Learning How to Win Poker Tournaments as a Cash Game Player
The 2017 World Series of Poker is in full swing and so this is the time of year when tournaments take poker's center stage. It's hard to look at some of the prize pools and not want to chase that dream of the big score!
The other great thing about poker tournaments is that they attract a lot of amateurs, probably more so than any other format. This means that it is a lot easier to find spots where you can get your money in as a significant favorite.
This is the case when you play online poker as well where you can enter tournaments for as little as a buck or two. Many of the players in these fields are quite literally complete beginners.
What if you are a cash game player like me, though? Is it worth trying your hand at tournaments?
Well, the answer to this question is a resounding yes and I am going to explain why in this article. I will also give you a few strategy tips to help you get started as well.
1. Switching From Cash to Tournaments is Not as Difficult as You Think
As a cash game player you have already developed a wider skill set than the average tournament player without even knowing it.
One reason why this is true is because in cash games we regularly play on all three postflop streets — the flop, turn and the river. This is due to the relatively deep average stack sizes.
By contrast, in tournaments once you get to the middle and late stages most people will have somewhere between 10 and 50 big blinds. As the stacks get shallower, almost all of the action will occur before the flop or on it. There just simply isn't enough stack behind to see turns and rivers and still have decisions to make. Somebody is too likely to already be all in.
This means that as a cash game player you already have a built-in advantage when switching over to tournaments. You already understand how to play the preflop and flop game. But when the stacks are deeper, such as in the early stages of a tournament, you will often have a significant skill edge over your competition on the later streets.
2. Use Smaller Bet Sizes and Pressure Points
Another impact of the shallower stack sizes in tournaments is that bet sizes tend to be smaller. That is, you can often accomplish the exact same thing with, say, a bet that is 40 percent of the pot as compared to a bet that is 70 percent of the pot. The reason why is because when you started the hand with only 30-40 big blinds, both bet sizes represent an equally significant threat to your tournament survival.
That is another key point to remember about tournaments. In most cases you cannot just reload if you lose your stack like in a cash game. This means that the threat of elimination is always present in everyone's mind.
You can take advantage of this by applying more pressure on the shorter and medium sized stacks, such as by stealing the blinds. It is especially profitable to do this around the bubble and when pay jumps are approaching when they might be playing more cautiously than usual.
3. Don't Try to Force Things
Just like in lower stakes cash games, you want to avoid trying to run big bluffs against the amateurs in tournaments. The reason why is exactly the same — they will simply call you down.
This is especially the case early on in tournaments when the stacks are a little bit deeper and the constant threat of elimination is not there. In most large-field tournaments, you really have to play a patient game just like in low stakes cash.
There is a lot more value to simply surviving than in forcing something to happen. The longer you stick around, the better the chances are that you pick up a big hand and get some amateur to double you up.
Now don't get me wrong — you don't want to fold everything but the nuts and let your stack whittle down to nothing. That is most definitely a losing strategy.
You should be regularly attacking the blinds in late position, for instance, just like you would in a cash game. You should also be stabbing at pots often as well after the flop.
Don't worry if your stack drops down to 20 big blinds or even 10 BBs once you get to the middle and late stages of a tournament. You are only one double-up away from being right back in the thick of it. Just remain patient and wait for the right spots to attack.
4. Embrace the Grind!
The biggest adjustment for cash game players with regard to tournaments is the long grind that can sometimes last for 8-10 hours or more. This grind can even span multiple days, especially in big live events like at the WSOP.
You can't just get up and take a break or go do something else whenever you want like in a cash game. This can be quite the adjustment to make since you probably aren't used to playing for such long periods of time. What's more, you have to stay focused on the action even when you are card dead for what can sometimes seem like hours on end.
Now if you play poker online the answer to this is pretty simple — just play more games. You can add additional tournaments or even load up some cash games to break up the monotony and ensure that you always have a playable hand going on somewhere.
If you play live it is a little bit different, because you can't really multi-table. With that said most tournaments will allow you to listen to music and use your phone when not involved in a hand. If worse comes to worse you can always resort to live human communication and have a friendly chat with the other players at the table — sounds crazy, I know, but it can be a great way to pass the time.
With all of that said, the most important thing is to remain focused even when you are not involved in a hand. There are usually only eight other players seated with you at the table at the most. It is important that you are aware of how tight, loose, passive or aggressive each of them is playing. You can also tell which ones are playing not to lose and which ones are playing to win.
This information will be vitally important when you actually get involved in a big hand with one of them later on.
As a cash game player there is nothing to fear when switching over to tournaments. In fact, you have likely already developed a lot of the skills necessary to succeed in them.
Furthermore, while winning tournaments is definitely not easy, the fields that they attract tend to be quite a bit softer than what you are used to in cash. You will find more true recreational players or even first timers.
Lastly, it is important to make a few adjustments such as using smaller bet sizes and applying pressure versus the shorter stacks in the middle-to-late stages of a tournament.
As a cash game player myself, I personally love playing tournaments every once in awhile. While it can seem like a long grind at times, just try to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy yourself. And also, above all, be patient.
There is no greater thrill in poker than reaching the late stages of a tournament and going after the big prize. Grab yourself some chips and a chair and go make it happen!
Nathan "BlackRain79" Williams is the author of the popular micro stakes strategy books Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes. He also blogs regularly about all things related to the micros over at www.blackrain79.com.