Sunday, April 12, 2009

If you master this skill, I guarantee you will be a winning tournament poker player

Day 54...the countdown continues...

After playing hundreds of poker tournaments, there is one skill which will guarantee you are a winning tournament poker player. You probably have heard of this skill and you may think you understand what it means, but unless you have a WSOP bracelet or experience outstanding tournament success, you don't.

Let me tell you what this skill is, what it really means, and how to get better at it.

1. The most important skill in a poker tournament is to play the players and not your cards.

Most players have heard this skill before, but they really don't get it. Or if they do get it, they rarely use it once the tournament starts. Could this be you?

2. What this skill really means

Let me explain what playing the players really means. Players in tournaments have habits they tend to display. These habits give you a strong clue on what they are thinking and how they are feeling about the strength of their hand. The most notable consistency in players are their betting patterns.

As an example:

You are on the button with 2-2. The blinds are $50-$100. A solid player raises to $300 and everyone folds to you. You have $4,000 and your opponent has $4,000. In this situation, your opponent can have a big premium cards, medium pairs, two broadway cards, or A-x or above. In this situation, given the implied odds I would call.

Now, what are you thinking before the deal of the flop? If you are thinking, "please give me a 2," you really need to think at a higher level. You should be thinking "a 2 would be great, but even if I miss, I can still win the pot. Also, how much is in the pot, how much will be his continuation bet, etc."

The flop comes Q-7-5 rainbow. The pot is $750. Your opponent bets out $500. What should you do?

Well, if you are thinking "I would fold because I missed my 2, wrong." You shouldn't be thinking about your cards anymore, you should be playing this player.

Your opponent may have A-A, K-K, Q-Q, or A-Q--but what if the flop missed his pair of 9's. He made a standard continuation bet. Can you take this pot away from him?

YES! You can call the bet or raise. If you have watched this opponent before, you will know that he will continue his continuation bets on the turn or slow up on the turn. Against most players, I would simply call not because I am hoping for a 2 on the turn. I am calling to take away the pot on the turn if he checks or bets weak. The turn card will define my next action.

Does this make sense?

One more example: Same blinds with everyone with $4,000. This time you are in the big blind. A player in the middle position raises to $300, and another player on the button calls. You look down and find J-10 suited. You call.

The flop comes 7-7-2 rainbow. The player on the button bets $800. You have nothing, but that is not important. You know this opponent will bet in these situation when checked to. Now, you can raise or can you call. You call. And the original raiser folds.

The turn is a 6. What can you do to take down this pot? Your opponent is going to be afraid you have a 7. What else could you have? Play the player.

There is almost $3,000 in the pot. You have $2,900. What if you move all-in? Will your opponent call you with the last of his chips? Would you call if you had no pair facing an all-in on the turn?

Since your opponent can’t see your hole cards, you can always hold the winning hand. If you know when your opponent is weak, you can play your cards like you have the nuts.

Daniel Negreanu is one of the best pros at playing the player. He got this way from years of experience.

3. How to get better at playing the players and not your cards

Here are a few ways to get better at this skill.

The best way is to enter tournaments with your number one objective being to identify opportunities where you can play the players to win a pot.

If you still insist on playing your cards on the flop, here is an idea. Play online tournaments where you see your cards pre-flop, and then put masking tape over the cards so you start to think about the situation and play the players. Yeah, it's a weird notion but it may help you to get better at it.

A final way is to watch tournaments online where you don't know anyone's cards and think through what you would do to win the pot.


No limit tournament poker is about accumulating chips, stealing blinds and pots, and playing the players and not your cards. Know your opponents. Know the range of hands they will play pre-flop in these situations. Look at the flop and determine if this a flop where you can bluff out your opponent. Even if you don’t really have a better hand, you can win the pot because you are playing the player.

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