Tournament Life

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How often should you be putting your tournament life at risk in a multi-table tournament? An adage has emerged in poker culture that you have to win flips to win a tournament. But is that really true or just an excuse for sometimes making a poor choice to go for luck rather than skill? Logically, the optimal number of times to put your tournament life at risk is zero. In practice, you can almost never avoid it an entire tournament, and in many instances do not want to. How do you decide when to take the risk?

There is a big difference between taking the all-in risk preflop and taking it later in a hand.  In most instances, your statistical edge for a preflop all-in when you are ahead is usually less than three-quarters and often just around fifty-fifty.  When you are behind – well, you lose most of the time. That’s not to say that you should never choose to be all-in preflop, but it shouldn’t be a willy-nilly decision based only on the strength of your hand.

Playing a six-handed tournament, I had done very well, making it from a field of 121 entries down to the final 24 players, having a better than average chip stack nearly the entire time. My table had just broken and I was moved to a full table where I was unfamiliar with most of the players. Stacks were pretty strong all around except for one smaller stack. Payouts started at 12th place.

At this point in the tournament, I was feeling pretty confident about my play. I had knocked out five players at my last table, and dominated the table with aggressive play. I had found reads on everyone at the table, most of time finding good re-raises or good folds as the hands played out. I had yet to be all-in for my tournament life.

But, I was also getting a bit fatigued. It was an evening tournament and the wee hours were approaching. Breaks were just 10 minutes, leaving little time for nourishment or relaxation. In short, my sensibilities were on the wane.

A few hands in at my new table, a middle position player, with a stack just a little smaller than mine, raised it up close to 3x the big blind. Watching his bet, I felt he was raising with either a middle pair or a decent ace. It folded around to me and in the small blind I found pocket tens. I could see that the big blind was planning to fold and it didn’t take me long to move all in. This was essentially for my tournament life, as losing would leave me with a very short stack.

Win or lose, it was a poor play. With my stack deep, I had plenty of play left to make it into the money. For a small amount, I could see the flop and play the strength of my hand. While I should know better than to put it all in preflop for a “flip”, most players don’t and take a chance for the flip regardless. For that reason, the all-in here would be good with pocket aces or kings, but not with my tens. In this hand, the other player called with Ace-King for the flip, and took my stack when he hit and I missed.

A few hands later, with my short stack I pushed all in from under-the-gun with A-4. It was for the last breath of my tournament life. And it was the right move. The size of my stack and the blinds demanded that I widen the range of my preflop all-in for my tournament life. Any ace was certainly worthy, as would be any pair and any two paint cards.

I cringed when the player on my left instantly moved all in, also with a short stack but I knew him from last table as the tightest player there. To make things even worse, the player who had just doubled up against me also called. I was up against A-Q to my left and pocket eights. I knew I had to get very lucky, and I did on the flop – AK4. But my fate was sealed with a queen on the river.

In another recent tournament, we were down to six players out of 29 entries. It was a Day One event, with just one hour of play left until play ended for the day and the remaining players advanced to the final day.

So far, I had yet to put my tournament life at risk a single time. I had a somewhat less than average size stack – where I had spent most of the day. All the players were top-notch, with just one left at the table who was a bit of a wild card. He raised often and bet aggressively. I knew he was my best shot to double up before the end of the day, in the right situation.

To rile him up a bit so he was tender for the roast, so to speak, I played back at him several times when he raised my blinds. In addition, we had some words in regards to taking a break. The tournament clock had messed up after the dinner break and didn’t give us our scheduled 15-minute break at two hours of play. I asked the floor to give us a short break for the bathroom. It was ruled that we could take one if everyone agreed, but this one player refused on the principle that he had recently missed some hands when he went to the bathroom and I should do the same. We exchanged some words. Play went on and every few minutes he made some smart remark about the bathroom. I knew the roast was ready for the oven.

From the cutoff, with blinds at 1K/2K, I raise to 6K with Q-8 suited against the aggressive player in the big blind. He always defended his blind, but the Q-8 was decent enough for a raise six-handed (especially with the other players in between telegraphing that they were ready to fold). The Q-8 was also a hand with deception value – a flop that hits it is often a flop that looks to have missed a raising hand.

The big blind hesitated and looked like he was tempted to re-raise, but he just called. Flop comes out 8-2-3 – excellent! He checks, I bet 7.5K, representing a continuation bet. He calls. From my reads, I felt he was floating the call figuring that I had missed that flop. The turn is another 2. He checks and I continue my story with a 10K bet. He asks me how much I have left – 40K – and he moves all in.

Here is a situation where I am happy to risk my tournament life. Could he have me beat? Very unlikely. If he had pocket nines or better, for sure this player would have re-raised preflop. The only hands I’m really afraid of are A-8 or K-8. From my reads, I’m sure he doesn’t have a deuce or pocket threes. And any of those hands that had me beat he would have slow-played on the turn, which I know from his betting patterns.  I insta-called and double up against his pocket fives. He obviously thought I had missed the flop.

So what are the criteria for risking your tournament life? Pot odds,  stack sizes and tournament structure all come into play. But I find that my best tournament performance always comes when I rarely risk my tournament life, and only when I am nearly certain of the outcome in my favor. That’s not to say that I don’t use the all-in bet in tournaments strategically to win pots or against much shorter stacks. But when I make that decision to be at risk of busting, I want to be the chef, not the meal.


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