Arts & Entertainment

Daniel Negreanu on Poker: Play More Hands in Smaller Pots in Tournaments

There are a couple of methods to amass a big stack in tournament poker. One way is to try pushing small edges before the flop by playing coin flip situations, like a pair versus two overcards, or vice versa. The problem is that this approach is far too inconsistent. You’ll need lots of luck to get your side of the coin to repeatedly flip in your favor.

A better approach to build a sizable chip stack is to play more hands in smaller pots. This method is based on mathematical theory, not just random luck or pure aggression. Here’s an extreme example to illustrate my point.

The blinds are 400-800 with a 100 ante. With nine players at the table, 2,100 chips are in the pot before the cards are dealt.

Now, let’s assume that you and one other opponent play wildly; one of you will raise to 2,000 before the flop on every single hand. The other players are very tight and will enter the pot about 10% of the time. The only time you or the other maniac will fold pre-flop is when one of the tight players also raises before the flop.

Furthermore, assume that when only you and the other crazy player are in the pot, neither of you will bet after the flop, turn, or river. Theoretically, each of you should win 50% of the pots. However, when any tight player enters the pot, you would each play your normal game, playing hands that have value, and betting as you normally would.

This situation isn’t actually that far fetched and commonly plays out in some of the bigger buy-in events on the professional tour. Just watch when Gus Hansen and Phil Ivey are seated at the same table. You’ll notice that most of the hands played are contested between these two poker greats. They won’t necessarily play big pots but they’ll definitely get involved in most of the smaller ones — unless a tight player shows aggression before the flop.

Let’s get back to the example.

Say you put in 2,000 chips ten times during a session, or 20,000 chips in total. Before factoring in the tight players at the table, you’ll win about half of these pots against the other loose player and earn about 20,500 chips. Of course, you’ll lose the other five pots for a total of 10,000 chips but will still net 10,500 in profit overall. That’s not bad but it’s not the whole story, either.

Every so often, a tight player will find a hand that he wants to play. He might reraise before the flop causing you to fold, and that’s okay. Hey, you might pick up a premium hand like pocket aces or kings and get some unexpected action from one of the tight players, too!

There are two keys to making this strategy work. First, avoid traps being set by tight players. Second, show respect to aggressive players by trying to keep the pots small. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, maybe easy in theory but it’s a bit tougher when you’re sitting at the table.

Playing more hands in smaller pots is how many top professionals consistently build large stacks in tournament poker. They just won’t gamble for large sums before the flop. Instead, they’ll simply enter more pots than the average player, and play more carefully when they do.

In tournament poker, don’t be afraid to gamble a little bit; there’s nothing wrong about being an active player. But make certain to maintain discipline and only play bigger pots on your own terms.