Tournaments: Life in the Slow Lane

By: Jason Lake
You never forget your first one. In this case, I'm talking about my first poker coach. He did an outstanding job of laying out a mindset for poker: how to think about the game in clear terms, what kind of expectations to have, and how to best prepare yourself mentally and physically for the challenge of playing good poker. Just a great communicator overall.

But there was at least one thing that he may have been wrong about. When it came to tournaments, he emphasized the need to go hard for the big money that's awarded for a podium finish – anywhere in the Top 3. It made sense to me at the time. It definitely helped me break out of making fear-based decisions at the table. I'm pretty sure now that it's incorrect.

Keep Yourself Alive

That's because Mike Caro told me so. Caro is one of poker's first and deepest thinkers, at least when it comes to public figures, and he sees things a little differently. In Caro's view, tournament poker is about survival. Because so much of that glorious prize money is at the top of the leaderboard, the further you go in a tournament, a chip saved is worth increasingly more than a chip earned.

The math backs him up – but I won't get into that here, it'll take a bit too long. Suffice to say that Caro knows what he's talking about when it comes to tournament poker, or pretty much any kind of poker. My first coach was a cash-game specialist, as I recall. In cash games, if you have a small edge over your opponent (and you're sufficiently bankrolled), you go for it. Early in tournaments, when everyone's deep-stacked, you can be somewhat aggressive, too. Otherwise, pump the brakes.
Warning: May Contain Nuts

Here's a common spot in no-limit Hold'em: You're in the small blind with A5-suited, and the button opens for around 2.5BB. In a cash game, the math says you should raise if you're playing so-called “game theory optimal” (GTO) poker. Makes sense. You'll probably get a fold, but if you don't, your hand plays well post-flop. You might end up with a nut flush, and you've already started building a nice big pot if you do get there.

In a tournament, that may very well be a good spot to call if the stacks are deep enough, or even a fold in some later-game situations. Getting the button to fold to your 7BB raise would be nice, but it would only earn you 2.5BB, plus the blinds and antes. That might not be worth the risk. But if you chip in another 2.5BB to call, even if it's out of position in the small blind, you can still go for that nut flush, or you can just fold if the flop doesn't come out the way you want. Small risk, big reward. That's tournament poker.

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