only play hands that you are willing play for 450 chips rather than for 150. There’s more to it than being pot committed. A player with 1000 chips would certainly have room to open for a raise of 150 and fold to a re-raise, but he’d rather not put himself in that situation. Losing 15% of an already short stack can severely restrict a player’s options. Without those chips, he may not be able to re-raise or continuation bet with substantial fold equity in future hands.

What all this boils down to is that a player with 1000 chips is less likely to fold after raising to 150 than is a player with 5000 chips. Since he is going to felt a larger percentage of the hands he is raising, the player with the shorter stack needs to be raising a tighter, stronger range in the first place, and you need a stronger holding to get involved with him.

The last thing to consider is the stack sizes of players left to act. Before open raising pre-flop, a smart tournament player will consider how to respond if called or raised. If his raise prices him in to call an all in from any of several short stacks behind him, then you can assume his hand is stronger than it otherwise would be and adapt



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