I’m often asked poker strategy questions by amateurs who hope to get concrete answers in return. That’s rarely how poker works. There are simply too many variables to consider. The best approach in one situation might just be the absolute worst in another.
In tournament poker, it’s not a bad idea to have a game plan right from the start. Unlike football, though, you shouldn’t script your first fifteen plays of the day as many NFL coaches do. If anything, your game plan must be adaptable to the players that you’ll face.
Let’s say that you come into a tournament with the following game plan: Sit back early and play conservatively, and then, after a couple of levels, start attacking the blinds.
That’s not a bad game plan against certain opponents. But what if you find yourself at a table where most of the players simply call before the flop and play very weak after the flop? That would require an immediate change of plan.
When up against bad players like these early in a tournament, you shouldn’t avoid playing marginal situations. In fact, you should welcome them! If your opponents don’t raise before the flop and commit big mistakes after the flop, make every attempt to play any two cards that have any value at all. The payoff at a table like this could set you up well for a good run in the tournament.
Now, the second aspect of the game plan needs to be addressed: After a couple of levels, start attacking the blinds.
Realistically, that’s just not going to work when you’re facing weak players. They play too many hands before the flop for this approach to be effective. So, forget about trying to steal their blinds. Rather, in this type of game, focus on playing well after the flop and take advantage of your opponents’ inexperienced play when it counts.
Let’s look at another situation.
Three players limp into the pot and you have 8-10 offsuit. This clearly isn’t a strong hand; in fact, it’s a hand you’d probably never play in a tougher game. But since it’s cheap to play, you might as well see a flop and try to get a lucky catch.
The flop comes 9-7-4. The weak field checks the flop all the way around. The turn is a jack giving you the nut straight. If another player has a hand like A-J or K-J, you might just get all of his chips and all it cost you was one bet before the flop.
Perhaps you plan to enter the tournament with a completely different game plan: Take control of the table early by raising aggressively before the flop. Keep betting and force your opponents to play defensively.
Once again, that’s not a bad plan. But what happens when you find other players at the table using the exact same game plan to the extreme?
Suppose there are two or three players already raising wildly and risking large percentages of their chips on marginal hands. You’d have a choice to make. Do you go to war with them and risk your tournament life, or, do you wait for these guys to blow each other away and then pick up the pieces on your own terms?
I hope you chose the second option.
You see, there’s a pattern here. In football, it’s called taking what the defense gives you. Poker works much the same way.
When your opponents play too aggressively, take advantage by playing with patience. Conversely, when your opponents play weak, become the bull of the table and run right over them. Adapt your game plan as a chameleon changes its colors.
Learning the fundamentals of poker is crucial, but never forget that it’s a people game first and a game of math second.
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