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.
First Levels – Observing Opponents
While you’re sizing up the players at your table you want to be looking out for the following:
- Who’s playing too many hands?
- Who’s raising too often?
- Who’s 3-betting?
- Who’s calling off bluffs?
- Who’s folding on the river?
- What ranges are they playing from each position?
When you get to see your opponents’ cards at showdown, walk back in the hand and see if everything they did throughout the hand made sense. If it did, and the range you put them on was correct, they are hopefully going to be an easy read going forward.
First Levels – Looking for Tells
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:Look at their cards, put them down and don’t look again.
- Look at their cards 3 or 4 times.
- Look at their cards and then start to look around at other players, as if they are interested.
- Put a chip on top of their cards.
- Slide their cards around with their fingers.
- Pull their cards closer.
- Pick them up off the table and bring them up to their face.
- Squeeze out their cards and peek at the corners.
Everybody has these little tendencies that they do, and everyone is different. Your job is to watch for things when they deviate from that.
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.
Other Preflop Tells: The Snap
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.
Ante Levels – Opening Ranges
Experienced players will start opening their ranges, inexperienced players will mostly play the same game as the early levels.
How you’re supposed to play a tournament:
- Relatively tight early on.
- When the antes kick in, you open your range a little bit.
- As antes and blinds increase, you open your range a little more.
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.
How not to give away tells
- Sunglasses – They do not necessarily hide tells, but they will make you feel more relaxed, allowing you to get into your own zone. If this is your first live event, bring along a pair, though if you don’t need them that’s fine too.
- Steps – Before the event, practise a set of steps for your actions at the table. Then use the same set of actions every time:
- Looking at your cards – Wait for the action to come to you before looking at your cards. The way you look at your cards should be the same way every time. When the action is on me, I like to see the action, see who’s left to act, look at my hand, count to five and then make my decision. After you’ve made your action, find a pose/position that is comfortable for you and use that same pose every time.
- Timing – When betting or calling, try to make sure you use the same amount of time. If you call quickly when on a draw, your opponents will soon pick up on this, the same is true if you take a longer time to bet when you have the nuts.
- Staring at opponents – Some players will stare at their opponents when weak and look away when strong. To avoid giving off these types of tells, it’s better to just stare at the flop in a comfortable position and not look away from the flop.
- Consistent – Any action you have at the poker table should be as consistent as possible, as this will make you extremely hard to read. This includes the way you bet, the way you call, the time your actions take, the position of your cards and your pose.
Shoving Stack Sizes
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.
Other Live Poker Tournament Tips
- Well Rested – Don’t party the night before the event. If this is life changing money to you, get some sleep, you can party any time you want. It’s amazing how much a good night’s sleep can help with your game. Get as much sleep as your body needs.
- Food – Eat a big meal around two hours before your play the event and then just snack throughout the tournament with healthy stuff. You really do not want to be hungry and weak during a tournament, but you also do not want to be so full it makes you sleepy. Eat light!
- Me Time – During the hours before and between events, try to relax as much as possible. Do what relaxes you: exercise, rest, sleep, take it easy. You need to devote all your attention to the tournament.
- Deep Stack Heroes – When deep stacked, early in the event, don’t be making hero calls for your whole stack. Wait for better more profitable spots.
- Money Bubble – Don’t announce on the bubble that you’re going to fold all hands apart from aces, as your opponents will abuse you. Unless of course you say this and then start bluffing every pot. Once you hit the money bubble there will be some players who are really trying to abuse it, and these are the players who are not playing for a min cash. This is where your hard work from earlier conversations will pay off; if there is a guy in college who works in a bar at weekends, the money bubble is probably going to mean a lot more to them than a millionaire stockbroker. These two players will be playing vastly different games at the bubble.
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