Absolutely nothing?

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.

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Entertainment Value

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.


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