Most online grinders find very little success when they take their first shot at a live tournament.
We always talk about how TERRIBLE every live player seems to be, and then blame variance when we can’t beat them (or maybe that’s just me).
The rules are exactly the same live and online, but live tournaments are a completely different ballgame. I can’t guarantee that reading this article will lead to you hoisting a trophy over your head, but it should at least help you on your way to becoming a live tournament beast.
The Most Important Live Tournament Lesson
Imagine sitting in your chair, a few minutes before the start of a live event you’ve been looking forward to for weeks.
You might be a little nervous, or even anxious, as you desperately try to remember what this article taught you. Well, if you only remember one thing, make it the following sentence…
Live tournaments are all about exploitative play.
This rule generally applies to all but the toughest online tournaments as well, but exploitative play is particularly important live.
Why? Here’s a very simple example:
$1,100 Live Tournament, Mid Stages of the Tournament (w/ antes)
Reads: UTG+1(60BB stack) is very tight preflop and a calling station postflop. Estimated age is around 50 and he appears to be a recreational player from the local area
Hero(80BB stack) is dealt in the Big Blind
utg folds, UTG+1 raises to 3BB, folds to bb, Hero calls 2BB
Flop (Pot: 7.5BB)
Hero checks, UTG+1 bets 6BB
This is a spot where you can’t have raising range against anyone competent (if you raise your two pair and sets here, your calling range will be so weak that anyone with half a brain will exploit you by barreling relentlessly).
But what about live, against some random, recreational calling station who will never fold AJ+ in a million years? In that case, raising looks a lot more attractive.
Let’s consider both options and their likely outcomes:
Option 1: You can go for the slow play and just call.
Your opponent might continue to barrel on the turn and river, but because he’s so tight and passive, it’s unlikely any of those hands are bluffs.
If he has a hand like AQ, he may continue betting, but he may also check back for pot control or if the board runs out a bit scary.
Option 2: You defy theoretical wisdom and check/raise.
You’re frequently going to get stacks in, or at least a lot of value from the vast majority of his range, by check/raising against this player type.
One downside to check/raising would be lost value against his bluffs, but it’s unlikely such a player even has a notable number of bluffs in his range.
The primary thought in your head during every decision should be how you can best exploit that specific opponent.
Don’t worry too much about making the correct GTO play or balancing your range. Instead, you should do your best to typecast your opponents using broad assumptions at first, and then sharpening your reads as you go. You often only get to play a few orbits with the same people, so being able to make good assumptions on the fly is a handy skill.
Once you have a rough idea on how people play, all that’s left to do is to figure out how to best exploit each player’s tendencies. It’s very much like an elementary school-level problem solving game, where your job is to put the square-shaped pieces into the square-shaped holes and so on.
Let’s consider some specific opponents and the correct way to adjust to each:
- This opponent is loose preflop and spazzes out against weakness, and now he’s flatted your Middle Position open and you see a flop of A-7-3 rainbow out of position. What do you do with the following hands?:
Answer: Click “Show” below when you’re ready for the answer.
- This opponent is a scared nit who fast plays his strong hands. He’s flatted you Cutoff open from the big blind and you have T-8 on a board of 7-6-2-J. He’s check-called your c-bet and barrel. What do you do on the turn?
Answer: Click “Show” below when you’re ready for the answer.
- You’re a few spots off the money bubble and the Big Blind (12BB stack) has been stalling a bit and frequently checking the scoreboard to see if another player has busted. It’s folded to you in the Small Blind with your 30 big blind stack. What range do you shove?
Answer: Click “Show” below when you’re ready for the answer.
All of these plays could come back to bite you in the ass online.
In example 1, when you show down your A-J after checking on a board like that, sharp opponents will realize that your c-bet range is likely full of it. They can counter by floating or raising your c-bets in the future, exploiting you.
Similarly, people generally care less about online money bubbles, and shoving 72o in example 3 against most opponents online is a losing play.
But since you have such a limited time with your live opponents that you’ll likely never encounter again, it’s best to just go for maximum exploitation whenever possible.
If you encounter an opponent who seems to be playing well, you might want to play more balanced. That said, when you spot a clear leak/tendency that you can exploit, go for it.
(Note: Serious about improving your cash game or deep stack tournament skills? Check out the Lab, a comprehensive poker training course developed by Doug Polk & Ryan Fee. Our members are crushing everything and you can too!)
Using Live Tells in MTTs
We’ll get back to live poker strategy in a second, but let’s talk a little bit about live tells first.
I’ll preface this by saying that I’m by no means an expert when it comes to live tells. I can’t tell you what kind of tells to look for, but I do have some advice that I believe to be very important, especially for those who aren’t that used to live poker.
- Focus on covering your own tells first.
If no one’s getting tells off you, you’re now “freerolling” the physical tells game. This should be your first and foremost priority.
There are some personality types who are capable of being calm in any situation, but if you’re unsure whether this is you or not, it’s probably safe to say that it’s not.
So, get yourself a hoodie that you can comfortably bury yourself in, sunglasses, a scarf, whatever it takes. I know that covering yourself feels silly, but it’s better to feel a bit silly and feel comfortable (and profitable) than to look cool and have yourself exposed.
The more you play live, the more comfortable you will feel, and you can gradually armor yourself less and less.
- Don’t try to own others by giving out fake tells. This is a rookie mistake that I see happen all the time.
It tilts me to read forum threads where people justify their horrible plays by stating that they fed their opponent false tells to make it look like they were bluffing or value betting.
This is a guessing game that you’re likely just going to get owned at, and if it works, it was probably dumb luck.
Just cover your own tells and let the cards (and your actions) do the work for you.
- Focus on the strategy and let the physical tells come more naturally.
Trying to pick up tells is hard. I’d recommend entering every live tournament with the assumption that none of your plays will be based on physical tells.
It’s very easy to overdo it by focusing too much effort on trying to discover tells as opposed to just observing hands and trying to understand your opponents’ strategies. And if you’re not an experienced live player, making a big decision because of an alleged-tell can end up being very costly if you’re wrong.
Keep your mind set on owning your opponents as hard as possible strategy-wise, and if you’re not sure about a tell, let it go. This way you won’t end up overdoing it, and if you actually do pick up something, you’ll be more confident in your read.
- Read this book about live tells.
If live tells interest you, there’s a book you should read before playing another hand of live poker.
It’s Reading Poker Tells by Zachary Elwood. I sure wish I had this book back when I traveled the circuit (I play live poker very rarely these days).
I can promise you that this book will make its price tag back. It seems impossible to read it without your tells game improving at least a little bit.
The original “Tells Bible” – Mike Caro’s Book Of Poker Tells – did a good job at pointing out just one thing: that weak often means strong, and strong often means weak. While this is still a decent general rule, the problem with it is that it’s too general.
What Reading Poker Tells does a great job at is explaining how the same behavior pattern can mean different things depending on the context.
This was really eye-opening to me – I used to always look for specific things that would then always mean “weak” or “strong”, and it took me reading Elwood’s book to learn to read tells based on context.
- Shaking is fine.
When we look at someone like Patrik Antonius on TV, we all strive to appear like him at the poker tables.
That guy is like a samurai – I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t as much as twitch if you ripped his heart out of his chest if he had cards in front of him…
…but we can’t all be like Patrik Antonius.
Live poker is incredibly stressful, and not the least because of the social aspect. It’s also what makes live poker fun, but it’s so strenuous!
People often have different triggers that release their stress hormones – for some it’s bluffing, for others it’s the fear of busting out and for some it’s feeling self-conscious about giving out tells.
This is something that you can gradually ease into (I think it’s a pretty good idea to play live cash games for a day or two before a live tournament just to get yourself acclimated), but for many it might impossible to shake off the nerves completely.
The good news is that people notice this stuff much less than you’d think, and even if they did – so what?
One of the best advice that I’ve ever read about live poker (I believe it was from Phil Galfond) is that if you’re the type who’s prone to be shaky and nervous while playing live poker, you should embrace it.
Just shake all the time. Be the guy that shakes like he’s having an epileptic seizure!
Why would you care what a bunch of strangers think? If you put every effort into appearing as calm as possible, you’ll miss out on a bunch of stuff happening at the table. Plus, it’ll drain your brainpower and make you feel self-conscious.
Pay Attention to Your Table Image
This goes hand in hand with exploitative play. Especially against weaker opponents, you should keep Andre Agassi’s famous tagline from the 90’s on your mind at all times: Image is everything.
Let’s say that you run a big bluff early on and get called. Guess what’s running through every recreation players’ mind after that? “This guy is a big bluffer, I hope I can catch a huge one off him before our table breaks”.
For example, let’s say that in the very first hand of a tourney you fire three barrels with K-T on a board of 9-7-6-J-A and get called. Does this mean that you’re a crazy bluffer who can’t help himself?
Of course not. You just fired three barrels on pretty much a perfect runout for it and were unlucky to run into a strong hand. But because people think in stereotypes, your image is now “BLUFFER”…
…and you’re not going to shake off that tag anytime soon. With such an image, you should obviously bluff less, go for thinner value bets and maybe even mix in some value-overbets.
Similarly, when you get moved to a new table and get dealt junk for three orbits straight, your image in the eyes of everyone is “NIT”, meaning that you can almost certainly get away with more light 3-bets and bluffs.
Sunglasses, Headphones, Scarves… What Works for You?
Whenever I read forum posts where people ask for help preparing for a live tournament, I usually see very black-and-white responses such as “wear sunglasses” or “bring headphones”.
I’ve always been a firm believer in figuring things out individually instead of doing what everyone else does. If you ask me, this philosophy applies to all areas of life, but I find it especially useful in live poker.
I believe that instead of copying others, you should always strive to figure out what works best for YOU, and do that regardless of what others say or do.
I’m going to tackle a few areas here, but I also urge you to use your own brain and ask yourself these questions with regards to non-strategic live poker decisions.
- Should I wear sunglasses?
Pros: Might help cover tells. Possibly makes you look more intimidating.
Cons: Might distract you and make reading your hand harder in bad lighting. Possibly makes you look like a douche.
My personal experience, after 9 years of playing live poker, is that I haven’t found a way to feel comfortable playing with sunglasses on.
In 90% of poker rooms, regular sunglasses are too dark to see the suits of the cards effortlessly. You have to peek a little closer to make sure you’re reading your hand correctly, and that extra peek means that you have your cards exposed to anyone looking over your shoulder for a little longer. That’s always felt really distracting to me.
Also, it just doesn’t feel natural to me to wear sunglasses indoors in the first place. I went on to buy these very expensive glasses that helped resolve that problem, but the glasses are mirrored, which posed a new problem. The large reflection made me self-conscious about opponents being able to catch a glimpse of my cards in my glasses (though the company swears this is impossible).
So, I never use sunglasses these days. I think that if do feel comfortable wearing them, it’s probably better to do so. But if you’re like me, it’s completely fine to wa;k into the poker room with a naked face. It’s definitely not going to make or break your career either way.
- Should I listen to music?
Pros: Can help you to relax and overcome tilt and boredom.
Cons: Makes it hard to catch verbal tells and might distract you.
This one has been debated at least since the invention of earbuds.
There are some guys who swear by listening to music all the time, but when you look at the absolute end bosses in Super High Rollers, virtually none of them listen to music.
I think that, in a perfect world, you’d probably be better off not listening to music. It frees up some brainpower, as your brain doesn’t need to process the music it hears, and allows you to listen to your opponents and, in turn, possibly to pick up some key information that you can use to your advantage.
Personally, I find myself listening to music on and off. I try to keep the headphones off the table and in my pocket, but whenever I’m running cold and find myself bored or tilted, I find that music puts me in a better mood.
To me, music is a tool. Whenever I feel like I’m playing my best, I don’t need it, but if my head isn’t fully in the game, I use it to tune myself in.
Should you use it this way? I can’t say, this is something you need to figure out for yourself.
- Should I play a crazy-LAG style like Vanessa Selbst and other sickos?
Pros: Allows you to run over weak fields and build massive chip castles.
Cons: It’s hard to pull off unless you’re really good at poker. Leads to many early bust outs and embarrassing, spewy hands.
Let’s think about someone like Fedor Holz, Phil Ivey or whoever you consider to be the best poker player out there.
Now, imagine them playing in a $1,000 event against a bunch of online qualifiers and local whales. Do you think that they’d play a solid, tight-aggressive style?
Of course not.
They would open up their range and play extremely loose and aggressive.
Since they have such a massive skill edge over the field, they want to maximize their opportunities to chip up by playing the max-amount of hands…
…but for us mere mortals, opening T9o from UTG isn’t going to be an opportunity to do anything but lose chips.
I know that for me personally, playing crazy LAG live has never quite worked out. I just don’t have the personality to do it. I’m more of a quiet observer than a loud bully by nature.
Every time I’ve done well in a live tournament I’ve played pretty solid, and every time I’ve tried to run over everyone I’ve just managed to bust out early.
I do also know a lot of successful live players that make that style work for them and in every case it seems to correlate directly with their personalities. It’d be foolish to advise them to play less hands.
Obviously, you should be changing gears depending on your table, stack sizes and so on, but just to answer the generic question of what kind of playing style is best: it depends on your own personality and skill set.
Just try not to have any bust out hands like this:
- Should I engage in conversation with others at the table?
Pros: Adds a social aspect to the game and may allow you to gain information.
Cons: You may reveal information about yourself that others can use against you. Plus, you’ll may hear so many bad beat stories and terrible strategy advice within the first hour that you’ll regret ever opening your mouth.
I remember playing in a €1,500 buy-in one-table bounty event with David Peters (who won the 2016 player of the year) a few years back.
The tournament took something like 8 hours to finish, and he didn’t say a word the entire time. I remember thinking that he was really doing his best to conceal any tells he might give out (he also never made eye contact, and just acted robotically).
I, on the other hand, tried to chat with everyone. Guess which one of us won the tournament?
Yep, it was David Peters. Does this mean that never saying a word is the way to win the POY? Obviously not. Again, it’s all about what works for you.
Personally, I like to talk a little bit. After all, on 99% of my working days I’m grinding alone at home in my underwear, so being social for once is kind of nice.
You can learn information about others that you can use to your advantage(e.g. if some guy says he qualified from a $5 satellite, he’s probably going to be scared money) . And outside the exploitation part, who knows, you might even make actual, real life friends.
I’d say that talking when you’re not in a hand is more or less a positive freeroll, and it makes the tournament feel more like a home game, which can be a nice change of pace.
Talking during a hand is a completely different thing. Daniel Negreanu is notoriously good at this. Seriously, watch some YouTube videos of his deep WSOP Main Event run, he just fishes so much information from his opponents during hands, allowing him to make tight folds and great calls.
Another good example would be the guy that so many people love to hate, William Kassouf. He might be pretty obnoxious, but he’s clearly effective when he uses the so-called “speech play”.
If you have the social skills of these people, you can try to copy their methods and interrogate your opponents during hands. It’s amazing how much stuff people give out.
But more realistically, if you’re not used to speech play, it’s you who’s going to give away reads to others.
I generally never say a word when I’m in a hand, and I’d recommend this to others as well until they feel comfortable talking. Nine years into my career I have still yet to reach that point.
Here’s a good example of how talking during hands can work against you:
Ben Wilinofsky, aka NeverScaredB, was known as a crazy LAG online when this tournament took place. Folding top two should be really difficult for his opponent, especially considering how the hand played out, but I think Ben messed this up at the 4:15 mark.
No one in the history of poker has said “I do that to people” in such a high-pressure situation (I believe this was the final two tables of a massive EPT) when they’re bluffing. Maybe earlier in the tournament, but not there, and certainly not as a reflex answer like you see in the video.
I don’t know if it was that what made Ben’s opponent fold, but even I would’ve managed to pick up on that (also, don’t shove Aces here).
7 Tips for Making Adjustments in Live MTTs
Before applying any of the following in practice, make sure to consider the context: your table image, who your opponent is, stack sizes and so on.
There are so many factors to consider in live tournaments that it’s impossible to give black and white advice on how to play them.
That said, there are certain lines and exploitative adjustments that work quite often against weaker opposition.
Tip 1: Nobody wants to bust early.
The bigger the event is in relation to the player’s regular games (satellite qualifiers are a good target), the less likely they are to commit all their chips early on.
This is especially true when it comes to big river shoves. Something you almost never see is someone running a huge river check/raise bluff on the second level of the tournament, even though there occasionally good spots to do it. For instance:
€5,000 Main Event, Blinds 100/200. 20k Effective Stacks
Hero is dealt in MP
folds to mp, Hero raises to 600, folds to co, an online qualifier in the Cutoff 3-bets to 1,700, only Hero calls
Flop (Pot: 3,700)
Hero checks, Cutoff bets 2,200, Hero calls.
Turn (Pot: 7,900)
Both players check
River (Pot: 7,900)
Hero checks, Cutoff bets 4,500, Hero shoves for 16,100 total
Hero is almost certainly beat when Cutoff bets the river, but almost no one would slowplay a made flush on the turn. Cutoff’s range is going to be full of AK-AQ, some AA, JJ and AJ, maybe half a combo of the nut flush and the occasional random bluff attempt.
Hero has the Qh blocker, making this a reasonable hand to use as a bluff (the Kh would be ideal). The Cutoff may even fold J-J and A-A here because they can’t beat anything but a bluff, and they really don’t want to look stupid and bust in the 2nd level of a tournament they’ve been anticipating for months.
Tip 2: Limping and playing small pots against bad opponents is often a good idea. When you do raise, make it bigger than you would online.
One of the biggest mistakes online kids make is only entering the pot with raises, as if they’re stuck in a 2009 CardRunners video.
They then get themselves into horrific spots isolating hands that have no business playing a big, multiway pot. Isolating works better online, but live poker is tedious, and when people have decided that they want to see that flop, they really want to see that flop.
And the deeper the stacks are, the more flops typical live players are going to want to see. During the early levels most every flop is going to be multi-way, and you’ll see some ridiculous hands shown down.
This is why, assuming there are no chronic over-isolators behind, you should happily overlimp with hands just not good enough to isolate.
When you get dealt a hand that doesn’t want to play a 5-way pot – say, J-J or A-Q, – raise at least 1BB bigger than you would online.
For example: When facing limpers at 50/100 with 20k stacks, I’d make it 4x + 1BB more for every limp. If you’re just isolating to 3BB as a standard you’re asking for trouble in soft live tournaments.
Tip 3: Live players fold less to 3-bets.
This goes along with the previous point – people want to see flops. This is why, especially deeper, you’re going to want to 3-bet a bit less of a polarized range- containing value bets and bluffs- and more of a merged one -containing value hands and connectors.
Tip 4: Amazingly, live players don’t call shoves wide enough.
Live recreational players may love to see flops, but their love appears to dissipate the moment the dealer utters the words “all-in”.
I’d guesstimate that something like 90% of recreational live players call too tight rather than too loose against 10-20BB shoves.
I assume that this has something to do with psychology, but whatever the reason, when you’re short, I’d recommend shoving wider than usual until your opponents give you reason to tighten up.
Tip 5: Many live players don’t think about bet sizings.
I can almost promise you that within your first couple of live tournaments you’ll hear an opponent ask the dealer to “spread the pot” (so that they can count the chips in it).
It might just be a heads-up pot with a single preflop raise and a c-bet in it, easily countable, but people just don’t pay attention.
This is why you’ll be able to get away with greedier value bets, smaller bluffs and so on. Your opponents often aren’t capable of thinking in terms of what betting 60% of the pot means as opposed to betting 40%.
They just see a “reasonable-sized bet” and call with their second pair and fold their fourth pair.
For the same reason, it’s often a losing battle trying to develop reads based on their bet sizes.
Tip 6: Small “milking” bets, probes and similar little tricks often work.
Let’s say you have a weak top pair and check-call a flop bet, then the turn goes check-check. You want to get a tiny bit of value on the river, but don’t want to check/call a potentially big bet, so you fire 35% pot yourself.
This is the type of thing that can be dangerous online. Your hand is pretty “face up” and strong opponents can exploit you by making correct laydowns or raising you off your hand…
…but random live players will just see a tiny bet and call with any pair because they are getting great odds and want to see a showdown.
Tip 7: Open–raise less hands against strong opponents. When you do raise, be prepared to 4-bet shove.
This one only applies to MTT stack sizes of around 30-40 big blinds.
When playing on a table full of strong opponents, raising a lot of hands has lost its value in recent years for a couple of reasons:
- Players have learned to defend their big blind more.
- Good players 3-bet a lot of hands, especially against the smaller open sizes in MTTs.
At a tough table, I would play a style where I don’t open a lot, but whenever I do I’d be prepared to 4-bet shove with a relatively large portion of my opening range, including some “bluffs” like A5s.
4-bet shoving light against live recreationals who rarely 3-bet is suicidal, but it’s an effective way to adjust against superior players (although it adds quite a bit of variance).
Got any questions about live tournaments? I’d be happy to answer in the comments section below or you can reach out to me on Twitter @chuckbasspoker (just click the button below to start your Tweet).
Read more tournament strategy articles from me:
- Defend your big blind the right way with The Ultimate Guide to Big Blind Defense. Part 1 in a 4-part series on playing from the blinds in tournaments.
- Learn to navigate poker tournaments with bounties up for grabs with Stop Punting Away Your Equity in Knockout Tournaments.
- Avoid bad deals and getting buried in makeup by checking out The Ugly Truth About Staking in Poker Tournaments.
(Note: Ready to take your poker game to the next level? Win more money with the help of Doug Polk, Ryan Fee and the Poker Lab! This extensive poker training course is the best and most efficient way to improve your win-rate, but don’t take my word for it, see what our members are saying here.)