Early Level Tournament Play – Bide Your Time Or Come Out Firing

Stu Ungar perhaps one of the most famous poker players of all time once said that he never put a single chip in the middle of the pot until the ante came into play and that playing before that level was not worth it and just asking for trouble. Then there’s the other school of thought that says that coming out firing and raising every pot is the way to go.

There is no right and wrong strategy. Professional poker players such as Gus Hansen prefer a more aggressive style of play and will raise with any two napkins while other players such as Phil Helmuth prefer to stay low key in the early rounds of a tournament.

Let’s take a look at both sides and see the pros and cons of both styles

Playing Aggressively In The Early Rounds

The idea of playing aggressively is to steal the blinds and small pots with the second-best hand or sometimes even nothing at all. The advantage of this strategy is that it allows you to quickly build up your stack and command the action at the table. Having the big stack at the table further enables you to steal the blinds and small pots and cruise your way to the final table. Of course, this course of action isn’t without its risks and perils.

Let’s Imagine This Situation

You’re sitting one away from the big blind and first to act before the flop. You’re holding Q♣ 8♣ which is a marginal hand under any circumstance but you decide you’re going to try and steal the blinds. You raise the standard 3 times the big blind to $150, everyone folds around to the big blind who calls.

The flop comes 8♥ 4♣ A♣

The big blind makes it $150 to go. By now you have to assume the big blind has you beat with an A versus your middle pair and flush draw. What you need to do is establish a range for your opponent’s kicker and then raise accordingly to push him off the hand. It is unlikely that he is holding A-K, A-Q or otherwise he would have bet more than half the pot. So, you put your opponent on A-9, A-7. You re-raise to $500 to represent the A-K and your opponent folds. You take down a $450 pot and become the big stack at the table thus allowing you to continue your aggressive play. When you adopt an aggressive style of play it’s crucial to know when to back down. If your opponent had re-raised on top of your $500 raise you have to lay it down otherwise, you’ll be faced with an all-in decision on the next street.

Playing Conservatively In The Early Rounds

Playing conservatively during the early rounds of a tournament is the more commonly adopted technique and this is how you should approach a no limit hold ‘em tournament if you are still relatively new to the game. The advantage of playing premium hands of course is that you are minimizing the risk of exiting the tournament early. The disadvantage of this technique is that you are allowing the more aggressive players to build their chip stacks to a point where your only defense against a raise is an all-in.

For example, say you are in the BB and you make it $1000 to go which represents 30% of your chip stack. The player to your left re-raises an additional $1000. At this point your options are very limited; you are pot committed but that additional $1000 would mean 60% of your chip stack is in the middle. To the raiser that is only 10% of his stack so even if you call, he will call you all-in on the flop regardless of the cards that come. That is the downside to the conservative approach, you surrender all control of the pot over to the aggressive players.

In the end the best poker players in the world, the ones that go on to win a World Series of Poker bracelet are the ones who learn to adapt to the situation. Sometimes being aggressive is the right move because the players at the poker table are weak and will fold to any substantial raise. Other time you’ll be playing a table with hyper aggressive players and conservative is the way to go until you hit that monster hand and double through.