Freerolls are the online poker world's way of giving you a leg up, a bankroll boost when times are hard, but if you want to successfully negotiate these turbulent tournaments you're going to need a sound strategy. Although it's possible to find freerolls with less than 500 participants, it's much more common to see large fields when the prizepool is large. Getting through these throngs of hapless grinders takes a certain amount of luck, but if you're canny you can often tip the scales of fortune in your favour with some skilful play.
The first thing you need to consider when you sign up for a freeroll on any of the popular poker sites is the number of registered runners. Indeed, let's assume you've managed to find a game with only 500 entrants and a $1,000 guarantee. Just because you're not up against the usual 3,000 people doesn't mean you're a shoe-in for the money in a tournament of this type. Indeed, the structure may be such that only the top 40 players get paid which means you need to finish within the top 8% to make some cash. While this may not seem like an impossible target, you need to remember that it will likely take around four hours for the field to whittle itself down to 40 players. Moreover, you'll often need to swerve a number of coin flips and bad beats. However, if you're aware of the structure and number of players in the tournament then you can begin to refine your strategy in order to maximise your chances of success.
First hand comes out. A-8 offsuit. Look like a good hand? Nope. Not this early in the freeroll. Because players have paid a grand total of zero dollars to take part in the tournament they are much more willing to gamble in the early stages and secure a monster stack. For this reason the main principle you need to bear in mind when you're assessing hands to play in the early stages of a freeroll is: tight is right.
While weak ace hands might be fine to play later in the tournament, the main thing you should be looking to do when the blinds are low is to play strong hands only. This includes hands that contain an ace with a strong kicker (such as a king, queen or jack), high pairs (from tens plus) and K-Q suited. On top of this you can also play smaller pairs (anything below pocket tens) and suited connectors (such as 6-7 suited, 10-9 suited etc) when the opening bet is small and the number of players in the field is large. The main reason for this is that these types of holdings can make disguised hands post-flop and help you take chips from people who overplay average ranking hands.
Tight is right.
Typically, there are a lot of fish at the start of a tourney and depending where you're playing there may be a huge amount all the way through. However, even if you play a hand like A-8 at the start of a freeroll and hit your 8 on the flop, it's still likely you'll end up with the second best hand by the river and, thus, it's much better to fold this type of hand.
Adopting the right mindset and understanding that the blinds are very low compared to the size of your stack during the early stages of a freeroll is crucial if you want to be successful. Indeed, while it may seem like this luxury is enough to allow you to play as many hands as you want, this is actually a big mistake that will cost you more than you think. Thus, if you want to become a more successful freeroll player the first thing you need to do is keep calm, pick your spots and not over commit yourself with hands that can get you into trouble.
The constant barrage of all-ins during the early stages of a freeroll can often be enough to make go on tilt and do something costly. While ignoring this kind of thing can be difficult it's important to remain patient and only call all-ins when you have the nuts or a very strong hand (such as two pair or better). The only time it's advisable to call an all-in without the nuts during the early stages of a freeroll is if you have a read on your opponent.
For example, if you've seen a player repeatedly going all-in with only bluffs or middle pair then it can be profitable to call with something less than the nuts (hands such as top pair). Situations like this will change from poker game to game, but you'll know players like this are at your table because they will be the ones constantly involved in pots. The key to spotting them is by keeping your eyes open and noting the amount of pots they play during each blind level.
Fancy play syndrome (FPS) is when a player tries to make clever moves against opponents who aren't wise enough to spot when they're beat. Because people don't have to invest any money to play in a freeroll it means they are much more willing to call bets. Indeed, in the early stages especially it makes little sense to bet 100 chips as a bluff in order to try and win 30 chips simply because the players around you are more likely to call. (Read more on Bluffing in Texas Hold'em.)
For example, let's assume you've raised pre-flop with A-K and three people have called. The flop rolls out: 2-8-10 and you decide to make a continuation bet and receive two calls. A 5 falls on the turn and at this point you're faced with a decision to either bet again or check and give up. In some circumstances it may be ok to bet again and continue to represent strength, but in a freeroll this kind of move will only result in you losing more chips than you need to.
Avoiding FPS and being conservative in spots like this is crucial and something you need to remember if you want to become a successful freeroll player.
Having said that you shouldn't overplay your hands when you connect with the flop, it's also important to note that you shouldn't over commit chips either. Indeed, just because you raise pre-flop with A-K and hit top pair on a K-Q-J, it doesn't mean you should be willing to stick all your chips in the middle. Flops like this are known as wet flops because they are saturated with danger and contain a number of draws. People often play hands such as A-10, K-J, Q-J, K-Q, A-Q, A-J pre-flop which means that boards that are filled with picture cards will always be dangerous. Thus, it's important to understand that betting more chips than is necessary is almost as dangerous as betting when you shouldn't.
So, you've made it through the beginning. Good job, give yourself a pat on the back. During this stage of the tournament you'll see a huge amount of players make an exit. Indeed, because the money is almost in sight it often causes people to lose their cool; however, and you need to keep your mind on a few things as you make it through this stage of the freeroll. While most of the information we've dispensed about the early stages of a freeroll can be carried over, you'll find that you need to become a little more aggressive and make more moves than before. First and foremost there is one key thing that you need keep in mind and that's that you should not worry about your position or the average stack size. So what if your stack is smaller than the average stack! Your goal throughout this stage of the freeroll, as well as the first, is to try to get as many chips as you can while conserving what you've already made. Worrying about how many chips you have compared to the average can only stress you out and cause you to make rash decisions. Remember: Your goal throughout this part of a freeroll, as well as the first, is to try to get as many chips as you can while conserving what you've already made.
One of the best ways to accrue more chips at this point is to be much more aggressive with made hands such as top pair. Not as many people will be chasing hands during this stage of the tournament so it pays to bet confidently when you have something, yet remain conservative when you've missed the board.
Indeed, don't try bluffing your way to victory just because people are now playing with a little less pep than they were before. Unless you have a big chip lead you shouldn't be trying to bluff too much and even if you do have a healthy stack you should be picking your spots and not simply barrelling at every board.
Indeed, don't try bluffing your way to victory...
For those that enjoy the buzz of bluffing and want to disregard our freeroll advice, you should at least make sure you try semi-bluffing. This move is made when you have a number of outs that can save you if players don't fold when you have nothing. When making a semi-bluff it's important to ensure your bet sizing is correct. A minimum bet will never look threatening enough to make someone fold, just as an overly large bet won't look convincing. To successful swipe the pot from someone when you have the worst hand you need to size your bets in the same way as you would if you had a strong hand. Thus, if you're used to betting 2/3 of the pot when you have the nuts, then you should do exactly the same thing when you are semi-bluffing. The final thing to remember is that bluffing is an art and it takes time, patience, and practice to know when it's most effective.
Without doubt the most effective time to bluff players is on the bubble. Because the money is close and players don't want to throw away all their hours of hard work for no return, it's possible to push someone off the pot with enough pressure. While you shouldn't be throwing chips around without a care, you should be willing to pressure the players you know are looking to squeeze into the money. These players are easy to spot because they will have short stacks and won't play a hand. These opponents will give up their blinds easily, but it's important remember that if they do get aggressive then they will almost certainly have a strong hand. Thus, will you should be willing to bluff these guys at every opportunity, but you should also be willing to back off if they decide to put up some resistance.
Congratulations, you've made the money! Unfortunately, it's usually the case that the blinds are extremely large in relation to your stack at this point. However, you usually you won't get a good payout until you hit the final table so you're going to need to adopt a strong strategy to make it this far. Relying on your cards alone is simply not going to be enough to take you to the final table at this stage of the freeroll: you're going to have to bluff. As we've mentioned you need to capitalise on other people's weakness. There will almost always be someone you can outplay at the table, someone who's too afraid of the money jumps to defend their stack.
Obviously the one group of players you want to avoid is the big stacks. In a nutshell, don't try too bluff the chip leader(s) because calling your bet won't hurt them as much as it will hurt you.
Another group of players you need to watch out for is the small stacks. During the bubble these players were the ones who were prime candidates for bluffing, however, now they've secured some cash they're one of the worst people to swindle. Short stacks know they need to start winning some pots (often requiring all-ins) if they want to make the final table and for this reason they will often adopt a high risk strategy. This means going all-in with relatively weak hands, taking a chance with top pair or even bluffing if they think someone will fold.
There will almost always be someone you can outplay...
However, on the flip side of this, you can often exploit a short stack's desire to gamble by calling with a wider range than you would against other players. Indeed, because they will often be looking to take a risk, it's possible to call an all-in with hands such as top pair and sometimes just ace high. For example, if a small stack goes all-in and you've got top pair with a good kicker you should call because you'll often find that these players are making moves with middle pair or even outright bluffs.
Above all else, when the chips are down the most important tactic you need to bear in mind when you're into the final stages of a freeroll is: be aggressive. Don't be sloppy with this aggression, ensure you pick you moments and opponents, but also don't be so careful that you don't take the initiative enough. Don't feel bad if you go out betting. Indeed, you've already won some money (without having invested any yourself) so it's better to die on your sword than slowly blind out.
Freerolls, in fact any poker tournament you play, are a matter of timing, observation and dynamics. From the moment you assess the structure, through the early stages to the bubble and beyond, it's important to know what to do and when to do it. Hopefully this strategy guide has given you some insight into making money from poker freerolls, but if you're still somewhat lost in the mire we'll leave you with a succinct summary of what you should do:
The early stages of a freeroll are more about preservation than accumulation and you should always rank value betting with strong hands over bluffing with nothing at this point in the tournament.
If you've made it to the middle stages of a poker freeroll then you're likely away from the hundreds of donks and down to a few players who are keen to make the money. At this point (especially as the bubble draws closer) you need to increase your aggression and focus on bluffing the short stacks.
The final stages of a freeroll are simply a matter of timing. By now the short stacks will be gambling and the chip leaders will be praying for the final table so it pays to switch the focus you had on the bubble so that you now attack those with chips and avoid those who are looking to gamble.
If you're able to put all this information together into an overall strategy then you'll find that you make life extremely difficult for your opponents, something which will earn you a lot more money in the long run.