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Online Poker Tournament Strategy Guide

Far too often do new poker players come into competitive online play with little to no experience and absolutely no poker tournament strategy.

These are the players often referred to as "fish" or "donkeys" and there's no reason you need to be one.

By using the following simple poker tournament strategy tips, many have consistently landed in the money as well as quite a few first-place finishes.

Sit and Go Poker Strategy

Poker Tournament Strategy SheetAlthough sit and go (SNG) games are relatively short, they undergo numerous stages that will modify how you should play.

With faster blinds increases than multi-table tournaments, consistently succeeding in SNG games require a very aggressive style of play. Psychologically, SNGs make people feel like they're close to the bubble right away, which means you will experience a ton of passivity and maniacal behavior.

Use your poker software to tag various opponents for their styles, there's a chance you'll run into them in future SNGs.

Stealing: Prime Times for Thievery

During the course of a sit 'n' go, you will, at a very minimum, want to win back your blinds at least once every time the button goes around the table. You have two prime moments to steal blinds when there still six or more players at the table.

  1. On the button and only one or two players have called before you.
  2. Your chip stack is large enough that other players would be risking losing all their chips to go against you.

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Make it Easy on Yourself

If you raise against a passive player and get countered with an all-in, drop out of the hand immediately. If you get re-raised by a manic player, simply make the call and see how the cards play out. Conversely, minimize game time against other aggressive players as they're your biggest threat through the entire SNG.

Multi-Table Tournaments

During a multi-table tournament (MTT), there are three stages that should dictate how you play, and each centers around managing your bankroll or chip stack.

Early Stages

In the early stages, you will have a good number of chips compared to the blinds, but most players are simply looking to progress further into the tournament so you'll have a hard time landing large pots (unless you have a manic or two at your table). During this point in MTT play, play tight and aggressive. Fold more than you bet and bet more than you call.

Pocket pairs and suited face cards are obvious hands to play in any situation, but be prepared to shift to a more aggressive stance when you're on or just before the button.

Middle Stage

After getting through the early stages, you will find that your chips are more valuable than before as the blinds rapidly increase.

You will have to become more flexible with your hands, which goes against all human nature. What that means, though, is that other players will be getting tighter and tighter as they're just trying to make it past the bubble, so you can more often gamble to steal blinds. Don’t allow yourself to be chipped away at by blinds in the hopes to make it to the payout stages: You're going to have a much better cash out in the long run if you use the middle stages to posture for winning the tournament rather than simply earning back your buy in.

Your playable hands during the middle stage should be wider than in the early stage, and should include hands like A♥ 4♣, J♠ Q♥, 5♦ 6♦ or anything better. Nevertheless, you will still only want to call all-ins when holding strong pocket pairs and high suited connectors.

Late Stage - After the Bubble

After you've busted the bubble and have made it into the payout portion of the tournament, you're in the late stages. At this point, you're going to want to pick off anyone who was just holding out and call small stack all-ins when you have merely marginal hands.

If you're risking around 10 percent of your stack or less to call an all-in and have a hand like 8♣9♣ or K♥T♠, your percentage to win pre-flop is still around the upper 40% range. If you take the short-stacked player's desperation into account, there's a strong possibility that your odds are closer to 50-50.

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Unless taking a loss from one of these players will mean practically breaking you, there's not much at risk during each hand but, after knocking out a few opponents, you can quickly become the big stack at the table. However, you have to become more comfortable with gambling during the late stages; luck starts to make a bit of a difference since so many people are in a fold or all-in scenario.

On Deep-Stack Tournaments

On the other hand, deep-stack poker tournament strategy lets you gamble a bit more in the early stages of the competition. By having a larger bankroll to begin with, your chips' value is substantially less in regards to the number of blinds you can afford. However, once the blinds start to get the game to the middle and into the late stages, your strategy should simply switch over to how you normally play during MTTs.

Poker Tournament Strategy Books

To learn more about poker tournament strategy, check out these editor’s picks from top poker tournament pros:

Daniel Negreanu Power Hold'em Strategy

Gus Hansen Every Hand Revealed

Dan Harrington Harrington on Hold'em

Avoiding Passive and Manic Behavior

Two of the fastest ways to lose all your chips in a poker tournament is through making plays easily described as either passive or manic.


Passive players will often call bets and raises and just limp into a hand by matching the big blind. They will often go all-in pre flop if they have a pair of jacks or better as they would rather scare opposition away than face a difficult decision later on.

If you find yourself going against a passive player, he or she will often fold to bets the size of the pot or larger. So, if you end up in a showdown with one of these players and hold the nuts, make your bets between 1/4 and 3/4 of the pot to keep him or her in the hand as long as possible. These players are painfully predictable, but they also make it into the money pool of multi-table tournaments quite often due to cautiousness. Still, you will likely never see a passive player make the final table in a multi-table tournament, much less win one.

Maniacal Antics

On the other hand, manic players seem to have little or no control over their betting and are so wildly unpredictable that they might as well not even look at their cards. Sometimes, you'll encounter players like this who actually believe it's a viable strategy because they once saw someone go all in on every hand during a sit 'n' go and won.

Still, most manic betters you run into will just be on tilt, probably from an unlucky string of games or they're dealing with something in real life that's too much to handle. The reality of this play style is that these players will very often be the first players knocked out of a tournament.

Playing against a manic or tilting opponent is ill advised unless you're holding a very strong hand. Their irregularity and willingness to keep a hand until they see the river in the off chance they get a backdoor straight with the 4♠ 6♥ they're holding.

Likewise, if you're feeling angry or particularly emotional about something in your life or you've experienced a bad run that day, stop playing and get some rest. When tilting or feeling agitated in some way, you might as well throw money away - at least you wouldn't have to deal with the inevitable that you might call a "bad beat" but in reality was likely easily avoided.

Being Aggressive

To make the most of your of your life in online poker, you need to be as aggressive as possible while not allowing emotion to have an impact on your choices. Whether playing online, cash games, SNGs, MTTs or any combination of those, being an aggressive player is the number one determining factor on whether or not you will be a successful player.

There are two actions considered aggressive in poker: raising and folding.

As you may have surmised, there's only one other action in poker to be considered passive, and that's calling. The more often you get away from an aggressive style and call bets, the more likely your poker tournament strategy will fall flat. You'll minimize your winnings while losing more hands.

At first, being aggressive will feel like it goes against a beginner's nature as it means going against one's nature of wanting to test the waters. However, the earlier you get away from this habit, the sooner you will find yourself breaking the bubble in more multi-table tournaments and winning more SNGs.

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Similarly, don't be afraid to bluff. Every once in a while, you should be betting like you have the best hand at the table even if you're holding 2♦ 7♥. It may cost you some chips, but if you're "caught" bluffing, other players will be more likely to call your aggression, which will net you a larger stack in the long run.

Stay Relaxed and Focused

Being an aggressive player, though, does not mean that you have to be emotionally invested in the tournament. You have to make peace with your losses and don't get overexcited from winning large hands. Winning or losing too much can push a player to making terrible missteps during the tournament.

Try to see each movement, whether good or bad, as a mere stepping stone in a long path, otherwise you'll find yourself trying to sprint and end up broke. Breathe deep after a big hand won or lost and take another logical look at the table and your current position. Be Zen with your decisions and become a better player at all times.

Poker Tournaments vs Cash Games

Contrary to tournaments, cash games neither have increasing blinds nor do players have to be knocked out to stop playing. This allows for a more singular playing style.

Beyond this, there are other basic differences:

  • Cash games usually have minimum and maximum buy-in amount, but players can choose how much to use. In MTTs and SNGs, every player pays the exact same entrance fee.
  • When losing all your chips in a tournament, you're out of the game for good (in most cases). In a cash game, you can simply buy in again.
  • Cash can accommodate more risk-taking styles, whereas gambling too much in tournaments can negatively affect your ROI.


Notes on Cash Game Poker Strategy

Buy in for more than the minimum. Don't start your cash game with so few chips that you're already facing an all-in or fold scenario. Try to buy in at 100 times the amount of the table's big blind. In a $1/$2 game, spend $200. In a $0.05/$0.10 table, buy in for $10.

Play tight. With blinds staying constant and having the ability to re-buy your way in, there's much less pressure for players to have the largest chip stack or make foolish risks in an attempt to double up.

You can move. If you find yourself in a bad spot like to the right of a hyper-aggressive or tilting player, simply leave the table. If there's a fish at the table that you can profit off of, just change seats and only go against the manic player when you have better positioning than him or her.