Why are tournaments so profitable for a smart poker player? It’s because you are always getting a giant overlay. In a 180-man Stars tourney, for instance, you are competing against no more than 100 opponents, and quite often less. In other words, there are at most 100 other players trying to win the tournament. The rest are just trying to cash, and might as well be playing a different game altogether. These players are not competing with you for the top prizes.
In the early stages, they are playing to accumulate, just like you are. Their strategy is not intrinsically wrong, though their play may be.
In the money, most of them are happy to be there and will gamble up, and are too short to do anything else anyway. Again, their strategy is not intrinsically wrong here.
On the bubble, however, they are folding much too often and leaving a ton of money on the table. You need to put yourself in a position to scoop up as much of it as possible, as this is far and away the best opportunity you will have to accumulate chips. Here are some tips on how to do that:
1. Raise. Even if you know this already, you probably aren’t doing it enough. Never open limp. Not under the gun, not on the button, not ever. The odds are just too good that you will win it without a showdown.
2. Fold. Just because A9 is ahead of your range when you push over a late position raise doesn’t mean you should call. There are a lot of players on the bubble who know you are stealing but are too afraid to push back, and there are a lot more who think the correct strategy is to wait for big hands and then ‘punish’ your raise. If it starts happening all the time, then you can loosen your calling range (and in fact find yourself in some very +EV spots of a different sort), but the first time someone comes over the top, they’ve probably got a hand. You can steal back the chips you are folding away in a single orbit, whereas one or two thin calls could cripple your stealing ability. There is so much easy money to be had without going to showdown on the bubble that you shouldn’t be eager to get there.
3. Target the Weak. The decision to open raise is determined by three factors, in order of importance: who is in the blind, your position, and your cards. You should start identifying likely play-to-cashers before the bubble even begins, and continue paying attention to who is not defending blinds and who seems to be making big laydowns.
4. Size Up the Competition. The play-to-cashers are not the competition. At this point, they are just giving away free money, and all you have to do is take it. But you still have to play poker with the other play-to-winners, who are also trying to scoop up all that dead money. These players will be a lot more willing to re-steal, steal raise, etc., and you need to adapt accordingly.
5. Look at the Chat Box. The dialogue in the chat box gives you a lot of clues about who is playing to cash and about evolving table dynamics. I’ve seen players say things like “I would have called if it weren’t the bubble”, “I’m folding JJ here”, and “Yes! Yes! Yes!” every time they win a pot. It’s like they want me to run them over.
Players will also comment on how often you’ve been raising, or threaten to call “next time.” Pay attention to these clues, as they can help you to make tough decisions when facing a re-steal.
6. Spread It Around. Most players take it personally when you raise their blinds. If you abuse the same player often enough, he will feel like he has to stand up to you, and you will have baited him into playing correctly. Conversely, many play-to-cashers will recognize that you are stealing but not particularly care as long as they don’t feel singled out. So if you raised weak-tighty #1’s blind the last two orbits, go after the player on his right this time.
7. Protect Your Blinds. If you call or re-raise out of your blind a few times, most aggressive players will back off, as there is usually much easier money to be found. Play-to-cashers will occasionally make weak attempts to steal as well, usually min-raising or open limping from late position. They will often back off of even reasonably strong hands when seemingly pot committed when faced with the prospect of bubbling out.
8. Protect Their Blinds. A good, aggressive bubble player on your right can really cramp your style, as he will always be steal-raising ahead of you. But don’t look at this as a thorn in the side, look at it as an opportunity: he is putting a lot of money into the pot that he can’t defend. His only options are to keep raising and donating to you, or to stop raising and let you get back to picking on the weak players’ blinds; it’s a win-win for you. If the play-to-cashers won’t defend their blinds, you should do it for them.
9. Make the Last Bet. Just because a player decides to see a flop with you does not mean he has a big hand. With so many players stealing, re-stealing, and defending, there are a lot people seeing flops without especially strong hands. More often than not, they are hoping to get a cheap showdown or bully you off of your marginal holding. If you play your draws aggressively, you’ll find that most players are no more willing to go to the felt after the flop than they were before. You just need to structure the betting in such a way that you are the one pushing all-in, because it is a hell of a lot harder to call a push with a marginal hand than it is to push with a marginal hand.
10. Come Stacked. Although the bubble is a profitable time even when you are short-stacked, a 3x raise from the table chipleader has a lot more fold equity than an 8x all-in from a short stack. Ninety percent of the time I choose accumulation over survival, but most tournaments have such juicy bubbles that it can be correct to structure your pre-bubble strategy around getting to the bubble with a stack that will allow you to steal. This may mean taking gambles when you’re short in hopes of doubling up to a healthy stack, or it may mean passing on thin gambles when losing the pot would leave you unable to steal on the bubble.