I will try to explain why I seem to play like such a maniac. In fact most of what I do is carefully considered and has strong reasons for every play. Most of what I plan to detail isn’t original by any stretch. My bookshelf has over 20 poker books on it and they have all had at least some impact on my game. Three of these books have had the most influence on my tournament play, they are 1) Harrington on Hold’em (HOH) Volume II: The Endgame by Dan Harrington 2) Making the Final Table No Limit Texas Hold’em Winning Strategies for Surviving and Thriving by Erick “eDog” Lindgren 3) Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book Lessons and Teachings in No Limit Texas Hold’em by Phil Gordon.
Based on my observations and the sources above I think pre-flop play is most influenced by:
- Position and who is in the pot already.
- Stack size, yours and your opponents.
- The current stage the tournament is in.
- Your hole cards.
Of this list “your hole cards” are frequently the least important. Yes, that's right, in certain tournament situations my cards are the factor given least consideration.
One of the most important things is “position and who is in the pot already”. Late position is better than early position. This doesn’t mean I raise with any two cards when I’m in late position. If there are limpers, raising with junk will likely cost you chips. I don't give up on hands that many would consider junk, just because there are a number of limpers. Now this is starting to sound like I’m contradicting myself, but let me clarify. Many of you that have played and studied limit hold’em consider many playable no-limit hands to be junk. A case in point small unsuited connectors or small gappers. These hands work well if you can get in cheap in no-limit due to the implied odds. When the blinds are small compared to your stack size (like early in the tournament or when you have built a big stack), this junk (small connectors) start to look like potential gold. Some hands like to play multi-way pots and others play better heads up. Small connectors from late position with lots of limpers can win lots of chips while seldom losing many at all. If I can limp from the button (or call a small SB raise from the BB) with something like 67, I have a sneaky hand for cheap in a big pot. When I flop a straight I get paid like Trump. You do need to have confidence in your post-flop play if you plan to use this strategy.
Now if you are in late position and no one has entered the pot yet, the time might be right to raise with most any two cards. I generally don’t like big gapped cards, I want some potential to flop a good hand if I get called.
Position is important when you are short stacked, and your pre-flop decision is to either fold or push all-in. You want the first in vig, which means that you have a greater chance of taking the pot unopposed if no one has put chips in voluntarily. If one or two players have limped or raised, the chance of picking up the pot without a fight drops greatly. I will sometimes fold a fairly good hand (AT, KQ, JT…) when short stacked if someone is already in the pot, and especially if it has been raised. I may push all-in with a much weaker hand when no one has put chips in yet.
Let’s move on to stack size considerations. In No-Limit Hold’em the size of your opponents and your stack has a great deal of influence on how a hand should be played. How aggressive I play is greatly influenced by what is known as your “M”. I learned about “M” and “Q” from Dan Harrington’s HOH Volume II. “M” is a concept that has been around for sometime, Paul Magriel is credited with calling it “M” (HOH II pg 127). “M” is the ratio of your stack to the current total of blinds and antes. Thus M 37.5 = Stack / (SB + BB + (ante * seats at table)). Example T15,000 stack / (T50 SB + T100 BB + (T25 ante * 10 handed)).
Dan goes on to detail out multiple zones based on your “M”. The green zone is 20>, here you are in good shape and can play what ever style you wish. Yellow zone 10-20, now you need to start getting more aggressive and collecting some chips. Orange zone 5-10, this is a dangerous place to be. You really need to start collecting chips or head for home. Red zone 1-5 you now only have two moves push or fold at this point your cards don’t matter much as you are already as good as out. You have to get lucky now. The dead zone is < 1, you are done already and just haven’t left the table yet. J
I watch for the orange zone mostly, somewhere between 10 and 5 I start pushing or folding all but my best hands.
Many people tighten up their play close to the bubble. I tend to make the opposite move close to the bubble and try to steal more. In the past I had a very high rate of squeaking into the money but seldom winning. After reading Erick “eDog” Lindgren’s book I’m more inclined to play to win. This results in me just squeaking into the money less, but when I get close I have a shot at the whole show not just a taste. One thing that happens late in most tournaments is everyone is short stacked according to their “M”. Many times they don’t know they are short stacked though. If you have a huge stack you have to try to swat some flies. What I mean by swatting flies is that you want to put people with less than 10% of your stack all-in with almost any two cards. Just keep track of your stack size and slow down when you start to drop after not busting a few of these.