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Poker Tournament Strategies

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Poker tournament strategies differ a lot from simple cash games.  Everyone starts with the same stack, unlike cash games where people can bring stacks of different sizes to the same table. Also, tournaments are all about survival. Once your stack of chips is gone, so are you. These strategies will help your survive the different phases of a tournament. 

Value of chips changes – at the start of the tournament you will have plenty chips compared to the blinds. For example, every tournament on 9stacks gives you a different starting stack. StackUp gives you a starting stack of 25,000 chips, which amounts to 500 initial blinds while The Multiplier gives you 12,00 chips amounting to 100 initial blinds.  But as the blinds increase, you will be left with fewer chips compared to the blind. Hence, always keep an approximate count of how many blinds you have left. When you only have 7-10 blinds left, wait for a monster hand and shove pre-flop. With a stack so small it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to get value if you play more than 1 or 2 hands and if all the players end up folding, you’ll be able to steal their blinds. 

Be patient –Wait for the right hand to come. Play tight during the first few levels and avoid big pots unless you have a monster hand. This will allow you to maintain a healthy stack. You don’t want to get into massive pots and lose too many chips in the early rounds, as an increase in blinds later on will further reduce your stack relatively. A common strategy a lot of players use is playing multiple tables – while you’re playing a big tournament you can also play cash tables or 15-minute tournaments in parallel. This keeps you busy and doesn’t make you impatient. On 9stacks, you can add another table by simply clicking on ‘add table’ on the bottom left corner of your screen. 


Protect your blinds – DO NOT LIMP, i.e. do not just call the big blind with an average hand. Chances are other players will raise pre-flop if they have a good hand and if you limped in, you will definitely be folding. Only call the big blind if you can call the raise or raise if you can call the re-raise. As I mentioned earlier, increasing blinds will deplete your stack.


Don’t fear the Bubble Phase – The bubble is a poker slang used for the phase in the tournament where the players are only a few spots away from money. For example, if a tournament pays out top 5 players, the bubble phase would start when there are about 10-12 players remaining. As players enter the bubble phase, they tend to change the way they play and start stressing out. Some beginners don’t realize that your strategy should mostly depend on your stack. If you have a short stack, play cautiously. Make every move to maximize your chances of surviving and fold anything that isn’t a monster. If you’ve playing well and have accumulated a big stack, it’s time for you to punish the shorts stacks. Play aggressively and steal their blinds as often as possible. Put them all-in if you have a decent hand. They will be folding very often, giving you free chips to increase your stack. 


Hammer-Time! – When you’re ‘in the money’, i.e. you are guaranteed to win money, it’s time for you to hammer your opponents. The value of all hands go-up. Start playing a little aggressively irrespective of your stack. This doesn’t mean you go all in with 72, but you increase your range of starting hands and raise with suited connectors or even low pockets. If you wait a few hands for a monster, the size of the blinds would have already depleted your stack to a level where you won’t get enough value. 

In a nutshell, start by playing tight, adjust during the bubble phase (depending on the size of your stack) and then go all-out once you’re in the money. Go Stack Up!
 

Elasticity of Ranges

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Picture this - You have a date you want to impress. A candle light dinner in a fancy restaurant would be a good first step. But you are not sure what kind of food they like. You don't want to ask them directly, because you want to keep it a surprise. So you bring up food in your conversation and find out that they like Mexican, Italian and Indian. You can now choose from a range of restaurants and be reasonably sure that your date would be pleased.

In poker, Range is defined as all the possible hand combinations a person can hold. We try to disarm our opponent using our strategies so that they can part with their money. But like our date, they won't tell us their exact hand. Instead, we have to observe the gameplay, the bet size, their tells etc. and put them on a range of hands. The restaurant that we choose, or in this case, the strategy we choose would depend upon this range. 

Hand ranges are classified in various types. In this post, we'll learn about the concept of Elasticity of Ranges. It broadly divides into two types: Elastic and Inelastic.

1. Elastic Range
In some spots, the decision of whether to call or fold a hand is based on the opponent's bet size. When a range consists of a large % of these kind of hands, it is called an elastic range.

For example: Say we hold Jh9h
Board runs out 6cJs2d4hAc

Pot size is 1000 and we are facing a bet on the river. Considering that the villain is an unknown, the decision of whether to call this hand will be based on the action and the bet size.

- If the opponent bets 200, we will most likely call
- If the opponent bets 700, we may or may not call
- If the opponent bets 2000, we will most likely fold

2. Inelastic Range
In some spots, decision of whether to call or fold is not based on the opponent's bet size. When a range consists of a large % of these kind of hands, it is called an inelastic range.

For example: Say we hold ThTc
Board runs out 2cTs9h2d7c

Pot size is 1000 and we are facing a bet on the river. In this case irrespective of the bet size, we are never folding. 

Conversely, say we had 4c5c on the same board, we will fold irrespective of how much the villain bets. Thus our range is inelastic.

Think of it this way, if your date hates Chinese food or is allergic to it, they wouldn't want it even if you take them to a Michelin star Chinese restaurant. On the other hand, if they love Indian food, you wouldn't have to look for the best Indian restaurant to make them happy. Even a roadside Pao Bhaji might do. In this scenario, they are inelastic with their food preference.

How to use this in your game?

You need to be able to accurately asses your opponent's range to a reasonable degree before you start using this concept. Once you have a fair idea of what their range looks like, you can do the following:

Against Elastic ranges

  • Bet a small enough size with your strong hands that a worse hand will call
  • Bet a big enough size with your bluffs that will make your opponents fold hands that are better than yours

For example:

Your hand is AhQh. You raise preflop and the flop comes QsTs2c. Pot size is 1000. You bet 600 and the opponent calls. The turn is 7d. Board reads QsTs2c7d and pot size is 2200.

In this spot our opponent's calling range is elastic. The villain can have a wide variety of hands and his response will vary on what bet size we choose.

- If we bet a small size like 400, he might even call any 2 or 7 and any weak draw
- If we bet 1400, he will call with some strong draws and middle pairs
- If we bet 2800, he will most likely call with top pair+ 

Against Inelastic ranges

  • Bet bigger for value with strong hands and bet small with bluffs - since your opponent is inelastic, he will call or fold any sized bet. This allows you to win more when ahead and risk less while bluffing.

For example: 

Your hand is QhTh. You raise preflop and the flop comes Kd7c2s. Pot size is 1000.

It is a dry board with no draws. After calling our pre flop raise, our opponent will miss this board often. He doesn't have enough hands that will call a small bet but will fold to a larger bet. If he has a pair, he is likely calling a bet of any size but will fold pretty much everything that is not a pair. So we should bet small. 

Playing against an elastic range is trickier than playing against an inelastic range. This is because in the former case, there are more decision points to be made (different bet sizes), and this leads to more chances of error. Instead you can start by applying this concept against an inelastic range. However, to be able to use this profitably, it is a prerequisite that you are able to assign correct ranges to your opponents.

We hope you find this useful and let us know your questions/comments below.

Cheers,

Mayank

This article was written by Mayank Jain. Mayank is a writer who plays poker for a living. He writes at http://mayankja.in/ on mindfulness, travel and art, among other things.

An Introduction to Game Theory in Poker

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A quick look up on the internet, gives us the definition of Game Theory as:

The branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant's choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. 

Having a game theory optimal (GTO) strategy means that we find the best solution for our situation irrespective of what our opponent does. A standard example is the Prisoner's Dilemma. Here's a link to the Wikipedia entry and a YouTube video if you didn't know about this already.

What does GTO mean in poker?

Being a good poker player means making the best decisions based on the incomplete information you have. To bridge this very chasm between incomplete information and the best decision, we take the help of game theory. Just like in the Prisoner's Dilemma, we do not know what the opponent's strategy is. So we make the most optimal game theory decision in a vacuum. Then, as we gain more information about an opponent, we adjust your strategy based on this new information.

Two Examples:

1. Bet Size
On the flop, your opponent bets 1/3rd pot. What do you do with middle pair? Most likely, you would call. What if he makes it 1/2 pot? Or 3/4 pot? Or 2x pot? 4x pot? At what point do you decide that you won't call this bet?

As your opponent's bet size increases, the odds that you get become worse. In order to not get exploited, we have to start letting go of some hands. So we start folding our weak pairs, then middle pairs good kickers, then middle pairs strong kickers, and sometimes even top pairs with weak-medium kickers.

2. Bluff catching
Similar logic goes into bluff catching. For example, say you have JTo and board runs out Jack high - you have top pair medium kicker. Your opponent, whom you don't know anything about, bets big all three streets. What do you do? If you always call down with just a top pair, you will be often up against QQ+ or better top pairs. If you always fold, you open yourself up to getting bluffed. To find a balance, we use a GTO approach.

As we move from flop to turn and to the river, we start folding the bottom of our range. This means that out of all the hands that we could have in this spot, we start folding the worst ones. If we find ourselves here with top pairs often, we start folding the ones with the worst kickers. If we call with every Jack on the flop, we fold some like J9, JT on the turn. On the river, since we arrive with QJ+, we have to fold some of these and call with some. So we can fold the worst Jacks - QJ, KJ and call down with AJ.

In the first example, we did not know what our opponent bet-sizes meant. In the second, we do not know when our opponent is bluffing or when he is value-betting. Hence we chose a strategy that allows us to make the best decision no matter what he does. Does it mean that we will win every pot? No. But it does mean that in the long run, after playing thousands of hands, and facing the same situations many times, the summation of all our decisions will come out to be a profitable number.

How does GTO compare with Exploitative strategy?

Exploitative strategy means that when you have absolute reads on your opponents, you deviate from the GTO approach to make the best decision in that particular instance. For example, if you know that the villain never bluffs when he bets big all three streets, but you are at the top of your range, it maybe a fine GTO call, but you can make an exploitative fold knowing that you are always beat.

No single strategy is better than the other. Usually a combination of both is the way to go - because even though GTO style is profitable, mixing it with exploitative might be even more profitable. This is especially true when you are playing against weaker opponents. They have certain tendencies and leaks that are better suited for an exploitative style of play. But against stronger opponents, who have fewer obvious leaks, a GTO style is much more favorable.

As the poker software and poker AI has become better, more and more players are employing a GTO approach, especially when the stakes are high and the competition is good. But since no player is playing a perfectly GTO strategy, adding an exploitative style to your game is a good idea.

Hopefully, this primer was useful and may it help you make more profitable decisions in the future. And next time try employing this strategy in any one aspect of your game - value-betting, check-raising, bluffing etc. 

Cheers,

Mayank

This article was written by Mayank Jain. Mayank is a writer who plays poker for a living. He writes at http://mayankja.in/ on mindfulness, travel and art, among other things.

Cash Games vs Tournaments

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The two most common formats of poker are Cash Games and Multi Table Tournaments (MTTs). Most poker players dabble in a bit of both while deciding on one format.

In this article, we will list down the differences between the two and how it should affect your choice.

1. Variance

Let's say you have a pocket pair of Kings( KK ) in the pre flop. You raise, your opponent         re-raises you, you decide to go all in, villain calls, shows Aces and wins the pot. The worst thing that happened to you here is that you lost a big pot.

Imagine this happening in a tournament at the bubble (Bubble: In a tournament, top x% of the people are paid, x being usually 10-15%. For example, say 10 people are paid in a 100 person tourney.

The stage of the tourney where 11 people are left would be called the Bubble. 11th person gets 0 bucks). So the hours of your effort of outlasting so many opponents went down the drain in one unlucky hand. You can't reload, you can't enter again.

This is variance - getting unlucky in key spots in tournaments hurts much more than it does in cash games. In terms of actual money, you might say that in both scenarios you lose the same amount (for example, Rs. 10k buyin in a tourney and a Rs. 10k buyin cash game). But losing that big pot in the tournament hurts your potential equity (since the structure of tournaments is top-heavy, losing a big pot in a critical spot reduces your chances of making it big). 

A big mistake in a tournament can cost you the tournament life whereas in cash game, just a bit of moeny. Having said this, being on the opposite end of this situation also makes getting lucky that much more useful in tournaments.

2. Justice or lack thereof 

If a bad player sucks out on you and busts you out of a tournament, you can do nothing about it. You can just hope that maybe next time, you find him on the same table and punish him. Justice of playing bad isn't served immediately. So it isn't uncommon that a bad player is running deep in a tournament. Whereas in a cash game, even if the bad player gives you a bad beat, you can always reload and outplay him in the same session. This lack of or delayed justice in tournaments brings us to the next point.

3. The Mental Game

For a good poker player, having a strong mental game is very important, more so in the tournaments because of the aforementioned reasons. It is said that in poker, a good player will always win in the long run. This 'long run' can be longer in tournaments than in cash games. And a strong mentality is required to navigate those rough times. Patience becomes a key virtue.

Likewise, it might happen that a newbie gets lucky and makes it big in a tournament. It is not uncommon to see them lose it all later in high stakes games thinking they are good enough since they've won a big tournament. So it is very important to have a clear assessment of your skills.

Having said this, suffering a bad beat in a cash game and playing in a tilted state can result into a bigger loss. In tournaments, since the buyins are smaller, the amount you lose because of poor mental game will also be smaller.

4. Return on INVestment (ROI)

The high variance nature of tournaments also makes it the format with higher returns of investment. Consider this for example: You are playing a cash game with a buyin of Rs. 10k. A good session will probably mean a win of 3-5 buyins. Let's say you win Rs. 50k, making your RoI as 5x the initial investment.

Compare this with a tournament of Rs. 10k buyin. Usually such a tournament will have a guaranteed prize pool of Rs. 20 Lac with the first price being around Rs. 5 lac. Say you win the tournament, the return thus becomes 5lac/10k or 50x!

Where cash games give you a regular monthly income, tournaments present the chances of giving you life changing money.

The choice of what game to play depends upon your risk appetite, your skill in each format, bankroll and the stage of your poker journey. We hope this article gives you a good insight into the two different formats. Leave your questions and comments below.

This article was written by Mayank Jain. Mayank is a writer who plays poker for a living. He writes at http://mayankja.in/ on mindfulness, travel and art, among other things.

Common Pre-Flop Hand vs Hand Percentages

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Do you know what %  of chances you have of winning, if you go all in pre flop with 9s, while your opponent holds  an AKo?

Below is a summary of most common pre flop situations and hand percentages

Situation                                  E.g. Hand                E.g. Hand 2

Under Pair vs. Overcards                                Td Ts        54%    46%          Ac Kh
Overpair vs. Pair                                             Kc Ks        80%    20%         9d 9c
2 Overcards vs. 2 Undercards                         Ad Qc        63%    37%        5d 7h
Dominated Hand                                           Ah Jd         72%    28%        Jc Td
Very Dominated Hand                                   Qs Qd       89%    11%        Qh Js
Overcard vs. Dominated Kicker                     Ad 9h        29%    71%         9c 9s
Pair vs. 1 Overcard                                         8h 8d         69%    31%        As 5c
1 Overcard vs. 2 Middle Cards                       Jc 4h          57%    43%        6h 8s

Helps?

Leave your questions and comments below.

Love,

Team 9stacks

What Stakes To Play

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A short answer to this topic would be -  'Whatever your heart desires.' After all, it is your money. You can decide whether you want to take shots at a bigger stake, or you prefer building slowly and gradually at lower stakes.

High Risk - High Reward vs Low Risk vs Low Reward. But if you want an informed advice based on years of experience, read on.

When I first started playing, I was at the lowest stakes, grinding it out. Occasionally, I would take shots at higher ones, but usually that didn't go well and I came back to basics. 

The simple rule of thumb:

Your Bankroll should be at least 50 times the full buyin at that level. 

For e.g. if you are playing at 5/10 with a 1k buyin, having a 50k bankroll is recommended. Ideally, 100 buyins is much preferred especially if you multi-table, but 50 buyins is a decent place to start at.

Let's say you want to take shots at a higher level, but you don't have that much money. Does this mean you cannot play until you have 50 buyins? If we are talking specifically about shot taking, you could take a shortcut. Here's the rule:

Shot Taking is OK if your bankroll is 50 CURRENT buyins + 10 times the buyin of next level.

For e.g. if you are playing at 5/10 and want to take a shot at 10/20, then the minimum BR according to our rule of thumb you need is 100k. But by our shortcut, you need 70k instead. (50 buyins of the lower level + 10 buyins of the higher level).

Point to note: You need to have the discipline to drop down at the lower stake if you lose the 10 buyin of the higher level.

Why this conservative approach?

Poker is a game of variance. Like most sports, it involves an element of luck, perhaps more so. But the difference is that unlike other sports, this factor of luck directly translates into money earned. 

For e.g. last year, Paul Pogba of Manchester United hit the frame of the goal more than any other player in the league (somewhere around 14-16 times), which is very unlucky. If any of those shots were a few inches to the left or right, they would have been goals. It would have made a big difference in the eventual final standings of the club. But it didn't directly affect the income of the club.

Now a poker example, say you have AA pre flop. And your opponent has KK. If you do the maths (check our basic maths article), you will win this hand 81% of the time when all the money goes in pre-flop. So, 4 out of 5 times. or 40/50 times. or 4000/5000 times. You get the gist right? But here's the twist:

It is a statistical possibility that your opponent hits his, 19% times in a row. He might win with kings against your aces 10 times in a row. Of course it is unlikely, but still possible. And it is against this situation that we protect ourselves against by having a conservative approach towards bankroll management.

Running bad, Variance, Downswing, Bad Beats - whatever you prefer calling it, is a real phenomenon in Poker. And when it happens, it not only erodes our bankroll, but also our confidence. We start questioning our poker knowledge, and we wonder if we've forgotten how to play.

Trust us, we've been there.

Managing your bankroll properly, and staying strong during downswings can often mean the difference between a great and a good player. More on that in some other post.

Good luck on the tables. Leave your comments and questions below.

Cheers,

Mayank

Mayank Jain is a writer who plays poker for a living. He writes at http://mayankja.in/ on mindfulness, travel and art, among other things.