Many players who are playing to win will move all their chips in with even the slightest advantage, sometimes as low as a 52- or 53-percent chance to win any given hand. If cards break their way, they can accumulate a large stack of chips, which is needed to win late in the tournament. Getting all of your chips into the pot, however, in marginal situations such as these often leads to busting out of a tournament early when cards don't go your way.
Players who just want to get into the money usually play much tighter, trying to get better odds (often as high as 80 or 85 percent) before they push their chips into the pot. The problem with this approach is that the blinds usually eat a large part of their stack between these opportunities.
The correct strategy to become a successful tournament player is somewhere in between these two styles. As always, you should bet when you are a favorite to win, but in close situations in a tournament it may be best to hold back unless you are getting short stacked (to have the smallest amount of chips in a tournament). If your stack gets too low, you will be forced to choose a good starting hand and probably bet all of your chips, hoping no one else has a better hand.
In the early stages of a tournament before the blinds get too high, playing very tight is recommended; that is, only entering the pot with your best hands. If the opportunity to get all of your money in with at least one other person while you have AA, KK, or maybe QQ, then by all means take it. If you are able to double-up early in a tournament, it not only gives you extra chips, but it also can be a tremendous psychological advantage by having a large stack. As you go deeper into the tournament, the larger the stack you have, the more you can force your opponents with fewer chips to lay down their hands instead of risking all of their chips against you.
Most tournaments are no-limit (meaning there are no set amounts that may be bet) Hold'em, which brings up the need to discuss a few important points. Making just one mistake can end your tournament because all of your chips can end up in the pot at any time. For this reason it is important to play to the best of your abilities at all times. You must learn as much about your opponents' play as possible. Always pay attention, and do your best not to lose concentration for even a second.
The next important point involves pot odds. No-limit Hold'em allows you to make the perfect size bet to cause the pot odds to be unfavorable to an opponent. It is important to realize which opponents will use pot odds and which will not, because trying to make an opponent (who does not recognize pot odds) fold can be a risky proposition. On the other hand, you can make the pot odds favorable to the players who use pot odds by placing a bet of a particular amount in order to induce a call.
Tournament play has many similarities to regular game play, but it also has many differences. Complete books are dedicated to tournament play, and there isn't enough room in this article to explore the finer points. If you use the information contained in this section along with your experience, however, you can become a good tournament player.
For more information about poker tournaments and other venues to play poker, try the following links:
- To see all of our articles on poker rules and advice, go to our main article on How To Play Poker.
- Be sure you've got the Poker Basics down before you jump into a tournament.
- Playing with a professional dealer and a pretty cocktail waitress is a lot different from your buddy's den. Be sure you know How to Play Poker in a Casino.
- In a tournament, any hand could be your last. Extend your stay at the table by knowing How to Calculate Poker Odds.