Stealing the Blinds by Allen Cunningham
The middle stages of a poker tournament can be a tortuous and tedious experience for even the most seasoned pro. The long trek toward the money, combined with a variety of potentially tricky scenarios you may face along the way, make it difficult to come up with one sure-fire strategy to help you through. That said, one aspect of mid-tourney play that’s extremely important is picking up pots pre-flop.
If you’ve been card dead in the first few levels you may only have as many chips as what you started with, or you may have been lucky enough to double or triple up early on. You may be minutes or hours away from making the money, depending on the number of entrants, and the average chip stack may be 20, 30 or even 40BB, based on the structure.
No matter what the situation is, however, it’s important to remember that once the blinds start to represent a decent percentage of your stack, you want to steal as much as possible. Raising the blinds a fair amount also balances your play and gets your big hands paid off more often. You’ll lose a few of your raises with speculative hands when people come over the top of you or call, but you’ll win a few as well, and raising will convince people to play back at you on those times when you happen to have big hands.
Bear in mind it’s still important to pick your spots. Continue to play tight from early position – stick to big pairs and AK – but from late position, start to attack the blinds with a variety of playable hands. At this stage of the tournament, if you’re going to play a hand, you should be coming into the pot with a raise every single time.
From the cutoff or hijack, for example, I’m going to open with hands like 9Ts, any Ax suited, all pairs, two picture cards, and even looser hands than that from the button. If I’m in late position and facing a raise, I’m either going to want to smooth-call with a really good hand or re-raise bluff them to pick up the pot pre-flop.
If somebody makes a pre-flop raise that’s more than 10% of my stack and I have a hand I want to play, I’ll consider moving all-in over the top of them. Any smaller re-raise commits me to the hand and flat-calling gives me no idea of where I’m at. If I smooth-call, my opponent is likely to bet first after the flop and without top pair or an over-pair, I’m going to be forced to either fold the best hand or, possibly, move all-in with the worst hand.
For example, let’s say somebody opens in mid-to-late position for 300 and you’re on the button with T-T and 2,000 in chips. In this situation, I would assume the raiser is opening with any two picture cards, any pair or suited Aces, so a hand like T-T is definitely strong enough to play against their range.
I think the best play here is to move all-in. This will put some pressure on your opponent if they don’t have a very good hand and they’ll be likely to fold. This move also helps you avoid the trouble you might face if you just smooth-call the raise and over-cards come on the flop. If you’re holding T-T and the flop comes Jack or King high, you really have no idea what your opponent has if they lead out, which means you will probably have to fold.
I’d recommend moving all-in with 8-8 or 9-9 in this situation too because you’ll get more action pre-flop and maximize the value from your coin flips. If someone raises pre-flop with A-Q and you elect to just call with a mid-pocket pair, they’re likely to miss the flop and check-fold. However, if you go all-in over the top and they call, you have a good chance to take their whole stack and set yourself up for the rest of the tournament.
By moving all-in with hands like A-K, A-Q, 9-9 and T-T in these situations, you’re giving yourself more opportunities to win pots by either getting your opponents to lay down marginal hands, or to make calls that put them in coin-flip situations. By mixing up your game a little and making these moves with monsters every once in awhile, you can also get your opponents to make some calls where they’re huge dogs.
Remember, the first goal of tournament poker is to make it into the money. By aggressively attacking blinds and antes when you think you’re likely to be a favorite in the hand, you can build a stack that will help carry you through the tough patches you may face in the middle stages, and put you in position to play for the win once the bubble bursts.