In the first three or four levels you should stay out of the way and observe people. When you do get into a hand you want cards that play well deep and multiway. That’s suited connectors, medium pairs, and any suited ace to make nut flushes. Try to avoid hands like AJ, AT and KT, because with a deep stack they’ll often hit the flop hard enough to get you in trouble when you’re beat.
When deep you want to make two pair or better, sets and flushes. Play big pocket pairs cautiously – there is no need to build up a big pot preflop in the early levels. You do not want to go broke with one pair due to a bad beat.
You’ll see it every time in a tournament, a player will get pockets kings, get it all-in on the flop and their opponent will have two pair, a set or better. Don’t be that player with the kings. Avoid big pots early on, and keep the pots small unless you have the nuts. Don’t go broke early.
Players are generally more relaxed early on in a tournament, and some will even be kind enough to show you their hands. Players are having fun; everyone has a huge stack and the same dream. This is the best time to pick up on their tells cheaply, while creating a solid table image for yourself.
One thing that every opponent does is look at their cards, and everyone does it differently.
Examples of what some players will do when looking at their cards:
Example: Let’s say you’ve noticed a player in Seat 1 usually looks at their cards for 3 or 4 seconds. But one time you notice them quickly glance at their cards for 1 second. When action comes to them, they raise. By the river, you see they have K♦ K♥. In this instance, just by paying attention you now have a small tell on your opponent: if they look at their cards quickly, it’s likely they have a big pair.
This could really pay off for you in later pots, enabling you to fold hands or re-raise with hands for maximum value.
When people snap their cards, this is where they fold the cards upwards from the table, then let go of the cards, so they snap back down to the table. This is often an indication of a weak hand. When they have a really big hand, they will lay them down nice and gently, mostly so they do not attract attention. This is, of course, all dependent on the player; some will not snap at all, some will snap randomly.
Example: You’re on the button with J♠ 7♠. The Small Blind is an extremely aggressive player who 3-bets a ton, and you’re trying to avoid playing weak hands against them. The Big Blind, however, is a folding machine, only playing the nuts.
Everyone folds to you, and you notice the Small Blind, snap their cards down, you’ve seen them do this before and fold. Your original plan was to fold the J♠ 7♠ to an aggressive player, however now you know the aggressive player is going to fold and it’s highly likely the tight Big Blind is going to fold too. You decide to raise, both fold and you take down the blinds.
Some players will look at their cards and then immediately look disinterested, again this is very player-specific, so it’s your job to figure out what that disinterest means.
In general, if a player looks at their cards, immediately looks disinterested but then 3-bets, it’s usually a sign of a big hand.
Make friendly conversation with the other players, find out where they are from, how they won their seat, how often they play, what games they like to play, what other things they do with their lives. People will often tell you in detail their whole life story.
Example 1: A player tells you he plays $1/$2 back home, he won a league tournament, this is his first big buy-in tournament, he’s never played online, etc.
Example 2: A player tells you he’s made three EPT Final Tables, he’s here to own souls.
This is all extremely helpful information; I’d much rather be in isolated pots with example 1 than example 2. Being friendly and having conversations with your opponents not only makes the game fun, but also helps your overall game.
By the time antes kick in you should have a pretty good idea of how your opponents are playing. There will be three or four players at a similar standard to you, and three or four more advanced players that you’ll want to try and avoid when possible.
By focussing on your opponents during the first levels, you’ll know exactly which players you want to end up in pots with, and who you can bluff when you’ve missed the flop, turn and river.
Experienced players will start opening their ranges, inexperienced players will mostly play the same game as the early levels.
One of the most common questions I get from inexperienced players is:
Q) I’m always getting my money in good, I min cash, I make it deep, but most of the time end up losing to a bad beat with Aces, Kings, Ace-King, etc.
A) You’re playing too tight when you get deep.
People play really loose when they have lots of chips and then tighten up when stacks get smaller and we are closer to the money. When, really, you need to do the exact opposite to succeed in tournaments.
When you get under 50 big blinds you want to start to apply a lot of pressure by stealing the blinds and antes from late position with at least 2.5x preflop raises. You can increase this raise size if there are players left to act behind you that you’d rather not fight for pots with.
The better the player is, the more you want to raise; you do not want a professional player calling a 2.5x raise with hands like 78s, where they can either outflop you or outplay you, so to discourage this you should increase your raise size to 3x or even 3.5x. The opposite is true if a weak player is in the blinds, as you do not want them to fold, so in this case a min-raise is better as you’ll be able to outplay them post-flop.
Download the SnapShove* app to your phone and practice scenarios, as this will help you feel more comfortable once you reach the shoving stages. If you’re new to live poker, stack sizes from 25 big blinds are difficult to play.
To make it tough for the more advanced players, you can apply pressure by shoving a 25 big blind stack. Me personally, as a standard, I like to wait until I drop to about 17 big blinds before shoving.
However, I deviate from the ranges in the SnapShove* app based on my opponents, for example if it’s a weak player that I should be re-shoving on, I’ll probably just end up calling and trying to outplay them post flop. I’ll even re-shove a 35 big blind stack against a player who I think is bluffing.
*not affiliated with SnapShove – other push/fold calculators and apps are available.
Play tight early on, observe your opponents and use those observations later. Widen your range once antes kick in, and stick to a routine to avoid giving off tells.
If you see me at an event or on break and have a poker strategy question, please feel free to ask me, I’m always happy to discuss poker. No bad beat stories though!
Best of luck at the tables. Run good!
PokerStars Team Pro