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The Middle Phase
This article looks at the middle stages of a single table tournament (STT), from around the fourth blind level to the point when only four players remain. If play gets down to only four runners in the first three levels, there is no middle phase. It is possible, but rare.

Again it is worth stating that STTs tend to have fewer variables than many other types of poker, which makes it easier to follow general rules of play. These guidelines cover nine-handed STT, played with a regular structure (as opposed to a turbo or hyper-turbo) and for low or micro stakes.

General guidelines: The middle phase

The fewer chips you have, the more aggressively you should play

When the blinds are big and your stack drops to fewer than 10 big blinds, you cannot wait around to be dealt the next Category 1 or Category 2 hand. Instead you should be willing to raise or move all in with a wide range of hands, in order to stay in contention and make it to the bubble.

Don't get blinded away

You can avoid losing chips by folding trash hands, especially when in the blinds. But don't play too passively at this stage. If you have five big blinds or fewer you should be looking for good spots to get all your chips in. It is better to go out fighting with a fair chance of doubling, as opposed to being tight and getting eaten by the blinds.

You are pot-committed with a third of your stack in

When you raise for a third of your stack or more, you have committed so many chips that you have to be willing to get the rest in. Therefore it is ofter better to push all in pre-flop, instead of making a big raise. This will not only put pressure on your opponent but also increase your chances of a double up (providing you have a strong hand). If you are raising post-flop for a third of your stack, you should do so with the idea of getting the rest in on later streets, even if there are scare cards on the board.

Moving all in means an opponent can't raise you out

This is based on the power of aggression - one of the core concepts in no limit Hold'em. By pushing all in you have two ways to win the hand. Your opponent can either fold, or they can call, which means you still have a chance to win at showdown. This is the reason why you can push with more hands than you can call. If your opponent pushes all in you may have a difficult decision to face and can make mistakes, either by folding the winning hand or calling while too far behind.

Be aware of other players' stack sizes

The size of your opponents' stacks is one of the most important factors in playing your way through a STT. You should be willing to play pots against players with smaller stacks but avoid the bigger ones. A big stack can bust you and is more likely to give you action. They will also put pressure on you with raises or re-raises that put your tournament life at risk. A short stack will be more likely to fold, unless they have a good hand that they think they can earn them a double up.


Correct hands to play pre-flop

In the middle period of a STT, starting hand requirements are not so stringent as they are in the early stages. The decision of what cards to play now rests more in the size of your stack and other players' action in the pot.

The following chart gives an idea of the kind of hands you should be willing to play in a number of scenarios. (The Introduction to STTs article showed the categories of hands.) 

 
Scenario Position More than 10BB 10BB to 5BB Less than 5BB
Everyone folds to you Small blind or button Category 7 Category 8 Category 8
Everyone folds to you 1 or 2 seats off the button Category 6 Category 7 Category 8
Everyone folds to you Earlier position Category 5 Category 6 Category 7
One or more limpers Any position Category 4 Category 5 Category 6
Someone raises Any position Category 3 Category 4 Category 5
         

Exercise: Hand Selection

The following exercise tests your knowledge so far of hand selection in the middle phase of STTs.
 
 

    1. The blinds are 50/100, you have 1,800 chips, and are one seat off the button. Everyone folds and you have  - a Category 5 hand. You should raise to 400.
    2. The blinds are 75/150, you have 1,400 chips, and are two seats off the button. There is one limper before you, and you have  - a Category 6 hand. You should fold, as with fewer than ten big blinds you need a Category 5 hand or better to push when someone has called before you.
    3. The blinds are 50/100, you have 850 chips and are in the small blind. The player in the cut-off has you covered and raises to 250. You have  - a Category 4 hand. With fewer than ten big blinds, you should push all in.

Raise sizes pre-flop

Here are some general guidelines for raise sizes pre-flop:

  • A standard raise would be four big blinds
  • You should push all in whenever your stack is 12BB or smaller
  • Never just call unless the other player is all-in
  • Never limp

Pot odds decisions

If you raise (without going all in) and someone re-raises, your decision to call should be based on pot odds.

  • If you are getting 2.5:1 or better, you should call with anything.
  • If you are getting 2:1 or better, only call with a Category 5 hand or better.
  • If you are getting 1.5:1 or better, only call with a Category 4 hand or better.
  • If you are getting worse than 1.5:1, only call with a Category 3 hand or better.
Exercise: Getting the right pot odds

The following exercise offers the chance to test your knowledge of pot-odds calculations in STTs.
 

    1. The blinds are 50/100, you have 2,000 chips, and are on the button. Everyone folds and you have  - a Category 5 hand. You raise to 400. The big blind has a stack of 3,000 and raises to 1,500. Your pot odds are 1950:1100, or slightly worse than 2:1. However, this raise essentially puts you all-in, so you should imagine that the raise is to 2,000 instead. That gives you 2450:1600, or 1.5:1. You therefore need a Category 4 hand or better to call that, so you should fold.
    2. The blinds are 75/150, you have 1900 chips and are in the cut-off. You have  and raise to 400. The big blind has only 1,100 left and pushes all in. There are 1,575 chips in the pot and it will cost you 700 chips to call. You are getting 1575:700, or 2.2:1. You therefore need a Category 5 hand to call, and should do so.

Post-flop play

In these middle stages of a STT, you should play aggressively post-flop if the chips aren't all in yet. If you bet first, or the action is checked to you, your standard bet size should be 2/3 of the pot. If your stack is less 1.5 times the pot, move all in instead.

Here are a couple of specific, but common, scenarios:  

A free flop in the big blind - multi-way

If more than one opponent has called your big blind pre-flop, you can see a flop without any further investment. This will lead to a series of decisions after the flop has been dealt. You should:  

  • Bet or raise with medium made hands, strong draws or better. Go all in on the turn or if you get raised - folding is almost always a mistake in this position. You should also only check or call with medium draws when you are getting a good price to improve on later streets, and when calling will cost no more than 20 per cent of your stack.
  • If you improve to a medium made hand or better on later streets, play for your entire stack.
  • Check/fold on all streets if your hand does not improve.

You are the pre-flop raiser (heads-up pot)

If you have raised pre-flop and picked up only one caller, the following guidelines apply:   

  • You will usually be committed with medium made hands, a strong draw or better. Therefore you should bet, usually all in. If someone bets before you, call an all in or raise all in by yourself.
  • Bet first or when checked to you with weak made hands, weak draws or better.
  • If you raise and get called, push all in on the turn even if you don't improve a strong draw, medium made hand or better, and check behind or check/fold with everything else.
  • If your draw or made hand improves, push all in on any street.
  • If you get raised, follow the pot odds advice above to determine the odds of a non all in raise.
  • With odds of 2.5:1 or better, call/raise with weak made hands or better, and medium draws or better.
  • With odds of 3.5:1 or better, call with weak made hands or better, and weak draws or better.

You are the pre-flop raiser (multi-way pot)

If you have raised pre-flop and more than one opponent has called, the following guidelines apply:

  • With medium made hands, strong draws or better, you are committed and should bet, usually all in. If someone bets before you, call an all in or raise all in yourself.
  • If you have a medium draw, you should only check then call when you are getting good odds, and the call costs no more than 20 per cent of your stack
  • With all other hands, consider checking and folding to any bets on other streets, unless you get good odds.
  • If you improve on later streets to a medium strength hand or better, you are committed and should bet, usually all in. If someone bets before you, call an all in or raise all in by yourself.
Exercise: Making the right play

You should have sufficient knowledge now to make the right play at the right time in a STT. Test what you know in the following exercise:
 

    1. The blinds are 50/100, you have 2,100 chips and raise to 400 with  in the cut-off. The small blind has you covered and calls. The flop comes , giving you top pair with a good kicker. Your opponent bets 650 in to a pot of 900. Your hand is too strong to fold, so you should push all in. Calling would risk more than one third of your remaining stack, which would leave you pot committed anyway.
    2. The blinds are 50/100, you have 1,900 chips and raise from the button to 400 with . The big blind has a stack of 1100 and calls. The flop comes , there are 850 chips in the pot and the player in the big blind pushes for his last 700 chips. You have middle pair and are getting better than 2:1, so you should call.
    3. The blinds are 50/100 and you have 2,900 chips. You raise to 400 with  from one seat of the cut-off. The flop comes  giving you the nut-flush draw with a gutshot and an over-card. The big blind has you covered and bets 600 in to the 1,250 pot. Shove all in with your strong draw. The pot is already big and you have several outs to improve.

Summary: Play aggressively in middle stages

  • The fewer chips you have, the more aggressive you should be
  • Don't let yourself get blinded out
  • If you raise a third of your stack, you are pot-committed
  • Going all-in means your opponents can't raise you off of a pot
  • Be aware of your opponents' stack sizes
  • Make pre-flop decisions depending on your position, the action before you and your stack size
  • Call a re-raise pre-flop according to your hand and your pot odds
  • A standard pre-flop raise should be four big blinds
  • Never just limp or call pre-flop, unless the other player is all-in
  • Play post-flop according to the hand strength category advice we discussed earlier, the size of the pot and number of opponents