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5 Poker Tournament Myths Way Too Many Players Believe

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion nowadays, and many people present their views as absolute truth. This is particularly common at the poker table.

Poker is a game where only about 1% of all players make money, yet many of the remaining 99% still think they’re good–just unlucky.

And boy, do all these “unlucky” people think they have it all figured out.

It’s tough to spend time at a live poker table without hearing all kinds of weird myths and false truths waiting to be proven wrong. The following 5 are among my favorites.

MTT Myth 1. Aggressive Play Requires a Big Stack

Some players assume that you need a big stack in order to effectively put pressure on your opponents. Similarly, the biggest stack at the table is often assumed to take on the role of ”table captain” and the lesser stacks are expected to let him or her be in charge. This is nonsense.

First of all, each hand is an individual challenge. Poker is not a game of soccer, where you set a game plan ahead of time to execute on the field.

You get dealt two cards; you play the hand to your best ability; repeat.

When deciding on the best course of action during a hand, there are a myriad of factors to consider. And yes, one of them is your stack size. In fact, your stack size is probably the most important single factor.

However – and this is where people get it terribly wrong – that doesn’t mean you should tae the black & white approach of big stack=aggressive, short stack=tight.

There are times when you need to play extremely loose as a short stack (in fact, you very often should!). And sometimes the best thing you can do as a big stack is to just play your cards.

Example 1: Nearing the bubble of a tournament. The big stack to your right is opening seemingly every hand. You have 15-20 big blinds. Should your strategy be to:

1) Fold every hand and let your table captain do his thing
2) Attack his reckless opens with abandon and take the dead money

Example 2: Day two of the WSOP Main Event. You have a big stack, and get moved to a new table. The players to your left are Fedor Holz, Doug Polk, and Phil Ivey, who all have less chips than you do. Which approach should you take?

1) Put your table captain hat on and attack their blinds with any two cards
2) Try to play solid poker, and avoid putting yourself in tough spots against superior competition

In both instances, option 2 is far superior.

Should you sometimes try to go after everyone when you have a big stack? Absolutely. But your game plan must always depend on the opposition you’re facing and the situation you’re presented.

If your opponents will let you run them over, it’d be criminal to not try to do the whole table captain thing. But don’t force it, and don’t let others force it. As William Ernest Henley put it:

tournament poker myths quote

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Make sure it’s you controlling your fate, and not some guy in a trucker hat raising every single pot.

(Note: Serious about improving your tournament and cash game skills? Check out The Lab, a poker training course developed by Doug Polk & Ryan Fee. Our members are crushing everything and you can too!)
tournament misconceptions mtt myths

MTT Myth 2. My Short Stack Forced Me to Commit

I was recently at the final table of a live turbo tournament in Australia. The only halfway decent opponent left was this local woman who was playing tight-aggressive poker. Then the following hand happened:

7 players left, with three players sitting on stacks of 4 big blinds or less(including myself). The average is 12 big blinds. The chipleader — who has all the chips and has been playing nearly every hand — opens 3x from UTG. The lady responds with a shove for 10 big blinds from UTG+2 holding 5-5. She ended up losing the race against A-K and busting in 7th place, much to my delight.

In her spot, I’d have folded 9-9 without hesitation. She immediately shrugged it off as a cooler, saying ”I only had 10 big blinds and a pair, I had to go with it”.

The rest of the table nodded in agreement, and I chuckled on the inside. She was in second or third place before or the hand, and was almost guaranteed a few pay jumps. Her only job was to play tight and let others bust first. Instead she decided to adhere to a non-existent rule-of-thumb that says you have to shove any pair if you’re short enough.

Let me assure you this about push/fold tournament play: There’s no rule forcing you to do anything at all just because you’re short.

There are situations when it’s correct to go all-in holding 7-2o with 10 big blinds, and others when you need to fold a hand as strong as 7-7 with the same stack. Those are both extreme examples, but these spots do come up.

As a broad generalization, when you’re short (say, less than 15BB) and aren’t holding a monster, you’re looking for one of two things before you shovel your chips into the pot:

  • Fold equity
  • Lots of dead money in the pot

Let me expand on the latter with an example:

Mid-Stage Poker Tournament. Hero has a 10BB stack.

Hero is in the big blind with
tournament misconceptions mtt mythstournament misconceptions mtt myths
MP raises to 2BB. HiJack calls. Cutoff calls. Button calls. sb folds. Hero…?

You’re going to get called virtually every time when you shove here — and it will usually be a coin flip — but the amount of dead money in the pot justifies the play because you have a chance to triple-up with (probably) ~50% equity.

If that raise was bigger than 2BB, or if there were no overcallers, going all-in with 5-5 is a less appealing play.

If I were in the Australian lady’s chip position, I’d have been much happier shoving 7-2o blind vs blind against the nit to her left — who was suffocating under ICM pressure — than shoving those fives into the chip leader.

It’s noteworthy that pretty much regardless of how loose the opener was opening, she’d still only be flipping against that range. Thus, going all-in with fives was pure ICM suicide. She could’ve picked the blinds and antes a bunch of times later on by shoving into the other players, increasing her stack with much less risk.

3. You Have to Play for the Win Every Hand

This one is a real pet peeve of mine. It’s one you hear thrown around a lot, especially from players who just punted their stack in the early-mid stages of live tournaments.

These players build huge stacks, and then they give it all away in some ridiculous hand that they decided they needed to win at all costs. Their explanation?

“I had to play for the win.”

There’s a fitting poker catchphrase to counter the argument that is, in fact, very much true:

“You can’t win a poker tournament on the first day, you can only lose it”

Bingo! It’s impossible to win a WSOP event on day one, and it’s not your job to terminate everyone. You’re not Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Your job is to play solid, fundamentally strong poker, making exploitative adjustments against your opponents as information presents itself. Sometimes you need to play hyper-aggressively, but not because you have to play for the win.

Simple logic reveals the flaw of this “play for the win every hand” strategy:

Let’s say you’re playing in a $1,000 buy-in, 1000-player tournament with a 10,000-chip starting stack. It’s late on day one, and you’re on the river after missing a flush draw.

There’s 30,000 chips in the pot and you have another 30,000 chips behind. You’re pretty sure that your opponent has a made hand of some kind. Whether or not you should shove all-in depends on a lot of factors, but ”I need to play for the win” isn’t one of them.

Consider: There are 10 million chips in play, and thus the final table average will be slightly north of 1,000,000 chips. The blinds will likely be around 20,000/40,000.

The 30,000 pot in front of you is worth less than one big blind at the final table.

You absolutely don’t need to win this pot in order to win the tournament. But if you get called and lose, you definitely aren’t going to win the tournament.

But Sometimes, “Playing for the Win” is the Correct Approach

The “playing for the win” mentality is a lot more viable when the “win” is within reach.

Taking some risks, even big ones, is justifiable in spots like the final two tables of the WSOP Main Event. If you can get that chiplead on the final table bubble, you’re going to be able to pad your stack by stealing blinds and antes from the shorter stacks. If someone justified a big, unsuccessful bluff in such a spot with “I had to play for the win”, I may nod in agreement(depending on the hand).

Similarly, sometimes you need to take a stand against the chipleader to avoid blinding out.

But these situations with big money at stake that always require extreme caution; it’s a fine line between calculated risks and kamikaze moves. The truth is that sometimes it’s your job to get 2nd or 3rd in a tournament (the case of the Australian lady is a good example).

As a tournament player, you need to learn to embrace payjumping as much as you embrace those rare wins. You can’t win them all, and it’s how you handle the big picture that determines how successful you’ll eventually become.

4. You Can’t Defend the Big Blind with Under 10 Blinds

Bad, know-it-all regulars love to give people a tough time over defending from the big blind with a short stack.

You flat their open in the big blind with something like T-9o, hit a pair on the flop, go all-in, and double up. They reluctantly pass you the chips, and say ”well played” in an obviously sarcastic tone. Their judgemental brain just doesn’t understand your pre-flop play.

An alarming amount of people seem to think that you should never flat an open if you have less than a specific amount of big blinds. Many people probably believe this because it was written in ancient poker books published around 1998. Guys, don’t trust poker training material from 1998.

Nowadays, most people use a much smaller open-raise size than people did in 1998. When you’re in the big blind facing a minraise open, you need just ~20% raw equity to continue (most hands have at least 30% against most opening ranges).

You may be thinking: “But I don’t get to realize all of that equity, because I have to fold so many flops.” That’s true. You don’t realize all of that equity, but you will certainly realize enough of it to justify a defend with playable hands. 

Realizing equity when out of position is easier with a short stack because there is little room to maneuver. Consider: the cutoff minraises, you have 6 big blinds in the and defend holding T8. You’re virtually never going to make a mistake post-flop – if you hit something, you’re going all-in. If the flop gives you two undercards and no draw, you check-fold, saving those last few big blinds.

If you have 30 big blinds, however, it’s a bit tougher to realize your equity due to the threat of multi-street pressure from your in position opponent. As your stack gets shorter, it becomes easier to play your hand post-flop and realize equity.

Big blind defense with a short stack is a complex and crucial topic, and you can learn more about it with my article The Ultimate Guide to Big Blind Defense.

5. You Can’t Raise/Fold with Under 12 Blinds

The game is called No Limit Hold’em; you can do pretty much anything.

Many players assume that a 12 blind stack is push/fold territory — and it often times is. It’s a relative disaster when you have to raise/fold with a 12 blind stack; you could’ve just gone all-in yourself to maximize fold equity and guarantee you realize your hand’s equity.

But that doesn’t mean you should never raise/fold with a short stack. And if you think outside the box, you’ll discover opportunities everywhere. A great example would be the endgame of a Turbo online. In those tournaments, everyone has a stack in the 10-15 big blind ballpark towards the end.

Some people play very scared during these late stages. There will be cases where people will continue with the same range regardless if you raise small or go all-in. There is no reason to risk all your chips when you can achieve the same result with a smaller raise.

If you never raise/fold with less than 12 big blinds, make yourself a goal: try to find one spot to do it next session. Don’t push it, just try to find one opportunity to do it. Trust me, they’re there.

I also think that people overdo the open-shove game nowadays as a result of playing with simulators like HoldemResources Calculator and ICMizer, which show how wide you can unexploitably shove (usually, this is wider than you’d think). When it’s mathematically proven that you can just click all-in and make a profit without giving it much thought, many players are tempted to do exactly that…

…but it’s not necessarily the best option. In many cases it’s optimal to raise/fold with hands that would profit as a shove, as well as hands that wouldn’t. It all depends on your opponents and the specifics of the tournament.

I’d also recommend you to make notes on players capable of raise/folding with a shallow stack; in fact, this is one of my favorite notes to make. When I see someone raise/fold the button with 12 big blinds, I immediately write that down. Because next time I’ll know that they are likely full of shit and I can 3-bet shove extremely wide on them.

Some players only ever raise small with a monster when they’re shallow, and this is an important note to make as well. There’s are many dumb regs who only ever minraise with K-K or A-A with 10 big blinds and shove or fold everything else. Having a note like that is extremely valuable, not only because it allows us to avoid running into their obvious trap in the future, but also because it means that their actual shoving ranges don’t contain the best possible hands.

I’m sure there are a bunch of misconceptions I failed to cover here. Feel free to share your favorite tournament myths in the comments section below, or on Twitter @chuckbasspoker.

(Note: Learn the methods behind world class poker players’ successes. Check out The Poker Lab training course by clicking here or below.)

 Read more from Miikka and Upswing Poker:

Miikka Anttonen is poker professional from Finland with $2.4 million in career earnings and a world championship title under his belt. His autobiography is Once A Gambler. Find out more at http://www.onceagambler.com/

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