Changing Gear in the Middle Stages of a Poker Tournament
Throughout the early stage of the tournament I have advocated a very patient and disciplined game playing only very strong hands in a Tight Aggressive style.
This is possible in the early stage as the blinds are relatively small compared to your stack of chips, so you have the luxury of waiting for the good spots.
As we get to the middle stages then the blinds have increased and depending on how your tournament is going might mean that we no longer have the luxury of waiting around for the best opportunities. At this point we would “change gear” and start to change our strategy to try and make things happen for us rather than just sitting and being blinded out.
Again every tournament will be different and you will find yourself in many different situations, so, let’s look at this from a chip stack perspective.
I would consider a small stack to be anything with a Time to Play ratio of between 10 and down to 5. If you are entering the middle stages with a small stack then it is definitely time to change gears.
If we don’t act soon, then we will soon drop below 5 on the Time to Play ratio at which point we are critical and have very limited options and will probably have to push all in with a pretty weak hand with low chances of success.
Our aim is to find a better spot to push all in than that before we get to the critical stage. I would definitely expand my range of playable hands and would be pushing all in whenever I play a hand to give me the maximum fold equity and an extra chance to win the hand by forcing my opponent to fold.
Besides the premium hands I would include any strong ace. I would go as low as A-9. I would also push with any pair. Position is still important, and ideally I would want to be playing from late position, but time is getting limited now, so I would consider playing these hands from middle or maybe even early position. Just remember the earlier the position to push from, the more players that you haven’t seen act yet and the higher chance that someone has a better hand than you and calling.
There is a concept called the Gap concept which starts to play a bigger role at this stage and if you push from an earlier position with a weak hand then any callers you get are probably going to have a much stronger hand. We will talk a bit more about the gap concept later in this section.
Remember, although you are a short stack, you still have some fold equity at this point, use it before you lose it!
If you have an average stack entering the middle stage, then I would continue to play the solid Tight Aggressive strategy that I have played the whole of the early stage with.
An average or “middle” stack is sometimes harder to play than a big or even short stack. You are in the position where you have a bit of time to wait for good opportunities, however with the blinds growing, you can’t wait for too long otherwise you will become a short stack. You are also vulnerable to the bigger stacks, who can put a lot of pressure on middle stacks and get away with it.
So, the only change for me holding an average stack in the middle stages would be to add a few blind steals when I am in late position and the opportunity arises, to try and maintain my stack whilst I wait for a good opportunity.
Now the best part. Your cruising into the middle stage with the chip lead … or close to it. Here you have the luxury to pick your spots. The blinds are not a factor to your play yet and you have 100% fold equity. An all in by you means any opponent is playing for his tournament life!
There are a few options available with a big stack. You can either take your foot off the gas and continue to play very solid premium hands or you can crank up the pressure on the other players and try to bully the table with your chips.
Playing the bully, although extremely effective when executed well takes experience to carry out, and if you are not careful, all that happens is you slowly (or sometimes quickly) give away chips to other players.
Personally I like to find a happy medium between the two. I still like to play very solid hand selection, but when I am in late position then I will open that hand range a lot further to include much more marginal hands and use these to apply pressure to my opponents.
I will play very aggressive from late position, with the initial aim of picking the blinds up uncontested. If I am called and get to a flop then I will assess the hand, and my opponent and if I think it is worth it, I will continue to apply pressure after the flop with a continuation bet. If I continue to meet resistance or I sense a lot of strength from my opponent then I will not just throw chips at them, I will admit defeat and allow them a small victory and wait for the next opportunity.
The best targets for this aggression is the middle or average stacks. You will tend to find that these players will try to avoid the big stacks as they have the power to wipe them out. Shorter stacks are not such a good target as they are looking for the opportunity to push all in, and are not so worried by your chip stack. Against a shorter stack I would be playing slightly stronger hands against them in case they play back and push.
Oh and one last thing that applies to all situations in the middle and late stages of a tournament, I am never limping into a pot, I am either raising, calling a raise, or folding.
Keep re-evaluating your position in the tournament, things change quickly as your stack fluctuates and the blinds increase and really this is what dictates how you will play in the middle stages of a tournament. You must be flexible and shift gears when needed.
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