Does this paraphrase of Edwin Starr’s classic song War apply to tournament poker? Let’s see if you can relate to this experience. You’re in the first level of a 30 minute blind tournament where everyone starts with 200+ big blinds. In early position, you look down at AA, and raise 5x. You get 5 callers. Although you can’t do the exact math, you know you’re now an underdog to the field. When your large flop bet is called by two players you’re not shocked. You’re even less surprised when you lose the hand on the river, to a 10-7 offsuit who got to the straight. Your opponent announces that this is his favorite hand. Of course it is.
What value are early tournament poker stages when you are faced with generally loose play for questionable gains? In this case, I am discussing the typical daily, decent structured multi-table tournaments that most card rooms offer. Games that have between 20 and 40 minute blinds and starting stacks of 150-200+ big blinds.
The Argument Against Playing Early
Many players steadfastly avoid the early rounds of such tournaments, choosing instead to buy in shortly before the registration period ends. By that time, most players have under 100 blinds in front of them. At this point in the tournament, open raising with 27o has turned from funny to foolish. The feeling among late registrants in regard to early play is that risk outweighs value. Say you start with 30,000 chips with 50-100 big blinds and 30 minute levels. Does it matter to your final outcome whether you end up at the first break up or down 20% (24,000 to 36,000 chips)? Probably not. But playing those first few levels presents risk. You could flop top set, bet aggressively on multiple streets, get rivered, and be out half your stack. That happens 2-3 times and you’re out of the tournament.
Just think, you could have saved two hours of your life and potential angina by buying in at the first break instead.
However, I do think there are sound reasons for playing a tournament from the start.
Embrace the Variance and Play a Lot of Hands
Tournament poker is a high variance enterprise. If you play a tournament that typically gets about 100 players one hundred times, would you rather min cash 25 times, or only have 5 cashes that are all top 3 finishes? In terms of profitability, the latter is clearly better. The top heavy nature of tournament payouts puts a premium on these rare outcomes. While it may not feel good going home 95% of the time out of the money, you’ll be in better shape financially if your cashes are all top 3.
That’s an extreme comparison, but it does mean that you need to become comfortable with the variance roller coaster. One of the ways to do that is diving into the loose play early. If you can’t beat them join them! Personally, I try to get in as many cheap hands with potential as possible during those first few blind levels. Conversely, I am generally less aggressive pre-flop with hands that I would be very aggressive with later. What am I hoping to achieve? Every once in a while I’ll smash flops with disguised holdings and double my stack early. That has value to my final outcome. The downside, as long as I don’t call foolishly post flop, is minimal.What value are early tournament poker stages when you are faced with generally loose play for questionable gains? Click To Tweet
While being profitable is always a goal, 99% of players in daily tournaments are recreational. We’re there because we like playing, and as long as it remains affordable, it’s one of our preferred avocations. How much fun is it to sit for 5 hours, play 3 hands, and get knocked out on a coin flip late? Maybe some players have that kind of patience, but I’m not one of them. I want to play well, but moreover…play. Early tournament poker allows me to satisfy that need without endangering my potential outcome too much. Most of the time, the high variance run will not happen. Hopefully I hit break right around starting stack.
In either case, I’ve played a couple of hours of poker. Getting 6 hours of play instead of 4 for that same $100 has value to me.
Profile Your Opponents
Personally, I like to sign-up early, several minutes before the start. Generally, the tables that open first will be among the last to break. That means I’ll likely be sitting with the same players for a few hours. While some recreational players smartly alter their play as tournament stages progress, many do not. Learning who is loose, who is tight, who will believe a continuation bet, and who will call with a gut shot is invaluable information. In middle and late poker tournament stages having good reads on other players is a huge advantage. My late shove-fold decisions are influenced more by the players in the blinds than by hand charts. Tournament poker is very challenging if you get bounced to 4 different tables through the day, which can easily happen if you are late to sign up.
Early stage tournament poker can either be maddening or a lot of fun. If the loose play drives you crazy, by all means, buy in late. But early tournament stages can both entertain and educate. And every so often, you’ll catch that wave that helps your run to the final table and beyond.
Like this post? Head on over to the sidebar and subscribe. We will alert you whenever a new APT blog post goes live!
Follow us on Twitter! Follow @pokertraining
Some other thoughts on why buying in early in smaller and medium sized tournaments makes sense to a good recreational player. During early play the real fish are still playing. While this can be a danger as you point out, it more often than not provides an opportunity to double or triple your stack before the break. Yes, the variance is greater, but, at least where I play, unlimited re-entry is allowed before the break, so loosing your AA to 10-7 is a risk well worth taking.
It’s good to see an analysis from the point of the recreational player. Saving two hours of one’s life by not playing poker may make sense for a pro, but it doesn’t compute for me. I play poker primarily for the fun of it and the fact that I have a positive win rate is just icing on the cake.
Great point about the ability to grow stacks against weaker players early. In fact, this weekend I tripled up in the first hour when my set turned into a boat on the river. While I was in against one strong regular (who in fact was ahead with Broadway on the turn), I also got the stack of a new player who somehow called all the way down with pocket 4s. Most of the places I play also have unlimited re-entries until first break. By mid or late tournament, most of the bad players are out and you have to take a different approach both because of shorter stack depth but better opponents.
Playing lower buy-in tournaments, with their high percentage rake (20%-28% usually), it’s very tough to play very profitable poker in the long run. My goal is to cash at a good enough rate to make it affordable long run for my entertainment. That means I do have to play well, and keep improving, if I want to money around a 20% rate, and make sure there are some top 3 finishes each year in there.
Some years go better than others of course!
I never, EVER show up to a tourney late intentionally. I always want to be there for the first hand. The early stages are by far the easiest stage for me because players are so loose. I sit back and wait to open up or 3 bet with my Premium and get called by 87 suited. Sure thise suckouts happens but i frequently building up huge chips stacks because player are calling light.
As a matter of fact my mid stage – bubble is where i seem to punt off most of my stack. The last two tournements ive played ive built huge chips lead on one bullet, just to bust near the bubble. APT stage simulator here i come!
I also think my weakness tends to be mid stage. Maybe that is a function of better players surviving, perhaps I am not shifting hand selection and flop betting well enough.
If you have loads of energy and a high frustration level then, yeah, begin at the beginning.