There’s a misconception about tournament poker that goes like this: Players need to try frequent sophisticated bluffs and make lots of risky moves to maintain an unpredictable image and to win.
Well, there might be some truth to that in small buy-in tournaments, or even online poker tournaments where the blinds and antes escalate quickly. But on poker’s biggest stage, the World Series of Poker, nothing could be further from the truth.
The best tournament players actually try to avoid risky plays altogether. They prefer to wait for their opponents to make the risky moves. They’ll wait patiently until they catch a strong hand. When they do, they’ll take down their overly aggressive foes.
Watch any tournament on television and you’re sure to see some no-name player at the final table. Chances are you’ll never see him again. Sure, you’ll occasionally you’ll see an unknown player win using ultra-aggressive tactics, but trust me, that kamikaze style just doesn’t work consistently.
You see, great players will play a wide range of dealt cards but they’ll never risk a large percentage of their chips on a marginal hand. When they do push in their chips, they’ll have a premium hand to back up their bet. In situations where it’s unclear whether they have the best hand, the best players will choose to play it safe.
To be sure, playing it safe isn’t a flashy style of poker. Some even claim that it’s too weak and passive. That being said, playing safe poker is still a proven recipe for success in the world’s biggest poker tournaments.
That’s because the goal in high-stakes tournaments is to win lots of small pots without the risk of going broke. Of course, you’ve got to occasionally win a big pot too. Just stay patient. Eventually, some hyper-aggressive player will go crazy with a bluff when you do have a premium hand. Or, he won’t believe you when you have a strong hand and he’ll call your big bet. It’s bound to happen.
Don’t get me wrong, bluffing is a critical part of the game. It’s a weapon all pros use in tournament play. They just won’t bluff nearly as often as you think.
Also, professionals will tend to make smaller, more controlled bluffs to minimize their risk. If they get caught, well, that’s not the end of the world. A failed bluff could easily payoff later in a much bigger pot when the pro has the unbeatable hand.
Now, you will have to change up your game when you become short-stacked in a tournament. You’ll be forced to make more risky plays. Just be sure you don’t push the panic button too quickly! Skilled players realize that a short stack doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on patient play. In poker, unexpected situations can occur at any time but you have to wait for the right opportunity.
If you do choose to run a bluff, don’t be afraid to put your table image to work. When other players observe that you don’t bluff often, that’s the time to confuse them with a little well-timed deceit.
And always pay attention to the skill level of your opponents. Big buy-in events attract players with a wide range of poker ability. If you find yourself seated at a table full of bad players, running a risky bluff would be foolish. Instead, wait for a good hand and hope you’re called.
That same approach won’t be quite as effective against highly skilled players; they’ll know just what you’re up to. Against tough players, you’ll have to bluff occasionally, but again, not as often as you think.
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