A successful poker tournament player is one who is able to read his opponents and at the same time change gear throughout a tournament. Whether you are playing in a live poker event or an online poker tournament, every tournament can be divided into several stages.
All tournaments can generally speaking be divided into three different stages. Each stage requires different skills and a great tournament player knows when to change gear and adapt to the stage the tournament is in. Different strategies can be used to win poker tournaments and different poker players successfully play completely different styles of poker.
The best strategy at any stage of a poker tournament is to utilize the strategy you usually play in regular ring games, and adapt it to tournament games. Some aggressive players are able to accumulate a large sum of chips early in the tournament and use their stack size to put their opponents under pressure throughout the tournament. If your normal game is passive or tight-aggressive, you will do better off trying to accumulate chips steady throughout the tourney and adjust your strategy to the stack size and the size of the blinds. The suggested poker tournament tips listed below are meant for a regular multi table freezeout poker tournament.
Early stage of the tournament:
In a freezeout tourney most players will play tight in the beginning of the tournament because they are afraid to be eliminated. Most players feel horrible if they are eliminated in the beginning of a tournament, and will be afraid to enter the pot and jeopardize their chips. A few players will play more aggressive and try to build a big stack quickly. Some of these players are very good poker players who will fall back to cash games if things don't go as planned, while others are absolute donks and will continue to play loose throughout the entire tournament. Try to identify the different types of players sitting at your table in the early stage of the tournament and remember to take notes - you might join up with some of them at a later stage of the tournament.
In the beginning of the tournament the blinds are low in relation to the average stack size and you have plenty of time to wait for good hands and observe your opponents while doing so. Even though there is enough time to wait for a great hand the blinds are relatively low, and you want to get in there and try to flop a monster. Your chips are still quite valuable and you do not want to bluff or raise in order to steal blinds at this stage.
You should look for hands where you can get into un-raised pots and potentially trap your opponents; don't go overboard in order to steal pots after the flop. You should play fairly loose before the flop (mainly call - no raise) and tight after the flop. Remember that your chips are very valuable - if you loose them you are out of the tournament.
Middle stage of the tournament:
In the middle of the tournament the structure of the game gradually changes and you must adjust your strategy accordingly. The blinds increase and now represent a large percentage of the average chip stack. Therefore the blinds become more significant and you will often see players raiseing when entering the pot pre-flop. You cannot call preflop raises with hands that are dominated unless you and your opponent both have deep stacks, which means that the player who enters the pot with a raise often wins the pot, or can take down the pot with a bet on the flop.
The nature of the game has changed significantly due to the increase in blinds and players that are tight preflop will often see their stack diminish quite quickly. In order to stay in the tourney with a decent stack it is necessary to win a pot once in a while. The best way to keep your stack intact is to try to steal the blinds at least once per round. Loosen the requirement for an opening raise, and try to steal un-raised pots from late position. You don't want to call raises in the middle stage of the tournaments - and especially not out of position. Try to get in with a raise and take the blinds down pre-flop, or with a bet on the flop. Stealing blinds will allow you to survive long enough to be dealt premium hands.
In the middle stage of a tourney the best strategy is to be aggressive and loosen the requirements for an opening raise and tighten up the requirements for calling. Chips are valuable and you do not want to risk a large chunk of chips to try to flop a set.
A large stack can dominate the table in the middle of the tournament. A player with a large stack will win a lot of hands preflop because other players are afraid to call raises from players with a big stack - they are afraid to be eliminated from the tournament. If you hold a big stack try to steal blinds. You do not want to sit back and enjoy the ride, because soon or later the blinds eat you up - get in there and steal some blinds…be a bully and try to pick up a couple of pots. If you want to win the tournament you need all the chips so you might as well begin now.
A player with a small stack will often be called because they do not have sufficient chips to seriously damage the larger stacks. Really small stacks (6 times the big blind) are in big trouble, since most players will call their all-ins in an attempt to build a larger stack with limited risk.
It is therefore advisable to try to avoid becoming a really small stack and try to move in before you become really short stacked.
As a very short stacked player you should try to look for a hand such as Ax or small pocket pairs and move all in. You will most likely get a call, but you will have a chance to double your chips and reenter the tournament.
Final stage of the tournament:
The final stage of the tournament is tricky. A lot of players have problems with how to play just before the bubble (just before the money) and the most typical mistake is to tighten up and wait for other players to burst. The blinds are really high, and most players will have a stack at or below the critical size.
At the final stage of a tourney it is important to know exactly how the prize money is distributed, the average chips stack and the number of remaining opponents. If you have an average or large stack the best strategy is to play very aggressive and raise from late position to take down blind money. If you hold fewer than average chips it can sometimes be right to play a tight strategy. The reason why a tight strategy might be better for a short stack is that you might be lucky and some of the other small stacks burst out before you do. However, the goal should always be to win the entire tournament and in order to win all the chips you must be an aggressive player; the tight strategy only apply if there is a significant difference in the prize money distribution (in satellite tournaments a few players share all win the same prize and it is not necessary to accumulate all the chips to win a tournament entrance ticket)
Generally the best approach to tournament poker is aggression. You will not be dealt enough premium hands to win the tournament by playing ABC poker, so the best way is to be aggressive and steal pots with average hands. Your aggression will allow you to accumulate enough chips to let you stay in the tournament and wait for the premium hands.