Poker Tips from Professional Players: Are you telling the right story?

Howard Lederer professional poker player

One theme you’ll see throughout our Tips From The Pros series is that when you’re making a move, your actions need to tell a plausible story. Some stories can be simple. For example, if you raise pre-flop and then follow up with a bet on a King-high flop, you’re telling opponents that you’re happy with the progression of the hand and maybe you have A-K or K-Q.

In confrontations between advanced players, the plots can get pretty complex as a hand progresses. For this tip, I want to talk about a hand I played on the television show Poker After Dark, where I both told a consistent story and found a flaw in my opponent’s tale.

I was playing in Poker After Dark’s “Commentator’s Week”. With blinds of $200/$400 and my stack at about $14,000, I was on the button with 10s-7s and the action was folded to me. I made a standard raise to $1,200, trying to pick up the blinds. Chad Brown folded in the small blind, but Gabe Kaplan called from the big blind.

The flop came Ah–8s–2d, and Gabe checked to me. I put out a bet of $1,300, keeping with the story that I raised with an Ace pre-flop and was following up after hitting top pair.

Gabe called, so I had to assume that he had some piece of the flop, maybe an 8.

The turn paired the 2. To my surprise, Gabe then led at the pot, betting $3,000. At this point I was really confused. What story was Gabe telling? Did he have a 2? That seemed unlikely, as I thought he would be more likely to check to me, hoping to get more value with a check-raise. It also seemed like a strange play to make if he had an 8.

I decided that there was a good chance he was simply trying to pick up the pot with a bluff. Or he could’ve had a weak Ace. At this point, I decided I could pick up the pot with a bluff. To do that, I needed to keep my story consistent. What would I do if I had the hand I was representing, a hand like A-Q? I’d probably just call Gabe’s turn bet. So that’s what I did, knowing I’d have to bluff the river.

Another Ace fell on the river and Gabe checked. Once again, I wanted to keep my story straight. What would I do if I rivered the full house, Aces full of 2s? I’d bet small, trying to extract some additional value from a player with a pocket pair or an 8. I bet out $3,500, only about one-third of the pot, and Gabe quickly folded.

When the show aired, I learned that Gabe had Qs-Js, and was simply making a play at the pot. He, too, was bluffing. But had I not bet on the river, I would have lost the pot to Gabe’s two-pair with a Queen.

As you play, keep in mind that your opponents will be attempting to piece together the stories you tell them. Do your best to tell them the stories you want them to hear.

Howard Lederer


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Building That Poker Bankroll: Bubble Play Tips from Howard Lederer

Howard Lederer poker professional

In a typical nine-handed, one-table Sit & Go that pays out three places, the most critical juncture of the tournament comes when four players remain. Three of those players will turn a profit, and one of them will go home empty-handed. It goes without saying that there’s no more disappointing place to finish in a nine-handed Sit & Go than fourth.

It’s a volatile time when your stack is getting short, the blinds are getting high and everyone’s looking to cash. To get the most out of Sit & Gos, you’re going to have to learn how to master the bubble.

On most online poker sites, first place gets 50% of the prize pool, second place gets 30% and third place pockets 20%. But don’t let that 20% fool you. It’s not really 20% for third, because once you get down to three players, 60% of the prize money has been locked up and actually already paid out. Essentially, the last three players are only fighting over 40% of the prize pool as the other 60% has already been paid out. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you get into the money. You’re going to have to make some tough decisions and tight lay-downs to make sure that you get a piece of that 60%.

Here’s an example of a hand you would play very differently on the money bubble in a Sit & Go than in most other instances. You’re second in chips with 3,000, the blinds are 100/200, and you’re dealt Ad-7d in the big blind. The chip leader is on the button and raises to 600; the small blind folds and you call the extra 400. The flop comes Q-8-3 with two diamonds, which is a pretty attractive flop for your hand. You check, and your opponent does exactly what you didn’t want him to do: put you all in for about double the size of the pot. You’re getting slightly better than 3-to-2 pot odds on a call for your tournament life.

This is a situation in most tournaments where, if it was early in the Sit & Go or if the money bubble had already burst, you would call. But this is a special situation. You are on the bubble and 60% of the prize pool is about to be awarded. If you call here, you’re probably about 50/50 to be the player that finishes on the bubble and gets none of that 60%. This is one situation where you need to really let the structure of the Sit & Go influence your decision.

Once the bubble bursts, your approach should change dramatically. Look again at the payout structure: the last three players are fighting over the remaining 40% of the prize pool. If you move up from third to second, you get another 10%, but if you move up from third to first, that gets you an extra 30%. That’s three times more reward for winning than for just moving up a spot. So your goal now becomes to do what’s necessary to finish in first place and not be too concerned about going broke and finishing in third.

You should be willing to put your chips at risk to give yourself a stack that can lead to a win. If you pick up a hand like J-9 or Ace-rag and it looks like someone might be pushing you around, take a stand. Put your chips in the middle. You don’t want to be anteing off your chips, limping up into second and then not winning.

In these structures, the initial goal is always to cash. Once you’ve cashed, the goal is to go for the win.

tickyHere are the latest stats on Howard Lederer:
He holds 2 WSOP Bracelets and 2 WPT Titles, and was named 2003 WPT “Player of the Year”.

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Professional Poker Tips: Poker is a game of choices

Poker is a game of choices. Some of these choices are fairly straight forward and simple while others take a lot of thought. The thing is that when all is said and done, there may not be just one correct path to winning a given hand; it’s all up to you to decide what road to travel.

With that in mind, we asked Team Full Tilt’s Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson to share their thoughts on one of poker’s trickiest decisions – the coin flip. Should players be willing to put everything on the line in a coin flip situation? Here are two different sides to the coin flip question:Professional Poker tips






Chris Says:

For the most part, coin flips are something that I tend to avoid. You never want to take on a negative EV proposition, so you can pretty easily fold a hand like A-K when you’re certain your opponent is holding a high pocket pair like Jacks or Queens. Some players are willing to take a negative EV coin flip early on in a big tournament in order to accumulate chips, but this is an incorrect decision (unless you’re trying to catch an early flight or make like Ivey to the golf course).

Of course, there are a couple of situations where pressing a coin flip can be the right move. For example, if you think your opponents are better players than you, then it might be correct to take a coin flip. When you’re outclassed in a game and are certain that you’ll be outplayed after the flop, taking a coin flip can help even the playing field.

By that same token, you should be willing to press a coin flip situation every chance you get against a player who thinks he’s better than you. Make him avoid taking the coin flip by raising and putting a lot of pressure on him to make that decision. If he really thinks of himself as the superior player, he’ll want to avoid that situation and keep folding until he gets the chance to try and outplay you after the flop. He may think he’s the better player, but if you put a lot of pressure on him, you may end up outplaying him.

Howard Says:

I think people try to avoid them too much, especially after they’ve already committed chips to the pot. If the pot has 1,000 in it and you have to put your last 500 chips in to make the call, you’re getting 2-1 on your money – yet people dodge this situation all the time. It’s just wrong; you should love to take 2-1 on a coin flip even if you only have a 48% chance of winning.

When you have a hand like A-K and you could be running into Aces or Kings, committing chips to a coin flip is obviously not something you should be looking to do. But at the same time, when you’re getting 2-1 on your money in a likely coin flip situation, I think its right to take the flip. It’s a pretty big disaster if you’re holding Jacks and don’t want to flip against something like A-K, but it turns out your opponent has pocket 9s.

The whole point of a coin flip is that yes, sometimes you have the classic A-K versus Queens race. But what about all the times you have A-K and the other player has A-Q. When you have a hand where you aren’t in a coin flip, you likely have your opponent dominated, and you should take that proposition every time.

With that said, there are obviously times when you should not be looking to take a coin flip. When you’re in a situation where you have a lot more chips than your opponent, this is a good time not to take that flip. The more of an advantage you have over the other player, the less willing you should be to take the coin flip. Avoid that situation by not committing too many chips to the pot and waiting until after the flop to outplay the competition.

As you can see, there’s no one right way to approach a coin flip situation. There are always two sides to every coin.


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Is There Really Any Luck in Poker?

This poker blog post is based on discussions between Annie Duke and her brother and poker mentor, Howard Lederer.

Annie Duke professional poker playerNow anyone who has sat in at a poker table knows there is skill in poker, but the general consensus has been that there is a preponderance of skill, not that poker is a game that is all skill. Arguments for this have centered on the fact that good players, in the long run will come out winners, but in the short run, anyone can win.

So the argument has been that poker is a game with a significant luck factor, but over the long run the law of large numbers will play out and the better players will win. But is this really true?  Howard has come up with a very compelling argument that the answer to this is actually NO!

Say we program a machine so it knows the rules of Texas Holdem Poker. It knows that you’re dealt 2 cards. It knows that a flop, a turn, and a river comprise the community cards. It knows that you can check, bet, call, or raise on any given street. It knows the rules and mechanics of the game. But let’s also say that we programme the machine to play with no skill at all. This means the machine will randomly choose an action at any given decision point. Now, remember that on any given street there are up to 5 possible decisions (a bet and four raises) and our machine will behave randomly – how do your think the machine would do? Terribly, obviously!

If you put our machine into a short even like a sit-n-go, against 8 skilled players, it would lose every time. The skilled players would quickly come up with the most effective strategy against the machine, which would be to raise the minimum against the machine every time. This would always put the decision back on the machine for the lowest risk; 1/3 of the time the machine will fold, 1/3 of the time it will call and 1/3 of the time it will raise. And the machine will do this regardless of its hand. It will be as likely to fold aces-full as it will to fold nine-high. It will be as likely to call with top pair as it will be to call with five-high. You can see pretty quickly that our unskilled machine would never win, even in the short run.

Howard’s argument shows that poker players tend to drastically overestimate the luck factor in poker, mainly because, in general, we are playing against very skilled players and whenever we close the skill gap between opponents in a skill game, it appears that there is more luck involved.

Take baseball as an example. No one argues baseball is not a game of skill. And the same thing happens in baseball when we narrow the skill gap. If we take the Yankees and pit them against a Little League team, then the Yankees will win every time. But pit them against an equally skilled major league team, say the Red Sox, now luck appears to play a much larger role. But it is actually factors like injuries and the weather that become a more important part in determining the outcome of a game. While the better team will win over a series of games, the outcomes of a single game will appear to be determined by luck, but is actually due to factors outside the direct control of the teams.

And poker is no different. Good poker players will overestimate the luck factor in poker because they forget exactly how skilled their opponents are. The fact is that most players are very skilled at hand selection and betting theory, even in the smallest games, compared to the totally unskilled player – like our machine.  As in baseball, the more skilled your opponents are, the more it appears that luck determines the outcome in the short run.

To take that baseball analogy further, if we stick the very best poker professional in a $0.50/$1 NL game, that player will crush the game just as the Yankees will crush the Little League team. If we pit that same player against other top pros, the best player will win in the long run, although the short run outcome may be determined largely by factors outside the player’s control.

The interesting thing is if we took the same unskilled machine and programmed it to know the rules of lottery, it would perform the same as a human being. This is because there is no skill to the lottery. Once you know to fill out the appropriate number of numbers on the slip, and pay the attendant – you’re good to go. There is nothing more to the game – and yet lotteries are excluded from the current [US] anti gambling legislation, and poker is at risk. Seems illogical to me.

pro poker tipsPoker is a game of skill. It is a game in which the outcome is determined by skill as much as baseball is. Once we understand this, it is clear that poker should be set aside from gambling legislation that deals with games of chance since it clearly is not a game of chance. It is just a matter of getting people to truly and deeply understand the difference between games of skill and games of luck.

Annie Duke

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Howard Lederer on Playing Large Fields

Howard Lederer poker tournamemt tips

During the World Series of Poker, players are confronted with massive fields. For example, in the 2006 WSOP, nearly 2,800 players bought into the first $1,500 No Limit Hold’em event. Throughout the Series, it was common to see starting fields of 1,500 to 2,000.

Many players who are accustomed to playing in smaller tournaments can be overwhelmed by the prospect of competing against so many people. Some feel they need to make major adjustments to their games in order to be competitive. They play faster than they normally would, playing marginal hands and looking for the opportunities to gamble.

I think this is a big mistake. You should never alter your strategy to compensate for the size of the field. When you sit down to play in a tournament, you should concentrate only on things you can control.

Whether you’re playing against 200 or 2,000 players, you should be focused on how you’re going to beat the other players at your table. Let the rest of the tournament take care of itself. If you manage to make good decisions against your opponents, you’ll have the opportunity to accumulate the chips and survive as the field dwindles.

Howard Lederer poker professionalIf you manage to stick around, you’ll have the opportunity for a nice payday. But if you gamble excessively in the early stages and bust out, you’ve got no chance at all.

In any tournament, the determining factor for whether you should play a given hand is the size of the blinds. If you have 10,000 in chips and the blinds are 50 and 100, there’s no need to play A-J in early position. But if you have 10,000 in chips and the blinds are 1,000 and 2,000, you need to move in with that same hand. It’s the blind structure that should determine how you play, not the number of players in the event.

In the WSOP Main Event, I’ve seen a lot of players feel pressured by the vast size of the field. But it’s a false pressure. The Main Event has a great structure. The blinds increase slowly, so you can play patiently and look for your spots.

You can’t win any large event in the first hour on the first day, so don’t worry about what’s happening elsewhere in a tournament. Play your game and do your best to beat the players at your table. It’s the surest path to success in any tournament, no matter the size of the field.

Howard Lederer.

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Stud Hi-Lo the Howard Lederer way

“Stud-Hi/Lo is a complex game that presents players with decisions that they’re not going to encounter in Hold’em or in any other high-only game.”

Howard Lederer plays exclusively online at

In split-pot games, beginners are often cautioned against playing hands that have them drawing to half the pot. But in Seven-Card Stud Hi/Lo, a situation sometimes arises where drawing with a modest chance at the whole pot and an even smaller chance at half the pot is clearly the correct play.

Say you’re playing eight-handed, $4/$8 Stud Hi/Lo, with a $1 ante and a $1 low card bring in. You’re dealt 2s-5d-5c and, with the low card showing, you bring it in for $1. It’s folded to a player showing a King, who completes to $4. Everyone else folds; you call and head to Fourth Street.

Both you and your opponent pick up a 7. He bets $4 and you call. On Fifth Street, you pick up a Jack and he gets a 4. You have [2s]-[5d]-5c-7h-Jc and your opponent shows [x]-[x]-Kd-7s-4c. At this point, you’re pretty convinced that your opponent has a pair of Kings. You look at your hand and see that you don’t have much, a low pair and three to a low. You might be tempted to fold if your opponent bets, but that would be a mistake.

The action so far has already created a significant pot. There’s $8 in antes, and another $16 from the betting on Third and Fourth Streets. You’ll need to call bets of $8 on Fifth and Sixth Street to try to make your hand, so it will cost you $16. If you manage to make two pair and it holds up, you’d win about $50. That’s a pretty good price.

The odds here are so compelling that even if you were playing Seven-Card Stud Hi only, you’d have to consider calling your opponent down. You’d have a 30 percent chance of cracking the Kings, which isn’t quite enough to justify calling against an over-pair. However, if there was a chance that your opponent was bluffing, then calling would be okay.

However, Stud-Hi/Lo gives you an additional way of getting money out of the pot. You’ll go runner-runner to a low often enough so that your pot equity increases to about 37 percent. Those odds are way too good to consider folding.

Stud-Hi/Lo is a complex game that presents players with decisions that they’re not going to encounter in Hold’em or in any other high-only game. If you’re looking to improve your Stud-Hi/Lo game, play some hands online, and then try running some computer simulations to see if you’re making the best mathematical decisions.

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Poker Pro: Specialize at your peril

 “Playing the other games will develop skills that will simply make you a better poker player.”

Howard Lederer plays exclusively online at

The recent poker explosion on TV and the Internet has created a flood of new players who are serious about developing their game. Sadly for them, television is sending a skewed message. No-Limit Hold ’em is the game of choice when the game is shown on TV, and it’s easy to think there is only one game out there. While no one would argue that No-Limit makes for the most exciting television, there are many dangers associated with playing only one game.

First, you run the risk of getting bored, and boredom will lead to a stunting of your poker development. Enthusiasm is a critical ingredient for a successful poker career. When I spend time around the best poker players in the world, the one thing that they all share is a genuine love and passion for the game.

Next, you might be missing your true poker calling. As it happens, my best game isn’t No-Limit Hold ’em – it’s Limit Hold ’em. Had I not tried playing limit, I would never have found the game I am best at.

There are reasons why all the biggest casinos in the world feature multiple games!

Stop by the big game at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and you’re liable to see No-Limit and Limit, with games ranging from Seven-Card Stud to Deuce-to-Seven Draw. The best players in the world simply love to play poker. To deny themselves the pleasure of playing some of the best forms of the game would be unthinkable. They also know that if they play just one game, the specialists in a particular game (who are not nearly as good overall poker players) would be able to sit at their game and win. If you want to climb to the top of the poker world, you better become a great poker generalist. If you insist on limiting yourself to one game, you’ll never make it.

Even if your ultimate goal is to become an accomplished No-Limit Hold ’em player, I encourage you to at least play a lot of Limit Hold ’em. Too many No-Limit specialists get by with almost no post-flop skills. To get good at limit Hold ’em, you will be forced get more comfortable playing after the flop. Getting free cards on fourth street and making close value bets on fifth street are just two of the skills you’ll be working on. And those skills are transferable. Developing these skills in limit Hold ’em will allow you to play your hands with all your options available. And your No-Limit results will improve dramatically.

Playing the other games will develop skills that will simply make you a better poker player. Skills that have subtle value in No-Limit Hold ’em are very important in the other games. Acquiring these skills will have profound effects on your No-Limit game, even though you might not even be aware of their importance now.

Playing Seven-Card Stud will definitely teach you the value of free cards. It is a fundamental skill necessary to succeed at the game. In Pot-Limit Omaha you will learn the power of position and the power of the semi-bluff. Seven-Card Stud 8/Better is a game where you need to learn how to narrow the field at the right time. The number of players in a pot can make a hand go from a fold to a raise. Razz? Well, if nothing else, it will teach you how important patience can be when things aren’t going well.

The world of poker has a lot more to offer than No-Limit Hold ’em. And if you start to explore that world, I am confident you will enjoy the game more. Getting good at each game will take time, so start out small and read what you can. Have fun; a new world awaits.

Howard Lederer

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Pro Poker: It is not like on TV!

Howard Lederer, nicknamed The Professor is a top poker pro“In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that some of the less experienced players who have entered $10,000 buy-in tournaments don’t fully appreciate what they’ve seen on TV.”

Many of the people crowding the tournament circuit these days developed their interest in serious poker from watching broadcasts of the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker. With hole cards shown as the hands are played out, viewers get to see how the best players in the world ply their craft. They can then apply the lessons they’ve learned in their own play.

In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that some of the less experienced players who have entered $10,000 buy-in tournaments don’t fully appreciate what they’ve seen on TV. Many are apt to misapply the techniques they’ve witnessed. As a result, these players find themselves on the rail early, wondering why a move that worked so well for Phil Ivey or Chris Ferguson had such disastrous results for them.

To avoid falling into this trap yourself, take note of two key pieces of information the next time you sit down to watch the WPT or WSOP: The number of players at the table and the stack sizes relative to the blinds.

World Poker Tour final-table broadcasts start when six players remain. Through the vast majority of tournaments, however, tables are nine or 10-handed. When 10 people are at the table, you always need to be concerned that someone holds a big pocket pair or Ace-King. As a result, most good players tend to be cautious at full tables. They won’t get themselves in a lot of trouble with speculative hands like a middle pocket pair or Ace-10. At a short-handed table, however, the chances of running into a big hand are greatly diminished. When play is three- or four-handed, a pro will likely play a hand like pocket 9s very aggressively.

Usually, in the late stages of tournaments, the blinds are extremely high when compared to the size of the stacks. For example, in the WPT event from the Gold Strike in Tunica, when four players remained, the average stack had about 1.4 Million in chips. This may sound like a lot but, at that time, the blinds were 30,000 and 60,000 with a 10,000 ante. The short stacks, who had less than 1 Million each, couldn’t afford to be patient. If they failed to play for a mere 20 hands, their stacks would be cut in half.

As blinds increase, good players get more aggressive, making frequent pre-flop raises while attempting to steal the blinds and antes. They know that if they sit and wait for top-quality hands, the blinds and antes will decimate their stacks. At these stages of tournaments, you’ll see a lot of attempted steals with second-rate hands. Other good players, fully aware that their opponents may be raising with very little, might re-raise or fight back from the blinds with similarly modest holdings.

Short tables and high blinds create settings that necessitate near constant aggression and continual action. So, for example, when you see a pro re-raise all-in from the blinds with pocket 7s, it’s likely he’s properly considered the situation and has made the best available play. He’s thought about the short table and high blinds, determined that he probably has the best hand and, most importantly, that his opponent likely can’t call the re-raise. The same player would treat the same hand very differently at an earlier stage of the tournament.

The final factor to consider when watching televised poker is that the shows are highly edited. At this year’s WSOP, it sometimes took 15 hours and hundreds of hands to determine a winner. On ESPN, they usually include about 20 hands in an hour-long broadcast. So, you can be sure that much of the context if missing from these telecasts. A call or re-raise that seemed odd on TV may have made perfect sense in the course of the event. For instance, if an aggressive player raised eight consecutive times on the button, the big blind may have decided that he had to fight back with rags, just to let his opponent know that he was willing to take a stand. It’s not a play that person would normally make, and it may look strange on TV but, in context, the re-raise with 8-high made perfect sense.

I suggest that you TiVo the next poker event you plan to watch. Keep track of the number of players and the size of the blinds. By paying attention to the details, the big picture will likely become clearer.

Howard Lederer

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Bad Position, Decent Cards

Howard Lederer - top poker pro
“In spots like this, your best move is to press an edge while you have it – before the flop.”

In the middle and later stages of tournaments, there are often times when you’re forced to make a pretty big commitment on a relatively weak holding. These are uncomfortable spots because you never want to risk a large percentage of your chips with a mediocre hand. Things get even more difficult when you’re playing from the blinds and out of position.

For example, say you’re playing late in a tournament. The blinds are $500 and $1,000, and there’s a $100 ante. You’re in the small blind with $18,000. It’s folded around to the button, an aggressive player who raises frequently in late position. He has $30,000 in his stack and he raises to $3,500. You look at your cards and see Ad-9s.

You know that A-9 isn’t a great hand, but you can’t ignore it in this situation. First off, given your opponent’s history, he may very well be raising with a hand that is far worse than yours. In fact, in this spot, he could very well have two rags. Another consideration is that there are a lot of chips in play. Between the blinds, antes, and your opponent’s raise, you stand to pick up over $5,000 in chips if you can take down this pot, which would be a nice addition to your short stack.

So, you’re probably going to want to play this hand. But what’s the best action?

At first, it might seem that calling is a reasonable course, as it would keep you from getting overly committed on this marginal hand. But calling has some pretty big downsides. With a hand like A-9, you’re usually not going to like the flop very much. In fact, you’ll fail to make as much as a pair about two-thirds of the time. If you do flop a pair of 9s, how are you going to proceed if the flop also has an over card? Even on an Ace-high flop, you’ll have a tough time knowing if your hand is good.

What’s more, if you miss the flop completely, you leave yourself vulnerable to being outplayed. It’s going to be very hard to bet if the flop contains three cards that don’t help your hand. If you check, your opponent will likely make a continuation bet, and you’ll be hard-pressed to continue, even though Ace-high might be good.

In spots like this, your best move is to press an edge while you have it – before the flop. Re-raise all-in pre-flop. Your opponent probably won’t have a hand that he can call with and, if he does, you’ll have plenty of outs. You still have about a 25% chance against AK, for example. Not good, but not dead.

The important thing to keep in mind is that, in the later stages of a tournament, you don’t want to make many decisions after the flop when you have a medium-strength hand like Ace-middle kicker or middle pocket pair, and you’re playing out of position. Put your chips in while you think you have the best of it, and hope for the best. If you let these marginal but good situations pass you by, you might regret it later when your stack has been whittled down even further.
Howard Lederer

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2h_wMore tips from Howard Lederer and other top poker pros.

The Sit n Go – The Flight Simulator of Final Table Play

Howard Lederer - top poker pro
“The Sit N Go is the flight simulator of Final Table play, and mastering it should be considered mandatory homework for the serious poker student.”

The Sit N Go (SNG) is online poker’s great gift to the aspiring tournament player. Prior to the SNG, final table experience was hard to come by. You could enter a dozen multi-table tournaments and never find yourself at a final table. Or you could make one or two, only to get knocked out in 8th or 9th place. Adapting to an ever-diminishing number of players at a single table is a crucial skill in tournament poker, and it’s a hard experience to find offline without investing a lot of time and money. Online, this experience is a mouse-click away. The SNG’s advantages are many. For starters, it’s low-cost, or even free. It’s also fun, and convenient: You don’t need to schedule it — a SNG starts every time the table fills up — and it’s usually over in less than an hour. It is the flight simulator of Final Table play, and mastering it should be considered mandatory homework for the serious student.

Now that you know why you should play, let’s look at how:

The most obvious difference between a SNG and a multi-table tournament is that when someone goes broke in a SNG, there isn’t someone waiting to fill their spot. Multi-table play consists mostly of full-table, ring game poker. But as players get eliminated from a SNG, the table gets shorter- and shorter-handed. This reduction in players basically serves to artificially raise the antes. For instance, say you are playing five-handed and the blinds are 100-200: You are paying 300 in blinds for every five hands, or 60 per hand. As soon as someone gets knocked out, you’re four-handed. Now you’re paying 75 per hand — a 25% increase — despite the fact that the blinds have remained the same. Accordingly, you’re forced to gamble more, or risk getting blinded out.

Since the size of the blinds relative to your stack size should always play a major role in you hand selection, I recommend starting out with pretty conservative starting hand requirements. This serves two functions: First, the blinds dictate that you play fairly tight early; the blinds are small and you are nine-handed, so they don’t come around as often. Second, this helps you establish a tight image, which you hope will pay off later when the blinds are high and you might really need a timely ante steal.

But there is another not-so-obvious reason to play tighter earlier and looser later: The payout structure rewards tight play. Most SNG’s pay 50% to first, 30% to second, and 20% to third. This payout structure dictates that you play for third. Why? Looking at the payout structure another way might help. Basically, the payout means that 60% gets awarded once you are down to three players, 20% gets awarded when you get down to two players, and the final 20% gets awarded to the winner. If you can just get to third, you get at least one-third of 60% of the prize pool, or 20%. You’ve locked up a profit, and you have a chance to win up to 30% more. It’s only now that you’re in the top three that your strategy should take an abrupt turn. Now it pays to gamble for the win. Let’s look at the numbers again: 60% of the prize pool is off the table, and moving up one spot is worth only another 10%. But move up just one more spot and it’s worth a whopping 30% extra — that’s three times more for first than it is for second. And with the blinds going up, gambling for the win is even more clearly the correct play.

I see many players employ a nearly opposite strategy. They figure they have nothing to lose, so they go for the quick double-up early. They take chances too soon when, in their view, there’s “nothing on the line”. Then, once they’re in the money, they tighten up, thinking about that extra payout for moving up a spot. If you start to rethink your SNG approach and adopt a “slow early, fast late” strategy, you will see an almost immediate improvement in your results.

Best of luck and see you at the tables,
Howard Lederer

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