Poker Tournaments and Cash Games Strategy

Poker is a peculiar game in that, depending on the specific format we’re playing, a would-be successful approach isn’t guaranteed to have the same results in two separate scenarios – even if they seem similar.

This is true, for example, when considering (No Limit Hold’em) cash games and tournaments. In some ways, such as the betting structure, they’re practically identical, while in others, such as the blinds increasing in a tournament, they’re oceans apart.

With this in mind it doesn’t by any means follow that an approach that is considered to be very effective in one format is an appropriate option in the other. Moreover, if we rigidly stick to the same formula it might even be to our detriment, and will be our own fault for lacking in flexibility and adaptability.

A fitting example is how the tight-aggressive style fares in both Cash games and Tournaments. When it comes to the former, this is accepted as being a strong strategy, adopted by players across the spectrum of experience because it’s a prudent, practical, no-nonsense style that can be a powerful weapon at all levels. The reason I’ve mentioned this style, in particular, is because it also illustrates how the game has evolved over the years.

In the good old days, when there was no such thing as the internet, the entire field of the WSOP could have played in a storeroom at Binion’s Horseshoe. I’m joking, of course, but there were only 73 players in 1980… five years earlier it was a mere 21. Nowadays a typical poker festival can boast numbers in the thousands and, far from needing only a tiny room, the WSOP needs several Day 1 slots and marquees outside to accommodate the frenzied demand. Meanwhile, join our online poker partners and you can find yourself playing in a random tournament with a field of thousands. Even compared with a couple of decades ago when the online poker boom paved the way for the fantastic environment we have today, the landscape is quite different.

In today’s modern tournament environment – particularly online – sticking to an overly tight style might help avoid some of the potholes that pepper the typical tournament route, but the sheer number of players tends to leave too much of the field ahead of us to make enough of an impact to maintain a presence at the top of the leaderboard. We might scrape into more minor cashes playing tight-aggressive, but we’ll have far fewer chances to launch ourselves into a running start. Those who do, the players who regularly find themselves either out after a couple of levels or in possession of a gigantic stack, are the Loose-Aggressive, relentless, ruthless players who have adapted their strategy to the vigours of the modern game. Note that my saying ‘either out…. or with a massive stack’ doesn’t mean that they gamble for the sake of it. Anyone can do that, and such a policy might lead to a quick double-up but is prone to coming undone sooner rather than later. The most successful tournament players nowadays pile on the pressure with measured aggression, prey on weakness and passivity and aren’t afraid to get it all-in when their strength justifies it and there are potentially huge pots to be won. If this leads to an early exit, then so be it – move on to the next tournament and the quest for a high finish continues.

Ironically, the modern day poker gladiator tends to pick on the tight-aggressive players, singling them out and pushing them off the pot because they know such players will get involved only with a premium hand. Crucially, if we’re approaching the game with a recognizable tight image, then apart from the fact that big starting hands won’t come around enough, when we are finally dealt them there’s no guarantee we’ll get the action we need to win big! Significantly, if we’ve been too quiet thus far there’s a good chance that the more observant opponents will have noticed and, consequently, will be wary of getting involved now that we’ve woken up.

When we play too tight a game in a tournament there’s a danger that those few times when we have a very strong hand don’t yield the necessary reward, and we get stuck in a cycle of waiting and folding, all the while seeing our stack dwindle as the blinds grow bigger and bigger, barely managing to maintain even an average stack… until we find ourselves struggling and having to play out of our comfort zone to stay in the tournament. Meanwhile, the player who we initially thought was way too loose and playing too many hands has amassed a mountain of chips and in fact turns out to be a formidable force. Not only has he managed to make the most of critical situations, but he’s adept at pushing opponents off hands with that extra show of aggression when it matters, and seems to hoover up the little pots that nobody else is willing to contest. If only we would have been able to be in a position to steal a few pots – we wouldn’t now be on the verge of having to risk the few chips we have left in order to stay alive…

And this, alas, could describe the experience of so many players who try to adopt an old-fashioned style too rigidly to a modern situation. Applying some flexibility would at least get us sufficiently involved in hands to make our presence felt and punish weaker players, but stubbornly trying to make something work because it used to be how the legends played in a bygone era, or because the same methodology works in cash games is foolhardy at best.

Ironically, by loosening up we might enjoy more of what tournament poker can offer. Apart from the liberating experience it can be for a usually tight Cash games fan to open up the gears, widen their starting hand range, speculate a little and maybe even throw in a buff or two, such a flexible approach might well reap benefits. It certainly makes for a less predictable – and therefore less exploitable – table image.

Poker is constantly evolving, and it’s imperative we adapt accordingly and move with the times.

Have fun!

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AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 03.12.2020 · last updated 03.12.2020

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