Saturday, September 5, 2009

Is There a System to Win a Poker Tournament?

Is there a system to winning MTT's?

This post was going to be about the system I am currently following when I play online poker tournaments. However, I realized that it is rather arrogant of me to suggest I know a system that works, so I just deleted it.

But, I do think you should consider developing your own poker tournament system. Let me explain why it is a good idea.

The Good Old Days

When I started playing tournaments I would write down my learning and come up with systems to test. I would take these pages (usually 5 to 12 pages long) to the local card rooms and review them at the breaks.

I started with a limit tournament system since that was the game I was usually playing.

There used to be a great limit tournament every Wednesday night at the Oaks in Emeryville, CA. (Frankly, limit events may require more skill than no limit events.)

My goal was to win back-to-back Wednesdays. For some reason I thought that if I win back to back events, it would mean I was really, really good. Anyway, for the limit events I started by using a system I read in a book by a player who had won back-to-back events. It didn't work for me, but it was the foundation for all my revisions.

Eventually, I had a 9 page limit poker system. It worked one Wednesday night. I won!

The next Wednesday night, I used it again, and I won again! It was amazing. I had set out to win back-to-back and I did.

After those wins, though, I lost a few more times before I decided to focus on the hottest game around--no limit tournaments.

No Limit Poker Tournament System

I wrote up a system to play that was based on Super System. It didn't work. I read a lot of articles in Cardplayer, and bought books on poker. My no limit poker system, started at 5 pages, then 7 pages, and eventually it was 12 pages long.

Yes, at the breaks, I would take out these pages and read them to remind me how to play.

Back in those days, Sundays were the best day of the week for poker tournaments in the Bay Area. There were two events on Sunday. A no limit event at the Oaks in the late morning, and another one at Lucky Chances in Colma, CA in the evening.

My system kept changing as I learned more and read more.

Finally, I set a goal: to win back-to-back Sunday events. It was a ridiculous goal since no one had ever won the event at the Oaks and Lucky Chances on the same day.

I don't know why, but I told Frank, a poker player at these same events, of my goal. His reaction. He laughed at me. When he stopped laughing, he told me I was good but not that good. And he laughed some more.

The Oaks game started at 11 am, and the Lucky Chances game started at 6 pm.

The next week, I finally won that first event at the Oaks. What was strange about that game was what happened early on. It was only the 5th hand, and I won my first pot of the day. Another player, who was not even in the hand, says to me, "I feel you're going to win. You look very serious." Weird. He was right.

After you win an event, you have to wait to get paid. I didn't think about it before, but there was no way I was going to get to Lucky Chances on time. I had to go from Emeryville to Colma on a Sunday night over the Bay Bridge. The key was to get to Lucky Chances before the first break or it would be too late to enter.

The game would start in 20 minutes, and you never know about Bay Bridge traffic. Fortunately, I knew a short-cut to bypass traffic at the other side of the bridge. It worked and I arrived in plenty of time. (By the way, you should check out what is going on at the Bay Bridge right now. They are taking out an old piece about the size of a football field and replacing it with a new one.)

I know it seems silly but at the breaks I would review my poker system and how to play at the different stages of the event.

Yes, Frank came by and he was still laughing. He actually says to me, "There's no way you are going to win this one." Unreal.

I guess the poker gods had a different plan. I made it to the final table! Frank was watching me like a hawk. Maybe he thought I had cards up my sleeves or something. He wasn't laughing any more. In fact, he was rooting for me!

Players seem to knock themselves out a final table. And sure enough, it got down to 6 players in a hurry. Then it was 5, 4, 3, and yes, I was heads-up.

My opponent and I were fairly even in chips. The players watching were all talking about how I had won at the Oaks.

We took a break. I got out my system for heads-up play. I admit it. I did not have anything on how to play heads-up. It didn't matter. I won earlier. I can win again.

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout. But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.

So did I.

I never got close to that goal again.

The moral of my story: Consider writing up your own poker system and keep working it. You will learn more and maybe you will win back-to-back WSOP bracelets.


Anonymous said...

That's a great story Mitchell; and great advice.

I was playing some low stakes online heads-up matches the other day -- and for the first two I felt like the other guy got a read on me staright away and I was floundering.

So, I cracked out the books and looked up heads-up strategy, and then went straight back into it, and was immediately 100% better and started winning the heads-up matches.

The point being that you can think you've already studied a book or system and therefore "know" what to do -- but reminding yourself of it while you are playing and between games really keeps you on track.

Thanks for another cracking post.

PS. Shame you deleted the original post -- would have loved to read that too!!


Jonathan Gelling said...

Well, I don't know about others, but I think many players start out with cash games and then sit and go tournaments. We read Harrington and Sklansky and adopt the same tight, conservative strategy recommended in those texts. And those strategies actually work really well in SNGs and cash games, to a point.

But if you don't venture outside the box and play marginal holdings, raise pre-flop to steal, and play back aggressively at your opponents, you need to get lucky even to place in the average online MTT, let alone make the final table. I really hate being in the situation of being all-in w/AK for my tournament life on the cusp of the payout... I'd much rather have chips to spare to gamble at a time and place of my choosing.

Any prospective poker tournament system must include intelligent speculation, aggressive pre-flop stealing, and a plan for one or two really big moves at crucial points in time. Waiting for big hands and hoping they hold up isn't going to cut it, like you've said.

Luigi said...

I had a crazy experience at my Monday night casino tournament. It's $20 plus $30 rebuys or add ons up to the 3rd blind increase, then if you're out you're out.

I planned to play aggressive early on good starting hands. I got AK in the 2nd hand, pushed hard before the flop with around half of my chips. 2 people called and to cut the story short, I lost to a straight.

I always seem to get a repeating hand in each tournament and somehow I knew for once instead of 93 I was going to get more AK's. I got 5 of them. On 4 of them I went all in before the flop and lost each hand. I rebought 3 times and lost everything twice, finally won a few marginal hands and ended up 38th out of around 150 people, when my trip 9's got beaten by a straight.

Btw, each hand I lost, was lost on the river. Each time I went all in, they must have thought I was playing the Kill Phil strategy and couldn't possibly have another AK, so they called me. On 3 out of 5 hands I got either an A or a K on the flop.

I couldn't believe my bad luck, nor could anyone else. Next time, if I get a run like that I'll slow play some of them. My strategy was to keep my opponents down to 1 or 2 players out of the 10 on the table and stop people drawing, but they wanted to call me.

Any suggestions on what I should have done? Given that most of the hands that beat me, made their hands on the river and that other than people folding, the cards that are going to come out are predetermined. Slow playing would have only let more people into the game.

Mitchell Cogert said...


Interesting post especially after what Johnathan wrote in his previous post about AK.

My thoughts: In an unlimited rebuy events like this the problem is that your opponents have also decided to play aggressive and build their stack. When that happens hands like AK unsuited, go down in value because you are more likely to get more than one caller.

The more callers, the more that big premium hands go down in value and drawing hands go up in value.

I have played in these events before, and frankly, I let other players be the aggressors before the buy-in period ends. It is after that period ends, where I look to be aggressive because everyone slows down.

I push with AK after the rebuy period, where I am more likely to get one or no opponents and I need to make a move for chips.

In your case, it seems that your image hurt you because no one believed you could keep getting this hand. It would be nice to be able to steal the pot before the flop.

Also, it sounds like if you did not go all-in with AK, you were likely to win the pot with a flop bet since you improved to top pair, top kicker 3 out of 5 times.

You got unlucky, for sure!

Perhaps consider adjusting your approach the next time you enter one of these multiple rebuy "crazy aggressive" events. I don't like them since there is an overwhelming amount of luck in the first 3 rounds.

Good luck!


Luigi said...

Thanks for the feedback Mitchell. I play in this tournament each week, although it used to be a freeroll, the casino isn't making the profit it usually enjoys and has stopped doing freerolls.

I thought about slowplaying, but thought if I'm not prepared to go hard and get most players to fold with AK, what hands would I push with.

I'll be in Australia for the next couple of weeks, so will see what Jupiters has to offer.

Online I've been focussing on trying to win bigger pots by slow playing good hands and looking for straights, with mixed success, certainly better that 50%. It's mostly about learning for me, playing SNG's. I have got to 1,000% of my small starting stake, so not doing to bad.

I also find that I play better the more I read and study and when I stop reading and studying for a month, even though I try to apply what I've learned, I lose my focus and don't play as well.

What's Your Poker IQ?