There are, of course, numerous ways to play a poker tournament, and this is evidenced at any typical poker table, with different players approaching the game from different perspectives. Some strategies are more successful than others, while some players put their considerable experience and skills to use by adopting all sorts of tactics and plays that might not be so effective in less capable hands. It’s quite normal, then, to see a rich smorgasbord of styles in action in any given tournament, and it’s inevitable that our journey to some level of success will mean trying out various options, mixing and matching strategies, and seeing which have both the desired result and, importantly, ‘feel’ right (how comfortable we feel following this or that way of playing is very important).

However, regardless of the rather grotesque centuries-old saying ‘There are many ways to skin a cat’ being absolutely applicable to poker, inexperienced players especially would be advised to operate within strategically sound guidelines. This is particularly relevant during the early phase of a tournament, and specifically when it comes to the subject of going all-in.

Caution: To Shove, or not to Shove…

Often, when we tell people that we play poker, the initial reaction can be that we’re perceived as gamblers, risk-takers who are looking for any reason to put our money on the line. And, indeed, tournaments are littered with players who will happily shove with any Ace, any two picture cards, any pair…

But it pays not to have such a loose, even reckless approach during the early stage of a tournament. This is particularly important in Freezeouts, for example, or when we don’t want to be forking out multiple rebuys.

Many strong players, in fact, will seek to protect their progressively deep stack to the point that, rather than being emboldened by the extra firepower to be more likely to shove, will consciously avoid risking all their chips, even with hands to which most would fully commit, such as JJ or AKo. This might come as a surprise to many, and might seem to lack ambition, but it’s a sound strategy for a couple of reasons. First, we’re discussing the early phase of tournaments, remember. If there are a few hundred runners, for example, doubling or even tripling our stack early doors, while useful, is by no means an imperative. Or, more accurately, it’s not worth risking all with hands that can feasibly be dominated by, for instance, bigger pairs. While there are opponents who love to gamble with not-so-good hands, our mindset should be such that we can expect to come up against people shoving with mainly premium holdings. By assigning the opposition such a narrow, ‘quality’ shoving range we, in turn, remain conscious during a tournament’s early phase of how circumspect we must be in contemplating a shove of our own. This kind of equity consideration should be second nature when all our chips could be on the line.

Calling with strong hands

Very strong hands don’t necessarily require us to (re)raise or go all-in; calling is a perfectly viable, flexible, and potentially rewarding option. No more so is this evident than in the initial phase of a tournament.

Most players tend to rule out this option when faced with a tough decision with strong hands, believing instead that shoving is the only effective play because calling lacks the punch that their powerful hand seems to demand. This line of thinking means we could miss out on superior opportunities.

First, calling a decent-sized raise with a very strong hand keeps opponents with strong but weaker hands in the pot, whereas a shove reraise might have elicited a fold, thus limiting our potential profit.

Calling can also afford us a potentially decisive advantage by disguising our very strong hand, as well as making our plays unpredictable for when similar situations crop up deeper into a tournament, and we act differently.

Stack size consideration

It might seem counter-intuitive to say that having a big stack doesn’t mean we can almost automatically play too loosely but, perhaps ironically, doing so can make us vulnerable to attacks from short(er) stacks! Short stacks need to be treated with respect because they could strike at any time, so being over-confident and widening our open range to include speculative hands such as suited connectors and small pairs can lead to the common scenario that arises when short stacks yet to act simply go all-in. This is not a good situation, as neither of the two available choices – calling with a poor/vulnerable hand, or folding and saying goodbye to chips that we shouldn’t have committed in the first place – is a positive one. Players with big stacks do indeed open with Ax, for instance, and then call a shove from a short(er) stack and get lucky by hitting an Ace, but this is a poor strategy, and we should instead be taking note of effective stack sizes, and our position in relation to them.

Conclusion

Generally, during the early stages of a tournament, it’s sound policy to be wary of committing our healthy stack with hands that don’t perform well against a narrow shoving range. Better to pick our spots and gradually increase and subsequently nurture and protect our stack in order to have the flexibility to exploit what will inevitably be weaker shove from more desperate opponents further down the line.

Good luck at the tables!

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About the Author

AngusD

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.

Latest changes

The last changes of the page “Poker Tournaments: Early Phase Caution” was made by AngusD on May 18, 2021