Your First Final Table
Your First Final Table.
Congratulations, you made it. Your first final table.
You read Harrington and remembered his advice. Maybe you read Sklansky or Snyder. Or maybe, if you couldn`t afford a book, you went cheapskate and just read Rex, AG, Bob and Company here on Cardschat. Ah well, beggars can`t be choosers.
Wherever you learned, it must have worked. I mean, you made it to the FT, didn`t you ? Or did you just suck out and fluke your way ? No matter, you got here. That`s all that matters, right ? Congratulate yourself. Enjoy.
Er… for about ten seconds. Then calm down and listen to the bad news.
Everything you did so far was just a preliminary. Here is where the real work starts. If you had been knocked out any time up to now, the best you would have achieved (depending on the payout structure in your particular MTT) was to just about cover your buy-in, maybe with a modest profit, not worth your time. It is only now, at the FT, that you have a chance to make real money. The next 30 to 60 minutes will determine whether this was a good day, or just a wasted opportunity.
You`re tired, right ? You have been playing for, what, three or four hours straight ? This is no time to be tired. You need to be at your best. First time you are folded and not playing your cards, get up out of that chair. Take a moment to splash your face. Walk around the room. Stretch while you keep one eye on the screen.
Remember, the other players have played just as long and are just as tired. Let them be dopey, make sure you get sharp. You are going to beat these guys.
You`re nervous, right ? Uncertain ? Lacking confidence ? That`s OK, so are most of your opponents. You will encounter a lot of inexperience at the final table of any online MTT up to around the $20 buyin level (and sometimes also in more expensive tournies which have satellites, because many of the players are qualifiers who don`t routinely play at that level). The majority (maybe all) of your opponents will be in the same boat as you. It`s an unfamiliar situation for them and they are edgy and excited, as well as tired.
It is a combination which produces errors that you can exploit, and I am going to try and give you the tools to do so. If I told you how many final tables I have played, some might think I was bragging or exaggerating, so let`s just say it`s more than a few. Here is some of what I have learned. Think of it as a roadmap for winning MTTs.
When you first arrive at the FT, sit back and watch the game but do not play (other than from the blinds) without a very big hand. I would suggest pairs JJ or better and AJ, AQ, AK. Your aim, during approximately the first 10 to 20 hands, is to observe the other players and to create the table image of a tight player for those of the opponents who may be watching you.
Watch the other players closely. You should be trying to determine who is playing scared and can be bullied and who is prepared to be more bold. Pro writer John Vorhaus called this process “breathing in” the atmosphere of the table, and that is as good a way to describe it as any I can think of.
If you are using a HUD, you may get some clues from that, but beware of reading too much into the statistics of a player who you have met earlier on in the tourney, and on whom you have a good number of hands. As a general rule (especially in Ring Games), tracker stats are more reliable when you have a good sample. However, that isn`t necessarily the case in tournaments. People play very differently in the early blind levels of a tourney from the way that they do at the end, and this information may be misleading. Don`t convince yourself that the opponent is loose based on his play of three hours ago, and miss the fact that he is playing like a nit here and now. At the FT, old fashioned eyeball and note-taking are your most useful resource.
Example: One night recently, my wife came into my study and told me she was going to start getting ready for bed, as it was getting late. I said, “Ok, I will be along soon. I am nearly done playing poker for tonight, this is the final table” (indicating my monitor screen).
She made some remark to the effect that I must be winning big again, and should take her out to dinner from my winnings, then she stopped to watch over my shoulder for a while. She isn`t a poker player and only vaguely understands the game, and she asked me, “Am I seeing this right, you went all in and you have a seven and a four ?” I said yes. She said, “Why did you do that, surely that is a bad hand ?” I said, “Yes it is, but the opponent will fold. Watch.” And, to her amazement, he did fold.
So, my poor wife is now even more convinced that she can never understand poker, because there is some bizarre secret to it that eludes her.
For your eyes only, the secret is Observation.
Once you have a flavour of the game, it is time for your first change of gear. I call this “Stack Building”. Increase your stack by stealing blinds from the timid players and/or by raising from late position when they limp in ahead of you.
At a final table, the blinds are high in relation to the stacks. It is commonly the case that average stack size is 10 Big Blinds or less. In those circumstances, few hands will go to showdown and, when there is a showdown, it will often result in the elimination of a player.
If the hand is unlikely to go to showdown, it follows that you do not need the best hand in order to win. You need only put sufficient pressure on the opponent that he cannot call without a monster.
Of course, this will not always work. Sometimes, the opponent will pick up pocket Aces, Kings, or Queens, will be unmoved by your pressure and will call, putting you in a situation where you will be going out unless you are very lucky. That is an acceptable risk. In most tournaments, the really big money goes to the top three spots. There is little to be gained by folding your way into 5th or 6th place, so be prepared to take a calculated risk to maintain or increase your stack. Stay in the race to be first (and settle for 9th or 10th if you get unlucky).
Timid opponents may recognise that you are raising often and may suspect that you do not always have the cards to back your aggression. Here is another secret for you: Even though they know that, they still won`t call without a monster. Under the pressures of the final table, and faced with the fear of going out early, the timid player will not find the courage to play back at you. He has to have cards to play, and big pocket pairs seldom arrive.
Once you have built your stack up sufficiently that you are in no immediate danger from the blinds (probably you are among the three leaders), I recommend that you change gears again. Now your objective is to knock opponents out and establish dominance over the table. I call this phase of FT play “Aces and Nines”. Now you should play cards which have a strong chance of being the best hand, which I define as pairs 99 or better and Aces with a decent second card (again, probably 9 or better).
Your target also has shifted. Now you play at the more adventurous opponents, in the hope that they will take you on with a weaker hand. They will have seen that in the previous phase you raised often and, like the timid players, will guess that you did not have the cards to back your aggression. Unlike the timid players, these guys have the guts to do something about it. When you “try it on” against them, they are just waiting to call or to re-raise all in with their middle pair or their Ace with a weedy kicker.
That`s when you turn over your big hand, knock them out, and say “Good Game”.
Do that once or twice and you produce consternation all around the table. The opponents think you are the luckiest SOB they ever saw. Judging from your betting and raising, you are often representing strong hands. They thought you were kidding but, when challenged, you really do have a strong hand. “This guy has all the luck”, they think, “how can I compete ? “
You can produce a mindset in the opponent such that, when you get to the last three and then to headsup, they are ready to hand you the victory and settle for second or third because, in their view, it is your day to win. If the site where you are playing allows a Final Table chop, you can more easily achieve an advantageous deal or, if the game is to be played to a finish, you have a big moral advantage.
Of course, more sophisticated opponents will understand that what is happening is not luck and the reality is that you are a pretty useful player. Obviously, that also works just as well to your advantage and helps to make opponents fear you.
The “Aces and Nines” approach requires that you be dealt some decent cards. If you happen to be card-dead for a spell and the rising blinds become a concern, you should revert back to the beginning of the process. Watch the game quietly, “Breathe In”, re-establish a tight image, then begin stealing again. You can go through the cycle as many times as necessary and the more times you change gears the more difficult it becomes for even the smarter opponents to get a read on you.
Once you get down to three players remaining, it`s time to change gears again to a mode which I call “Punching”. In this phase of play, you ramp up the aggression again, raise preflop with any above average hand, then make a continuation bet on the flop irrespective of whether you hit or not. Visualise it as a one-two double punch. By this time, your remaining opponents should be very wary of you and very reluctant to tangle with you when you represent a good hand.
Of course, the obvious counter to this, should the opponent understand what you are doing, would be for him to sit back and wait for a big hand with which to trap. In order to avoid giving him easy clues, mix up your play by sometimes limping, especially with a hand which has potential to flop a concealed monster, such as connectors or a small pair. Because the blinds are now so high, the opponents have little time in which to sit back, in any case, unless they wish to be eaten up by the blinds.
Do not be afraid, during this phase, to fold several successive hands from time to time, especially where both of your opponents seem willing to play against each other. It will usually be to your advantage if one takes the other out. If you sit back for a short spell and then return to the attack, the opponents will tend to assume that you have hit another rich vein of cards, and will respect your raises again.
Headsup is a whole new game and deserving of an essay of its own. Maybe one for me to write another day. However, if you continue with the “Punching” approach, you will defeat the majority of opponents without needing any other tricks in your bag.
So there you have it. My FT roadmap. In essence, it involves four different styles of play:
Aces and Nines
And choosing the right moment to switch between one and another. I hope all that made reasonable sense. Please feel free to offer comments and ask questions.
A few final thoughts before I finish:
When “Stack Building”, aim to win one pot for each round of blinds, if at all possible. This will ensure your stack is not depleted by the blinds/antes and goes up rather than down.
When playing at the FT, it is usually an error to call. Aim to be first into the pot and open with a raise. If the pot has already been opened, stay out of it unless you have some serious cards or are very confident of your ability to push the raiser off his hand post-flop.
If the chipleader has you seriously out-chipped, don`t enter any pot against him without a strong hand. Many players think that, when they have a big stack and can afford to take a hit, it is their “duty” to deal with bluffers. The chipleader may be much more prepared to go to showdown with you than he would be if he didn`t have the cushion of a big stack. You can turn this to your advantage by doubling through him when your cards are strong, but don`t be caught out by it when they are weak.
Don`t allow yourself to become overly card-dependent. I have provided you with strategies that don`t require cards to succeed. Success at poker is at least as much about psychology, position and relative stack size as it is about cards, and that goes double for FTs.
Good luck at the tables.
Oh, and when you win, take your girl out to dinner.