Early Stages Strategy for Poker Tournaments

Start of a Poker TournamentOne of the greatest challenges for a tournament player is being able to adapt to the changing settings of the tournament. The blinds are always increasing, antes may be added, your chip stack will fluctuate, and you will even be moved from table to table, so the players at your table will change.

This article series will focus on adapting to the changing levels. That is, the increasing blinds and the addition of antes. We have articles about the early stages, the middle stages, the bubble, the late stages, and the final table. Each piece will help guide you all the way to a first place tournament finish.

This page will discuss the early stages of tournament poker, and how to adapt your play to the beginning of the tournament. Our definition of the "early stage" of a tournament is the time period between the first hand of the tournament until about half of the tournament field is eliminated.

Blinds and Antes

In the early stage of a tournament, blinds and antes won't be a major concern. Since most tournaments provide players with a starting stack of 1,500 or 3,000 chips, and blinds usually start at 10/20 (no antes), each player has anywhere from 75 to 100 big blinds. This is more than enough to play with normal poker strategy, so during the early stages you shouldn't worry about stealing blinds or antes to survive.

Aggression During the Early Stages

During the early stages of a poker tournament you should use a pretty mellow approach, because too much aggression during the early stages of a tournament usually leads to an early exit. Since blinds are so small in relation to your stack size, we recommend seeing a lot of cheap flops and looking for a spot to double up. There is no reason to get all your chips in the middle unless you are at least an 80% favorite. Avoid coin flips, because you will find better spots to use your chips later in the tournament.

We recommend playing a lot of marginal hands in late position, especially if you can get in cheap. For example, if you have KJ on the button and someone makes a raise to 3x the big blind, you should call behind and try to flop a big hand. This strategy only works if you are able to release hands though, because often times you will be out-kicked with marginal hands if you make top pair. You should be looking to hit two pair, trips, or a straight - these are the hands that will win you big pots, because other players will have a hard time getting off top pair or an over pair.

By seeing a lot of cheap flops from late position, you give yourself a great chance to hit a flop and double up while only risking a small portion of your chip stack. And by avoiding preflop all-in coin flips you will give yourself a better chance of survival, and will save chips for use later in the tournament.

Other Players' Aggression

As stated before, many players will have the mentality to get all-in on coin flips preflop. These players want to build a large stack early in the game, and if they are eliminated they have no problem with it. You can take advantage of these players' aggressiveness by doubling up when you have a huge hand. Remember though, don't shove all your chips in the middle with any two cards. If a player is playing very aggressively, call his all-in with Queens, Kings, Aces, or Ace-King, because those hands have 95% of his range dominated.

Overplaying Too Soon

Many players tend to involve themselves in pots with marginal hands early in the tournament. At this stage in the tournament overplaying hands such as AK or small pocket pairs will relieve you of a majority of you stack. At later stages in the tournament, continuation bets on flops and turns can steal the pot after a pre-flop raise. But because the aggression of opponents is so high early on, continuation bets are not as effective.

If you are holding a marginal hand like AK or 77 on a flop of 10-J-6 with a couple suited cards, a continuation bet may be very dangerous. Odds are your opponent has outdrawn you with a weak hand such as A10 or Q10. However, this early in the tournament a player will be much more willing to call your C-bet. So although you may think your opponent is on a draw, he may be willing to call you down to the river with these weak hands.

Now that you know about the early stages, read on about the middle stages of a poker tournament.

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