The Traffic Light of Tournament Selection

Many books have been written recently on tournament strategy. There’s now a wealth of information on what to do with A-6 offsuit on the button, how to vary your play based on how deep stacked you are, and so on. However, there’s very little written about selecting which tournaments to play in the first place.

Most players select a tournament by what time of day it is, what site it’s on and, of course, the buy in. I believe there’s a more fundamental way of finding the right tournament for you. It’s based on the blind structure of a tournament. Broadly, how many chips you start with, how quickly the blinds go up, and how much the blinds jump when they do go up, are the major controlling factors in how you should approach a tournament.

During the World Series for example, many casinos other than the Rio hold mini-series of their own. The $300 buy-in at the Venetian gave you 6000 chips to play with, whereas the Wynn’s $300 tournament gave you only 5000 chips. This was enough to convince most people I overheard that the Venetian tournament was better value. Not so. I observed how the average stack was doing after only a couple of hours, and because the blinds had gone up more quickly there, the Venetian tournament was little more than a crapshoot. At the same point in the Wynn tournament, there was still some play left.

So what should you be looking for in tournament selection? In his excellent trilogy of books, Dan Harrington popularised the idea of “M” to guide a player’s strategy in a tournament. Your M is simply your number of chips divided by the total amount for the blinds and antes at that moment in time. In other words, it is a broad measure of how many rounds of betting a player can last before they are blinded out.

Thus, if a player has 12,000 chips and the blinds are 100 and 200, they would have an M of 40. Or if a player has 60,000 in chips and the blinds are 2000 and 4000, with antes of 500, at an eight-player table they would have an M of 6.

Harrington categorised the values of M as follows. If a player’s M is above 20, they are in the Green Zone. Here, pretty much all moves are available – bluffs, calls for value, re-raises on spec, and so on. In short, they can play their normal game. If a player’s M is between 10 and 20, they are in the Yellow Zone. Now, a few moves are less profitable. Calling a raise with a low to mid pair in order to hit a set does not have sufficient implied odds in this zone. For the same reason, suited connectors go down in value here. If a player’s M is between 5 and 10, they are in the Orange Zone. This zone is characterised by putting value on pairs and high cards and playing them aggressively. The blinds are big enough to make stealing them an essential part of a player’s route to success. Last of all is the Red Zone. With an M of 5 or less, a player only has one move available to them: all in. Depending on their position, they will probably have to move with any ace, any pair and most of the unpaired high card hands. The idea here is to double up and get back out of the Red Zone!

The tournaments available online come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they tend to have certain characteristics. Virtually all tournaments start with everyone in the Green Zone. During the middle period, the time around where the field has roughly halved in size, average stack size will likely be in the lower part of the Yellow, or upper part of the Orange zone, with an M of between 8-13. When it is nearly down to the money positions, all but the largest buy-in tournaments will see more than half of the remaining players with an M of no more than 7.

So in order to be an accomplished tournament player, one must become proficient at play in all the zones. However, not only do players excel in different periods of the tournament, certain styles of play suit different zones. The variation that exists out there means that tournaments offer greater or lesser periods in each zone depending on their blind structure. The trick therefore is to find the tournament structure that – within your budget – suits your style of play.

You can therefore broadly categorise the tournaments that exist both online and in casinos by which of Harrington’s zones the average stack is in for the longest period, as follows:

  1. those with a long period in the Green zone;
  2. those with a long period in the upper Orange and lower Yellow zone (with an average M of between 8-13); and
  3. those with a long period in the lower Orange or Red zone (with an average M of 7 or lower).

In offline tournaments this is tougher to gauge, but many casinos nowadays have computerised boards showing the average stack and the size of the blinds, making the calculation simple. Online, you can trawl this data to your heart’s content. For ease of labelling, let’s call these three categories Green, Amber and Red tournaments. A number of observations can be made about these three tournament types.

First let’s look at where each tournament type is likely to be found. The most expensive tournaments – often the flagship ones such as the weekly special, the casino’s yearly main event, or the site’s regular online championship – will be the Green ones. Not only does one start with a larger amount of chips, but the blinds go up very slowly – 20 mins or more online, 60 mins or more offline. Red tournaments are invariably the cheapest ones, such as the freerolls or ones with a buy-in of under $15. However, any turbo tournament also fits in this category. Amber tournaments cover the multitude of tournaments in between. Note that even some flagship or “world online series” tournaments on the larger sites such as Poker Stars or Full Tilt will have so many entrants (running into the thousands) that the larger part of your time will be spent in the Amber Zone.

Green tournaments are a slow burn. When you have a lot of blinds to play with, patience is called for. No all-ins from 3-3 being called by K-9 suited here. Although this might appear to favour tight players, the opposite may well be true. For example, calling a raise in position can be very threatening to the original raiser. They may only have raised for 2-3% of their stack, meaning the other 97% of it is under threat on the flop. It’s paramount in these situations – whether you’re an aggressive player or not – to be well versed in the art of assessing implied odds. It’s not enough to ask whether you’re getting the odds to hit your set or straight, you have to consider whether the raiser (or other caller) is the kind of player to pay you off if you hit. Likewise other implied odds questions. Can this player convince themselves to let go of their aces? Is this the kind of opponent who will slow down, allowing you to draw cheaply? An expert Green tournament player will be a great reader of these things.

Remember also that there’s wisdom in playing the opposite to rest of the table. This might mean loosening up if everyone is being tight – though bear in mind how important position is. Of course, if you’re on a table of maniacs, tighten up and wait for that monster so you can double up. Aggressive players argue that their hourly rate in tournaments is much better. At the early stages, they either double up or get knocked out. If they come up against a big hand and bomb out early, at least they didn’t do so on the bubble three hours later.

Red tournaments are characterised by courage, aggression and picking your spots to attack. Many players these days know when to move and with what. As a result, the latter stages of Red tournaments can often be about the cards you (and your opponent!) get. Yet once again, just because everyone is being loose and aggressive, it does not follow that being so is the best strategy. Contrary to much advice about the Red zone, I advocate waiting slightly longer to make your move. Agreed, when you are bringing it in from the button or the cut off seat, if you have an M or 7 or less, going all in with virtually any hand is a positive equity move – even if you assume that your opponents will call with their top 25% of hands. However, this still does not mean that you should always do it. Yes, you will have to take risks, but controlled aggression when everyone else is losing their head can be a great route to the final table.

The savvy player will know when to keep cool, which folds are actually the correct ones mathematically and, most importantly, who are the best candidates to steal from. One last point. Even in the red zone, minimum raises have their place: if you spot an opponent who will fold to it. There are some players who will convince themselves that this means you have Aces. Indeed, it’s not a bad way to play Aces, since you will be happy to shove the rest of your chips in on the flop regardless. You can mix up these minimum raises with your worst hands like 3-2 suited and 7-3 offsuit – hands that you feel you can fold if you are re-raised all in.

It is the Amber tournaments that create the most problems. After all, most good players have a good idea of Green zone play, and as mentioned, the literature is pretty extensive on what to do in the Red Zone. You see some pretty horrendous moves in the Amber zone, and it is worth discussing in a bit more detail what is going on here and how one should play.

Amber tournaments are characterised by patience, selective aggression, knowing your opponents, and using your whole stack. Patience is important because although you are beginning to run out of opportunities, you are most definitely not dead yet. Remember, you can climb your way out of trouble even from the Red zone. In the Amber zone you’ve still got some moves left before you even have to contemplate that, so don’t panic. Many players continuation bet all-in – hugely overbetting the pot – when their A-K misses the flop, only to get called by a player who read them for exactly that. Ask yourself how you would play an overpair in that situation, and play it accordingly.

You will certainly need to be aggressive in the Amber zone. When you get a decent hand, you will have to commit yourself more strongly to it, only being convinced of an opponent’s strength in the face of significant evidence. Thus, when you’re about to go on the attack, make sure you know who you are picking a fight with. Is it someone who has too many chips to care? Or too few? Study your opponents even when you’re not in a hand to see how easily they persuade themselves that they need to fold. It’s these opponents you need to pick to start semi-bluffing your K-T suited or continuation betting your 8-8 with an ace on the board.

The one advantage you have in the Amber zone is that you can use, or even threaten to use your whole stack to good effect. Implied odds problems are much simpler in the Amber zone. Let’s say you have an M of 9 and the blinds are 100-200 (stack size: 2700). You raise from the cut off to 500 with Q-J suited and get a call from the Big Blind with 7-6 suited. The flop comes 3-7-K with one of your suit. The big blind checks to you. With 1100 in the pot, you can afford to venture a half-pot size bet of say, 600 to see if you can take it down. In the Green zone, your opponent would be very likely to call this bet given that there would be a lot of money left to play with on the turn and river. However, if he calls here, he knows you’ll only have 1600 left and the pot will be 2300 on the turn. You are much more likely to put the rest in on the turn, something your opponent will be uncomfortable with, not knowing where he stands. In other words, your opponent is committing for your whole stack amount, or folding here. It is the threat of your whole stack going in which scares them.

Possibly the most effective move in this zone puts that threat into action: going all in over the top of an opponent’s raise pre-flop. The proviso is that your opponent should have a stack at least as big as yours, but not so big that to call your raise would put no dent in their stack. Also, it’s much more effective when both you and the raiser are in late position. First, this means that their raise is more likely to be a sub-par hand (e.g. they are trying to steal from the blinds). Second, it means there are fewer people yet to act who might be harbouring monsters.

Under these conditions, this move can be a big earner. In the Amber zone players will be making pre-flop raises with all sorts of speculative hands. Their motivation for doing so is that they can hit the flop or continuation bet if they feel like it. Re-raise them all in and you’ve taken that aspect of their move away. Now, all they have is the brute data for how good their hand is in a heads up race . . . and you came over the top, so you must have a monster, right? You should wait for a decent hand to do this with, and pick a loose but weak player to do it against. I’m not a fan of going over the top with 7-2 and then showing your bluff. There is a significant chance you’ll get called, and in this situation you want to have a hand that can win a race. Something like 5-5 or J-T suited will often have a decent chance if it gets a caller.

So the big picture is this: implied odds for Green tournaments, using your whole stack and knowing your opponent for Amber tournaments, and courage and aggression for Red tournaments. As for determining which tournaments are which in the first place, look at: the starting number of chips, the speed at which the blinds go up, whether there are antes later on, and how the blinds increment. Choose well and good luck!