What to Expect in a Live MTT, Part II

Daniel Negreanu is a big proponent of small ball in the early stages of a tournament. If it works for the six-time WSOP bracelet winner, it can work for anybody. (Source: wsop.com)

An earlier blog post focused on what you need to know before you sign up for a live multi-table tournament such as those offered in the World Series of Poker circuit or the World Poker Tour, where you have hundreds of players vying for the prize. The style of play in these events is different than what you would encounter in the smaller fields of regular events at most casinos.

This post will look at some of the strategies you might wish to employ at the various stages of play in a tournament with a large field.

Small Ball Early

I subscribe to Daniel Negreanu’s small ball theory for the first few levels. Keep the pots small, don’t risk a lot of your stack on speculative hands, and avoid limped, multi-way pots. You can’t win a multi-table tournament in the first few levels, but you can sure lose it.

During the first few levels you should try to get a feel for how your tablemates are playing. Try to determine who the strong players are (i.e. the ones you want to avoid getting into hands with) and who the weak players are. You’re probably not going to be able to get an accurate read on every player at the table (who can remember all that stuff?), but pick out two or three players and focus on them. Form an impression of them and then try to exploit it if the opportunity arises.

You can also have a little wider of an opening range early because your effective stack sizes are so much larger. The standard WSOP Circuit event begins with 10,000 chips and a BB of 50, giving each player 200 big blinds. This will give you quite a bit of wiggle room to play a few more hands early, although you don’t want to become an ATC (any two cards) player.

My goal for the early stages of a tournament (let’s say through level 8 or whenever registration closes) is to slowly chip up and have at least a 50 percent increase by the time the middle stages hit.

Moving Time

When the middle stages of a tourney hits, the blinds are big enough now that most players have less than 40 BBs, a far cry from when the tourney started. When I was playing Event No. 1 at the Harrah’s Cherokee stop in April, 108 of the 461 players were still alive and the average stack size was 42,685 heading into level 13.

The Big Blind was 1,600, which made the average stack size about 27 big blinds. Interestingly, when we got to bubble time at the beginning of level 16 (55 players left and top 54 paid), the average stack size was 83,818, and the big blind was 3,000, which again made the average stack size right at 27 blinds.

When the fields start to get close to the bubble, it’s time to really pay attention to your stack size. If you are under 20 BBs, tighten up and really pay attention to position. No more limping, bluffing or blind stealing. You’re looking to play premium hands that can pay off big so you can build your stack back up. The last thing you need to do is start frittering away your stack chasing flushes or straights or making a bad bluff, or even calling a min-raise from the BB with junk just because you’ve got pot odds.

If you are significantly above the chip average, it’s not a bad idea to turn up the pressure. Play the role of table bully and take advantage of the short-stack players who are starting to eye the bubble and hoping to get into the money for the min-cash. Your objective is to make a deep run, not just get into the money, and now is as good a time as any to build your stack.

Money Time

Immediately after the bubble bursts, the players relax and the small stacks breathe a sigh of relief because they have received their buy-in back, plus a decent profit. Keep an eye on the small stacks because they are itching to shove it all in, and their range widens considerably. They’ll play any ace, any suited connectors, any pocket pair. If you can gobble up a couple of these short stacks, you can keep your stack in good shape and position yourself for an even deeper run.

Interestingly, the deeper in a tourney you go, the effective stack sizes actually get larger. When the final table was reached at event No. 1 in Cherokee, the average stack size was 42 BB, up more than 50 percent from the average stack size during the middle stages of the event.

If you are fortunate enough to make it to the final table, play tightens up considerably because the pay jumps are so significant. The vast majority of hands are decided preflop, which gives an advantage to an aggressive player. If you’ve got the stomach for it, aggression can pay off – but it can also be costly if your timing is not right.

General Thoughts

Keep an eye on the chip counts. Most casinos have monitors around the room that tell you how much time is left in the current level, the number of players left and the average chip stack. Ideally, your stack will be above the average, but in a tourney, only about 25-30% of players will be above the chip average. My personal goal is to stay ahead of the chip count early and then be within 50 percent of the chip average after we get to the middle stages or later. If I can keep it within 50 percent, I am one double up away from getting right back to the average.

Most tournaments have monitors that show up-to-date data on the number of players left and the average stack sizes. Pay attention to this information, especially in the later stages.

Don’t overestimate your opponents. I consider myself a good recreational player, but by no means a professional. I’ve read a lot of online articles and strategy guides on poker, including those here at CardsChat, but have never read a book on poker or paid for a poker lesson. I play online a few nights a week, play in the CardsChat League on PokerStars, play in my Pub Poker League once or twice a month and squeeze in a game at a casino whenever my work travels give me the chance. Counting the three WSOP Circuit events I have played, I’ve played nine live tournaments. Yet somehow I have managed to cash in two of the tree WSOP Circuit events I’ve played and chopped one of the six tourneys I’ve played at a casino.

One final piece of advice is, don’t be afraid to ladder up. One mistake I made at the WSOP event in Cherokee this year was calling an all-in shove with pocket 4s when there were 19 players left. The difference in payout was almost $300 from 19th to 18th, and it jumped another $300 at 15th place. My stack was down to about 12 BBs before I called, but I could have nursed this for a while longer. I should have considered the payouts before I made the decision to call. Of course, I ran into pocket aces and was eliminated.


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