How to Play During the Early Stages of a Poker Tournament

Dave Roemer | 2 months ago in MTT

The WCOOP is almost here. Players across the world are getting ready to do battle in the biggest and most exciting online poker arena. Before you jump into the fray, it will be useful to understand exactly how to change gears and adapt to the fluid various stages of a poker tournament. Failure to shift into the right mode at the right time is often the downfall of many an aspiring tournament player. Today we shall be examining the first phase of the poker tournament: the early game.

The early game generally comes with tiny blinds compared to the average stack and no antes. Consequently, there is little incentive to enter the pot. Stealing blinds, for the most part, is unnecessary for survival and not an integral part of a successful early game strategy. Without a skill advantage; good implied odds (ability to get paid off well for a minimal investment); or an equity advantage, there is little reason to play a hand. If these enticing factors are not present, we must be very selective and avoid bleeding away chips that could be used to double us up later on in the tournament. Indeed, one of the biggest leaks I’ve observed from amateur players is the nonchalant investment of chip after chip due to the belief that these chips are too insignificant in relation to stack sizes to matter.

What we have to realise is twofold. Firstly, ten small investments is equal to one very meaningful investment, and secondly, a meaningful investment that would later have doubled itself in a more favourable spot, had we been more patient, is equal to a very large sum of chips indeed. The value of your chips in a tournament is exponential. If you are lucky enough to win that flip in seven blind levels’ time for your whole stack, you’ll be very glad that you preserved a big enough stack early on to then double up and give yourself a chance at going deep in the event.

The three strict requirements for entering pots in the early game can be described by the anagram: W.I.T. It seems fitting – poker players would generally like to think of themselves as witty people.

W is for Weaker Players

W refers to the skill advantage part of the equation. We might not actually have a great hand nor one that can improve into the mighty set which is ever-present in early game double ups, but the presence of a player who does not follow the strict early game requirements and throws his chips around is sometimes all the incentive we need to jump into a pot.

Example 1

Hero is in the CO with 87o. The BU has been very tight so far, barely playing a hand. The SB is a tight solid regular and the BB is a very loose splashy passive player who has already lost a third of his starting stack by calling down three bets from an early position raiser with top pair/bad kicker. Clearly this hand is not profitable due to Hero’s prospects of taking down the blinds, but because of the high frequency that he will get to play a pot in position against a weak passive opponent, undisturbed by the other players at the table. It is actually essential that Hero finds this pre-flop raise even with a hand as bad as a lowly offsuit connector. Weak players dramatically increase the EV of investments that would normally be silly wastes chips. A raise of 3BB here should thin the field effectively and lay the foundations for making a lot of chips if Hero is lucky enough to connect well with the flop. Even if Hero misses the flop, cheap continuation bets will be very profitable the times our opponent has also missed.

I is for Implied Odds

In simple terms, our implied odds are the ratio between our investment and our average gain when we happen to make a big hand. We will then need to factor in our starting hand’s chances of improving to such a nutted holding on the flop in order to estimate whether this ratio promises a profitable chip investment. If the price is too high, the chances of getting paid too low, or if the starting hand makes something nutted too rarely, then we are better off not getting involved. In the early stages of a tournament many stacks are doubled up through the means of flopping a set and getting paid off by a stubborn top pair or overpair, but there are other hands pre-flop that are rich in implied odds under the correct conditions. Let’s examine such a scenario now.

Example 2

Hero is on the BU with Ah4h. A tight player opens to 3BB from UTG+1 and two more players call. This hand makes a very sensible pre-flop investment in position in a multi-way pot. It is the sort of hand that can flop some extremely nutted hands capable of coolering and winning huge pots from strong but not quite nutted holdings. If we flop a flush, we have a small but not insignificant chance of pillaging some unfortunate opponent with a smaller flush for a lot of chips. A flop such as 532 or 448 will also yield an incredible opportunity to win a huge amount of chips that will come in very handy as the tournament progresses. On the former, we can absolutely destroy a set, which is a very common holding in a multi-way pot where players are incentivized to set-mine with their small pairs. On the latter flop, we will do very well against over-pairs or something like 54s. Calling this 3BB open is fully justified by implied odds.

T is for Tight Ranges

We have already noted the reduced lure of stealing blinds at this stage of the tournament where there is no significant dead money in the middle. If we do not have W or I as a reason to get involved, then we will need to adopt a tight strategy where the hands we get involved with are likely to dominate our opponents’ holdings and not the other way round. If we are playing hands whose strength lies in what I call ‘good pair potential’ in my book The Grinder’s Manual, then we must ensure that the pairs we are likely to flop will be capable of being ahead very often of the pairs our opponents are likely to make. Weighing this up is a skill based on estimating the likely raising and calling ranges of other players on the table.

Example 3

Hero is in the CO with AJo and a tight regular opens to 3BB from middle position. The players behind Hero are mainly tough aggressive pros. Calling this hand is almost certainly going to be a losing proposition at this stage of the tournament for a few reasons. Firstly, we will have a pretty tough time extracting value with top pair on the flop. Not only will our opponent not be opening too many hands that flop a worse Ace or Jack than our hand from his position on the table, but he will be opening many hands that dominate our hand when we flop these pairs. Secondly, we are very far from closing the action and our hand plays abysmally in a multi-way pot due to how often it can flop better than one pair. Finally, as the players behind us are known to be aggressive, we could easily be on the wrong end of a 3-bet squeeze, which would force us to fold and squander those 3BBs, which could later have doubled up a few times into something meaningful.


Adhering to the W.I.T protocol in the early game will not only keep you out of trouble, but will afford you opportunities to get off to the best start possible in a major WCOOP event.

February 2-16, the PokerStars Bounty Builder Series returns, find out how if you have a chance to win a ticket.

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