By Andrew Brokos | Originally published in Two Plus Two Magazine

There is nothing in poker quite so exciting as making the final table of a large-field multi-table tournament (MTT). Suddenly, you are playing for huge sums of money. A strong performance could be a huge boon to your bankroll. It could even change your life! You are about to experience the thrill of high-stakes poker despite having put up relatively little money for your buy-in.

There’s only one problem: you don’t know how to play high-stakes poker. A final table is exciting precisely because it is a rare experience. Unfortunately, if you play MTT’s exclusively, you probably have little experience playing short-handed, let alone heads up. You may not know what Independent Chip Modeling (ICM) is or how to apply it (don’t worry- we’ll get to that).

This article is not about improving a specific skill such as bluffing, value betting, or restealing. Rather, it is about ways to get more practice and otherwise improve your results during the most critical phase of any MTT. Because the vast majority of the prize money in an MTT is concentrated at the final table, your decisions during this stage of the tournament will influence your bottom line far more will than any other decisions you make. Read on to learn how to improve your decision-making skills at the final table!

The Cost of a Mistake

In a hypothetical $50 buy-in MTT, players receive 5000 chips to start, and blinds start at 25/50. Determining the real money value of a tournament chip is an imperfect science, but for a rough approximation, we can divide the total prize pool by the total number of chips in play. Before any money has been paid out, this is equivalent to dividing the buy-in by the starting chips, meaning that right now each chip is worth about $.01.

A small mistake at this stage of the tournament is not such a disaster. Imagine that you fold to a pre-flop all-in from a short-stacked player. Later, you ask a more knowledgeable friend of yours about the fold. You and he make some assumptions about the short stack’s range, run some numbers, and determine that you had an edge of about two and half BB’s and ought to have called. In this case, you cost yourself 125 chips, or about $1.25. You can live with that.

A mistake of similar magnitude, relative to the blinds, later in the tournament is far costlier. If no prize money has yet been paid out but the blinds are now 1000/2000, then a 2.5 BB mistake costs you 5000 chips, or about $50.

As you can see, some mistakes in tournaments are a lot costlier than others. Most serious MTT players make little effort to hone their practice on specific aspects of their game, though. The more common process is simply to put in a lot of volume, play hundreds of tournaments, maybe read some books and watch some videos, and slowly but surely improve their play across the board.

I believe it is possible to improve your expected value and your theoretical Return on Investment (ROI) far more quickly by identifying the most important/expensive mistakes you are likely to make and focusing on improving your decision-making ability in these situations first. That means you ought to be far more concerned about playing better in the late stages of a tournament, especially the final table, than you are about the early stages.

The obvious counter-argument to this is that you have the opportunity to make early-stage mistakes far more often. After all, you’ll play the early levels of every tournament you enter, but only rarely will you make a final table.

The flip side of that is that you’ll naturally get a lot more practice playing the early stages. Simply putting in a lot of volume should result in improvements in your early stage play. You will make only so many final tables in your career, though, and you can’t afford to screw them up. Showing up unprepared to your first few final tables is itself a very costly mistake.

Below are several ways in which I believe you can ensure better decision-making when it matters most.

Play Fewer Tables

Suppose that you are able to earn $20/hour playing four $50 online MTT’s at once. Learning to play eight tables at once without sacrificing any of your concentration or decision-making ability would be an easy way to double your hourly rate.

That you will be able to maintain your concentration while playing twice as many tables is a big assumption, however. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that your edge in any given tournament is reduced by 25% as a result of playing more tables, so that you end up with a $30/hour winrate, which is still a healthy increase from $20.

That’s if you’re able to find four more $50 MTT’s to play. Unfortunately, tournament schedules aren’t so predictable. Many MTT professionals end up adding much smaller buy-in tournaments in order to get up to a certain number of tables going at once, though perversely this can actually lower your hourly rate.

Suppose that instead of adding four $50 MTT’s to your session, you add four $10 MTT’s with the same 25% reduction to your edge in each tournament. Your hourly rate would actually go down to about $19/hour as a result of this addition! The lesson here is that mulit-tabling produces diminishing returns, particularly when you allow small buy-in tournaments to distract you from playing your best in larger buy-in events.

When you are getting deep and approaching the final table in one or more MTT’s, it is especially important not to let smaller tournaments distract you. Realize that when only 20% of the field remains in a $50 buy-in MTT, it is functionally a $250 tournament. That is, the magnitude of your edge, or of your mistakes, is multiplied five-fold.

The deeper you get in an MTT, the less inclined you should be to start new tables. At some point it may even be correct to sit out of other tournaments or at least to make a conscious effort to focus your attention on the final table you have made. Making a mistake at the final table of a $50 MTT because you were focused on a decision in the first level of a $20 MTT would be a disaster.

Playing fewer tables is also likely to help you improve more quickly. Massive multi-tabling may be good for your short-term hourly rate, but it also encourages robotic play and impedes the creative thinking that helps you to get better at poker. If you have aspirations of continuing to play well into the future and of moving up in stakes, playing too many tables could actually cost you money in the long-term.

Master Sit-and-Go’s

I was exclusively a sit-and-go (SNG) player for over a year before I started playing MTT’s seriously. This experience helped me tremendously. A SNG tournament essentially lets you skip past the early stages of an MTT straight to the final table. Of course it’s not exactly the same: the prizes aren’t so disproportionate to the buy-in, and the payouts don’t jump with every player eliminated. But SNG’s give you plenty of opportunity to play short-handed tournament poker.

There’s a reason why I say to “master” SNG’s rather than just “practice” them. Winning SNG’s is primarily about understanding “bubble” situations, the stage of a tournament where there is a significant prize jump, often between nothing and something. Successful SNG players understand that bubble situations maximize what David Sklansky calls the Gap Concept, the idea that it takes a better hand to call than to raise.

Because SNG’s tend to have a fast, shallow structure, playing the bubble is primarily about knowing how good of a hand you need to move all-in in any given situation. You can maximize your profit from blind-stealing by recognizing spots where your opponents will have to fold even quite strong hands to your all-in bet rather than risk elimination on the bubble.

Studying situations like this will teach you a concept called Independent Chip Modeling, which is a way of determining the real money value of tournament chips given the payout structure of a tournament and the current distribution of chips. Early in an MTT, ICM has very little effect on proper strategy and you should essentially play to win as many tournament chips as you can.

At the final table, however, ICM is virtually all that matters. There are plenty of situations where a play that will clearly cost you tournament chips is nonetheless correct because surviving in the tournament is worth far more than winning more chips. Understanding when you should pass up a seemingly good opportunity rather than risk your tournament life, and when you can put your opponents to similarly tough decisions, is a crucial final table skill. It is not at all intuitive, and there is no better way to learn it than by studying SNG’s.

If this all sounds wildly complicated and intimidating, don’t worry. The 2+2 Single Table Tournament forum is the best resource in the world for mastering SNG’s and ICM, and it is completely free. Spend some time studying that forum, reading and posting hands, and playing SNG’s. Once you are profitable at the $50 buy-in level, you will likely have a very strong understanding of important tournament concepts that you can apply to great profit at the final table of your MTT’s.

Practice Playing Heads Up

In almost any MTT, the single biggest payout jump is from second to first place. That means that your performance when you get down to the final two players in an MTT has a huge impact on your bottom line. As with final table play generally, though, you’ll have little opportunity to practice your heads up play if you are exclusively an MTT player.

This is particularly problematic because heads up play differs drastically from the rest of MTT play. The value of survival generally rewards somewhat conservative play in MTT’s. There are plenty of opportunities for small bluffs, but it’s rare to see multiples bets go into the pot without both players having some kind of hand. In other words, big confrontations tend to arise only when two or more players each have something.

Good MTT players know how to get away when their something is a little worse and how to win the most when their something is a little better. They also know how to steal pots cheaply when their opponents have nothing.

In heads up play, just the opposite is true. With only two players remaining, there is no longer much value attached to survival. Plus, both players have far more incentive to try to steal pots. The result is that big confrontations often occur with both players holding little or nothing. Running and catching big bluffs and thin value betting are all skills privileged by heads up play that come up far less often during other stages of an MTT. Consequently, even otherwise good MTT players often lack these important heads up skills.

There are two very good ways of practicing heads up play: heads up sit-and-go’s and heads up cash games. This isn’t a question of either/or. Each emphasizes its own set of skills and ought to be practiced for those skills.

Heads up SNG’s often start out with stacks of less than 100 BB’s and quickly get more shallow as blinds increase. This provides opportunities to practice pre-flop shoving and calling ranges, stealing and re-stealing, and when and how to get all-in on the flop. There are fewer opportunities to practice deep-stacked pre-flop and flop play or to practice turn and river play at all.

Heads up cash games are the best way to practice deep-stacked play, assuming that both you and your opponent are willing to buy in deep. Playing with effective stacks of 60 BB’s or fewer is probably not worth your time, as you can get the same experience playing SNG’s.

Depending on the kind of MTT’s you play, deep-stacked experience may not be as valuable to you. Only in well-structured MTT’s will you ever find yourself with deep stacks when it gets down to two players. Should you be so fortunate as to make it to the end of an MTT with a deep stack, however, you’ll have a huge advantage on your opponent if you are comfortable in sticky heads up situations.

The Cost of Practicing

Practicing the above games is not without its costs. For one thing, you may not be a winning player in an unfamiliar format, at least not at first. If you were already good at these games, you wouldn’t be practicing them, after all. For another, time spent playing something other than your usual game incurs the opportunity cost of not making however much your hourly rate is when playing MTT’s.

You can mitigate the costs by playing smaller stakes in these other games. You can learn ICM just as easily studying $5 SNG’s as you can studying $50 SNG’s. Ditto for cash games. Just because you usually play $100 MTT’s doesn’t mean you should start off your heads up cash game career playing $.50/$1 with a $100 buy-in. Start small, and as you acquire the skill to move up to stakes comparable to those you usually play in MTT’s, you’ll know that you’re achieving your learning goals.

I would also argue that you should look at these costs as investments in the future profitability of your MTT game. Assuming you intend to continue playing MTT’s regularly and perhaps even move up in stakes, mastering the skills that you can learn from these other games will more than pay for the short-term expense by improving your long-term hourly rate. Remember, avoiding a few final table mistakes you otherwise would have made can easily double or triple your winnings, so it’s well worth investing in these skills.

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