So you have just bought in to an MTT and you are in the first couple of blind levels. How should you play? Should you play loose or tight? Aggressive or passive? Should you limp? What hands should you call with?
These are all valid questions and in the following article I will aim to talk about the general principals and concepts you need to understand about playing in the early stages of an MTT poker tournament.
Survival & Maintaining Your Stack
Tournaments cannot be won in the first few blind levels. Building a big stack in the early levels is helpful, but maintaining a stack and getting in to the middle or late game should be your upmost priority. For this reason, I recommend that you start out playing fairly tight in the early stages of a tournament. You should only risk your stack when you are sure you have a positive expectation against your opponent.
Preflop Hand Selection
From early position I recommend that you only raise strong hands. AQ+ and 88+. There is no incentive to win the blinds, so you only want to be committing money from early position when you have a strong range of hands.
From middle position and late position I start to raise more hands. I will raise hands like suited connectors, suited aces, small pairs, suited broadway and good broadway hands.
If players have limped ahead of me I will overlimp with implied odds hands such as small pairs, suited connectors and suited aces. My intention is to see a pot for cheap and flop a big hand. Once I flop a big hand or big draw, I will play my hand aggressively and try to win a big pot from a weaker player who cannot fold one pair.
If someone has raised from early or mid position and I am in late position, I will call with some hands and fold others. If the pot is multiway (IE – someone has raised and another player has called), I will overcall with all implied odds hands (Pairs, suited connectors, suited broadway, suited aces).
If it is raised before me and I am the first caller, I will mostly call with hands that do well against my opponents range. For the most part this is mid pairs and good broadway hands. If I think my opponent is weak and will play poorly postflop, I will increase my flatting range because i think i have a large postflop edge.
The most common players I will 3-bet against are weak players. I will 3-bet just strong hands only and I will make money because these weak players are not good enough to fold pre flop. A good range would be AQ+ JJ+. If I get 4-bet, I will usually fold the weaker part of this range and get allin with the good part of this range. This obviously depends on the player. If someone is playing awful and spewing, I can quite profitably 3-bet call JJ.
Against good players, I will 3-bet a more polarized range. I will 3-bet hands like AKs, KK+ from most positions in an attempt to cooler my opponent. From later positions, I will widen this range to JJ+ AK+. I will also mix in bluff hands against opponents I think will fold to my 3-bets a lot. My typical 3-bet bluff range contains hands like suited connectors and suited gapers. Against most weak regulars in small stakes tournaments, there is no need to balance your range, this is simply because they will be too weak to realise how unbalanced you are. Only against good players do you need balance.
Always remember though that survival and stack maintenance is the most important thing in the early stages of a tournament, so try not to go bust by making bluff 3-bets and playing poorly post flop. If you are inexperienced, I recommend you skip bluff 3-betting altogether because it will lead you to make big post flop mistakes.
Categorizing your opponents is important. Against fish and weaker players, you will want to value bet lots and give up when you have nothing. Fish do not like to fold and their biggest weakness is that they call with too many hands. So do not try to bluff the fish. When there are lots of weak players on your table, play ultra tight. When you raise a hand and hit the flop. So for example you raise Ace King preflop and hit an ace on the flop. Just continue betting really big on each street. Fish are incapable of folding top pair, just bet large and they will call down all 3 streets.
Against strong players there is some potential for bluffing post flop. On good run outs where your opponent is unlikely to be strong you can decide to bluff. Remember, strong players will also want to avoid going broke in the early stages, so it is possible to put some pressure on them and put them in uncomfortable spots.
Lots of players will be playing fit or fold. They will call your pre flop raises with a wide range in an attempt to hit a strong hand and stack you. However, most of the time when they do not hit, they will fold to your continuation bets and flop stabs.
You can continue building your stack up by winning lots of these small pots from your opponent when they have nothing. Just be careful that when they do play back, they will usually have a strong hand so be careful and make a big fold against them.
The most important factor of early game play is not risking your stack when you don’t have the best of it. It is ok to get all the money in the middle when you have a strong hand and your opponent probably has a weaker hand. So for example with pocket aces or kings pre flop, or with a set or a flush post flop.
Try to categorize the good players and the fish. Avoid bluffing the fish and try to bluff regulars when they are weak. Avoid making huge bluffs and bets that will make you short stacked if you don’t succeed. Remember, build a big stack if the opportunities arise, however if they don’t, make sure you still have a good size stack for the middle and late stages of a tournament.