Poker Strategy: How To Approach The Early Levels Of Tournaments

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The Pros: Kevin Garosshen, Ashley Frank, and Brian Yoon

Craig Tapscott: How do you approach the early levels of a tournament? Are you hyper aggressive with your deep stack to accumulate more chips, or do you tend to feel out the table and look for better spots?

Kevin Garosshen: Coming from a cash game background, playing deep is one of my biggest edges. I play very loose preflop in the early stages of tournaments, playing suited gappers and other marginal holdings. I know that I can outmaneuver players post-flop and get many of the chips in versus players who cannot fold top pair or other medium holdings when I hit the strong two pairs or flushes.

When I first sit down, I look to see if the table is playing passive or aggressive, and if aggressive, I will start to tighten up. This is often the case in larger buy-ins when it is more pro player heavy. The best tables are when there are many weak-passive players. I aggressively isolate these kinds of players and look to play many pots in position versus them.

I bet small on the majority of flops, because these players won’t correctly call the marginal hands with backdoors that haven’t improved yet. I am looking to see early showdowns and catch any mistakes players may be making such as bet sizing issues or calling very lightly. If a player bets small, I am always priced in to chase draws. This further incentivizes me to play loose.

Another important thing I try to look for with the amateur players is observing various tells. Is there a big size that they only do when they have a big hand? I just keep watching players play hands and keep track of anything useful. One of the easiest things to tell is a player acting super disinterested in the hand, but then as soon as it’s on them they ask, “How much is it? Oh, I raise.” This is a strong indication of the nuts, or a strong hand, and it gets easy to fold good hands when these types of players are playing their hands face up. You should be constantly watching the other players even when not in a hand.

Ashley Frank: In the early stages of the tournament, I look for a number of things. First, I start to observe the player types at my table, as well as the table dynamics that are developing. For example, if there’s two players battling to be “table captain” or if someone shows a bluff and tilts another player; those players might start to develop some dynamics that I can exploit.

Secondly, I start to look for the opponents whose chips are “up for grabs.” Since it’s the beginning of the tournament, the weakest players are still in. Many recreational players lack the patience to “stick it out” till the end so they will end up making crucial mistakes and punt their chips. Therefore, I look to see what players are there to give away their chips.

I tend to three-bet less and try to see flops with hands that can stack opponents. I’m not incentivized to three-bet unless I have a premium hand, because people don’t like to fold during early stages. Three- betting and getting multiple callers post-flop is just lighting big blinds on fire in most cases.

Most recreational players don’t see things in regard to number of big blinds and call raises with very marginal hands. They’re thinking “oh, it’s only 600 to call,” even though they probably don’t have the correct odds. This can also be taken advantage of by raising bigger with strong hands early.

I do, however, raise in position a lot if it folds to me, and I will usually play fairly aggressive, but still contain reasonable hands in my range. And depending on the player types at my table, sometimes I will try to create a loose aggressive image early, so I will get called lighter later on when I “have it.”

The best players in the world don’t have a specific style because they are able to adapt to any play style that is most profitable in most situations. I try my best to adapt and change as necessary. In most cases, I feel my play style is extremely exploitative based on player types, live reads, and dynamics. I will always deviate from what’s “standard” if I feel I can exploit a certain read.

Brian Yoon: The early stages of a tournament will mostly be about deeper stacked play. Fortunately, this also combines with a generally weaker playing field, since all recreational players obviously remain in the tournament.

I don’t shy away from playing large pots. But I also understand that whenever a lot of money is going into the middle, my opponents will generally have quite strong holdings. There is really no secret to playing these early stages, you simply treat it like a cash game and take profitable spots as they arise.

The biggest thing you want to look out for is any opponent who is playing hands particularly poorly. Keep an eye out for showdowns and if you see someone turn over a hand that really doesn’t make sense, you may want to try and get involved with them as much as possible when you have a reasonable holding.

For example, if I see someone three-bet preflop the button versus cutoff and bet all three streets on an A-7-5-K-3 board. Then they proceed to turn over pocket tens, you can assume they aren’t too sure what to do with hands post-flop, but they like to bet. Pocket tens is a hand here that you would want to check at some point, since your hand has reasonable showdown value, and you’re essentially bluffing with it if you decide to continuously bet.

I would look to play more hands versus this kind of opponent with the understanding that they are probably betting too much randomly during hands. As you progress in a tournament, these types of opponents will tend to find themselves eliminated and you will not have as many of these types of opportunities. So, try to capitalize, but be careful! You do not want to go too excessively out of your way to play hands against these players, as other people can also enter the pot. Ultimately, you still need to make a decent hand yourself or have a good spot to bluff.

Craig Tapscott: How does your strategy change once the antes kick in? What adjustments do you make and why?

Kevin Garosshen: I think most tournaments I play at this point start with antes, but antes allow you to play more hands and you can open smaller than pre-ante. I generally change my sizing from 2x to 2.2x for when I am 50 big blinds effective or less and go up to 2.5x if I am 100+ big blinds deep.

The ante puts more chips in the pot to play for, so I often start three-betting hands I might have flatted before. The hands I tend to use are suited Broadways, suited aces, and even some suited kings, depending on positions and the type of player I’m facing. Then, small continuation bets work wonders in these three-bet pots. Once a player calls a reraise preflop and bet on the flop, their ranges are defined, and I play accordingly. If a scare card comes, it is easy to barrel them off middling pairs. Otherwise, if I believe they have a strong top pair or overpair I just give up unless I have a stronger overpair.

Stacks also start to get shallower in relation to antes coming into play, which means players will value their stacks more. This opens the door for playing aggressive in the majority of pots. The best time to build up a stack through antes come into play around when the bubble hits. Because I often build up stacks in early stages, it is not uncommon for me to have a big stack on a bubble. You can open insanely wide and keep picking up the blinds and antes almost uncontested every hand. This style of play further cements you in the lead and often lets you coast until the final table.

In almost all parts of tournaments, I play a wider range of hands when the table is more passive and recreational. Playing aggressively for antes allows me to build up a chip lead to close out the win. 

Ashley Frank: In these stages, three-betting becomes one of our biggest weapons to accumulate chips. I tend to look for the player types that play “fit or fold” post-flop. Meaning, these players will only continue post-flop if they connect with the board or flop a draw. We can apply pressure to these player types post-flop and take the pot on future streets. 

I will three-bet these players relentlessly until they fight back. However, most players don’t know how to adapt to aggression and won’t fight back as much as they should. Or instead, they end up making a huge mistake by trying to adjust to our aggression.

Opening up our range from the hijack, cutoff, and button is crucial for picking up pots when the ante kicks in. This will force the big blind to call our raises preflop with a wide range of marginal or bad hands, thus we can take the pot post-flop. This is important because every big blind we can pick up matters. 

It’s also important to note who is on our left. Do they three-bet light? Do they defend their button a lot? When I’m in the hijack, cutoff, or button, does the big blind call a lot protecting their blinds? If not, we should be opening a very wide range of hands. If the button fights back a lot, then we can start opening a tighter range of hands looking to create some four-bet bluff candidates in our range to re-exploit them.

Once the antes kick-in, most of my play style really depends on how many chips I have and the table dynamics. Sometimes I’m able to raise very liberally in position. Other times, if I’m at a more aggressive table, I have to pick my spots more carefully. Overall, timely aggression is a huge key to accumulating chips when the antes kick in.

Brian Yoon: These days, most tournaments start right away with antes, so there is no more strategy shift to be made from its introduction. (Unless you’re playing online.) But in general, as a tournament progresses on, you will notice most people start to take things much more seriously. While many players don’t mind splashing around early or bluff-catching the river when it costs them five percent of their starting stack, many people will tighten up considerably as you get closer to the more serious parts of the tournament.

This allows you to take advantage of situations where people may not want to risk their tournament life in a marginal situation. It’s up to you to determine which of your opponents fit this category, and which of your opponents are more hardened professionals who aren’t afraid of being eliminated and will simply play their hands as they see fit.

At the end of the day, any given poker hand will generally have an optimal way to be played and it’s your job to try and find that answer, even if it means it doesn’t work out sometimes. I am never afraid to bluff in a situation if I believe my hand is appropriate to do so and I can see it being successful based on the overall situation.

Many of your opponents will not have this approach and will virtually never bluff. They will rely entirely on the luck of the cards and making good hands. And while this may work out sometimes, their chances of winning diminish greatly because they simply won’t make enough good hands for this strategy to be sustainable long-term. ♠

Kevin Garosshen took down the 2020 Heartland Poker Tour St. Louis $1,650 main event for more than $130,000 last year right before the pandemic halted live play. Most recently, he finished fifth in the WSOP Online $3,200 high roller event for $65,308. The Connecticut native has more than $850,000 in career tournament cashes and can be found on Twitter @KevinGarosshen.

Ashley ‘PokerfaceAsh’ Frank is a popular poker vlogger that has already been featured in meetup games at casinos all over the USA. The Scottsdale, Arizona based player learned the game while playing on her college basketball team. Check out Ashley’s YouTube page, or Instagram and Twitter pages @pokerface_ash.

Brian Yoon has won four WSOP bracelets, including the 2013 Little One For One Drop, the 2014 $5,000 no-limit hold’em, and the 2017 Monster Stack. Most recently, he took home bracelet no. 4 in the Triple Draw event. The Los Angeles-based pro now has more than $5.4 million in career tournament cashes. You can follow Brian on Twitter @byoonz.