Strategies for Early Tournament Poker Play

Allen Cunningham - nicknamed Clever Piggy, is a member of Team FullTilt professional poker players

Many players’ first exposure to poker comes from watching WSOP and WPT tournaments on TV, and I think that’s great. It’s entertaining and you’ll see some interesting plays, but viewers have to understand that they shouldn’t model their games based on the action they see on TV.

Why? The answer is simple – what you’re seeing is unrealistic and edited for television. Players in these televised tournaments often start with very deep stacks (sometimes 10,000 chips or more) and, most of the time, all you’ll see on the broadcast is action from the final table where the blinds are high and play is fast. In contrast, the majority of the low buy-in ($1 to $20) tournaments you’ll encounter online usually start with stacks of 1,500 and blinds of 10/20.

Because your approach to the early stages of these tournaments is key to whether you’ll make the final table, the question is, what should your strategy be?

I suggest adopting a simple approach, especially if you’re not a very experienced tournament player. Try not to play too many hands and aim to see a few cheap flops with small/medium pairs if possible because these can provide some the best chances for you to double or even triple up during the first couple of levels. There are many times when you may be able to put in 5% of your stack or less to see a flop and try and hit your set. You’re 7-to-1 to flop a set, but you may be getting 20-to-1 implied odds early on since a flopped set will often be the best hand, and you’ll have a good chance to double up against weaker players who may overplay top pair.

If you are expecting a few callers, you might want to limp with these hands pre-flop. You may also just want to flat call with these hands if there are already a couple of people in for a small raise when the action gets to you. But, if the action is folded to you in late position, you definitely want to raise and take down the blinds. If you want to play conservatively, you can safely throw away small pairs in early position. As I said previously, you don’t want to commit more than about 5% of your stack pre-flop with small and medium pairs (maybe 6% or 7% max), and when you play from early position there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen.

Of course you also want to be playing your monsters like AA and KK, and other hands like QQ, JJ, AK and AQ. Remember early on when stacks are deep, you’re not going to get a lot of action for all of your chips unless you’re up against a pretty strong hand.

There are no concrete rules as to how fast you should try to build your stack in the early going, but the main thing you don’t want to do is go broke by playing too loose. In smaller online tourneys you will either be in the money or close to the money without having to win too many pots if you can just play tight and hang around for a couple of hours. If you speculate too much or take too many coin-flips when you don’t need to early on, chances are that you’ll end up on the rail and miss that opportunity.

Even if you make it to the fourth or fifth level with just a little above starting stack, you’ll usually be in good enough shape to take a run at the money. Remember, getting into the money and beyond is what counts – so learn how to start your tournaments the right way and give yourself the best chance to be the last player standing at the end.

Allen Cunningham

Allen has 5 WSOP Bracelets and over $10.2 Million in Career Tournament Earnings. He was 2005 WSOP Player of the Year.


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Allen Cunningham on Stealing the Blinds

Tips from Professional Poker Players

The middle stages of a poker tournament can be a tortuous and tedious experience for even the most seasoned pro. The long trek toward the money, combined with a variety of potentially tricky scenarios you may face along the way, make it difficult to come up with one sure-fire strategy to help you through. That said, one aspect of mid-tourney play that’s extremely important is picking up pots pre-flop.

If you’ve been card dead in the first few levels you may only have as many chips as what you started with, or you may have been lucky enough to double or triple up early on. You may be minutes or hours away from making the money, depending on the number of entrants, and the average chip stack may be 20, 30 or even 40BB, based on the structure.

No matter what the situation is, however, it’s important to remember that once the blinds start to represent a decent percentage of your stack, you want to steal as much as possible. Raising the blinds a fair amount also balances your play and gets your big hands paid off more often. You’ll lose a few of your raises with speculative hands when people come over the top of you or call, but you’ll win a few as well, and raising will convince people to play back at you on those times when you happen to have big hands.

Bear in mind it’s still important to pick your spots. Continue to play tight from early position – stick to big pairs and AK – but from late position, start to attack the blinds with a variety of playable hands. At this stage of the tournament, if you’re going to play a hand, you should be coming into the pot with a raise every single time.

From the cutoff or hijack, for example, I’m going to open with hands like 9Ts, any Ax suited, all pairs, two picture cards, and even looser hands than that from the button. If I’m in late position and facing a raise, I’m either going to want to smooth-call with a really good hand or re-raise bluff them to pick up the pot pre-flop.

If somebody makes a pre-flop raise that’s more than 10% of my stack and I have a hand I want to play, I’ll consider moving all-in over the top of them. Any smaller re-raise commits me to the hand and flat-calling gives me no idea of where I’m at. If I smooth-call, my opponent is likely to bet first after the flop and without top pair or an over-pair, I’m going to be forced to either fold the best hand or, possibly, move all-in with the worst hand.

For example, let’s say somebody opens in mid-to-late position for 300 and you’re on the button with T-T and 2,000 in chips. In this situation, I would assume the raiser is opening with any two picture cards, any pair or suited Aces, so a hand like T-T is definitely strong enough to play against their range.

I think the best play here is to move all-in. This will put some pressure on your opponent if they don’t have a very good hand and they’ll be likely to fold. This move also helps you avoid the trouble you might face if you just smooth-call the raise and over-cards come on the flop. If you’re holding T-T and the flop comes Jack or King high, you really have no idea what your opponent has if they lead out, which means you will probably have to fold.

I’d recommend moving all-in with 8-8 or 9-9 in this situation too because you’ll get more action pre-flop and maximize the value from your coin flips. If someone raises pre-flop with A-Q and you elect to just call with a mid-pocket pair, they’re likely to miss the flop and check-fold. However, if you go all-in over the top and they call, you have a good chance to take their whole stack and set yourself up for the rest of the tournament.

By moving all-in with hands like A-K, A-Q, 9-9 and T-T in these situations, you’re giving yourself more opportunities to win pots by either getting your opponents to lay down marginal hands, or to make calls that put them in coin-flip situations. By mixing up your game a little and making these moves with monsters every once in awhile, you can also get your opponents to make some calls where they’re huge dogs.

Remember, the first goal of tournament poker is to make it into the money. By aggressively attacking blinds and antes when you think you’re likely to be a favorite in the hand, you can build a stack that will help carry you through the tough patches you may face in the middle stages, and put you in position to play for the win once the bubble bursts.

tickyNicknamed “Clever Piggy”, Allen has won 5 WSOP Bracelets. He finished fourth at the 2006 WSOP Main Event and was named 2005 WSOP Player of the Year.

tickyHaving played at bet365 Poker for years we really enjoy and recommend them highly. bet365 is the lead member of the Playtech iPoker Network.


Establishing a Tight Table Image

Allen Cunningham Professional Poker Player

In poker, image matters. Throughout a tournament your table image will help determine how much action you’ll get and, ultimately, how you can manipulate your opponents into making big calls or big laydowns at the wrong times.

While establishing a loose, aggressive image early on can help build your potential chip stack, I believe it’s important to develop a tight table image in the later stages of a tournament because it gives you the ability to manoeuvre at the times when the chips matter most.

When the action is folded around, some players will always raise from the cutoff and the button. The problem with this play is that it’s predictable and can easily be exploited. If you always raise from the button, the players in the blinds catch on sooner or later and will put in a big re-raise with any 2 cards. You will also find players just calling you with a much wider range of hands from the blinds before putting in a big check-raise on the flop.

Why do they do this? Because you have been presenting a loose table image by raising any time the action is passed to you. During late-stage play, this image hampers your ability to manoeuvre because any time you try to make a move, it’s likely that someone will play back at you.

It doesn’t take long before your loose table image will make you a target for the experienced players at the table (or even the inexperienced players who get tired of being pushed around). The amount of chips you risk by being loose in these situations is usually not worth the reward of just picking up the blinds. Be careful though, because when you play too tight you end up missing many opportunities to slowly accumulate chips or even just stay afloat. Ideally, you want to project a very tight image while actually being somewhere in between the standard perceptions of “loose” and “tight”.

I have one very simple piece of advice to help you with this part of your game. It may sound so simple you’ll wonder why I bother mentioning it, but in fact, this is one of my most important rules: Always fold junk.

By always folding junk hands you accomplish a number of goals: you resist the temptation to attempt a blind steal just because action was passed to you. With the level of aggressiveness that characterises today’s play, it’s better to pass on bad hands, even in position.

You avoid pot-committing yourself with a hand that will usually be dominated in a race with a shortstack. For example, if you raise from the cutoff for 3x the big blind with J-3 attempting to steal the blinds, and a stack with 8x the big blind moves in behind you, you are in a bad spot. It’s better to just avoid these situations altogether.
Most importantly, you further cement your image as a tight player. Now when you raise with a hand like A-8, you can feel confident that your tight image will allow you to steal the blinds although you’re actually playing a bit looser.

Another temptation players face is to pick on someone’s blind just because they view that players as “weak”. I rarely pick on someone’s blinds without a decent opening hand. Opening from the cutoff with a hand like K-9 suited is about as low as I’m willing to go in attempt to pick up the blinds.

Using my tight table image enabled me to manoeuvre through a very tough field in the $5000 Pot Limit Hold’em event at the 2007 WSOP. After I doubled up early in Day 2, I used my table image in the late stages to steal blinds and to pick up a number of pots in key situations. I was able to carry this momentum to the final table, where I was fortunate enough to win the bracelet.

Remember, it takes more than good cards to be a winning poker player. By creating a solid table image in the late stages of a tournament, you may actually be able to play a wider variety of hands than your opponents expect and take down key pots at critical times.

a5_wNicknamed “Clever Piggy” (cringe), even when Allen Cunningham is not playing tournaments, you can usually find him at a US-friendly online poker table. He enjoys playing a variety of cash games, including Pot-Limit Omaha and mixed games like HORSE.

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