How to Master Optimal Strategy For Your Chip Stack Size in Multi-Table Tournament Poker

Navigating your way through a multi-table poker tournament is no easy task. If you are looking to maximize your ROI (return on investment), you must be playing for the WIN, as discussed in previous articles.

This article will cover strategies for different stages of the tournament in relation to your chip stack size. Of course having a nice pile of chips is a luxury, but in a majority of tournaments, you will be hovering around a 10-30bb (big blind) stack and must understand how to pick your spots wisely if you want to succeed and experience a profit in the long-run.

Early Stages of Tournament Poker

phil galfond professional poker player

Phil Galfond

In most multi-table poker tournaments, you will generally start with a 100-200bb stack. For example, the blinds will start at 25/50 and you will have 5,000-10,000 chips depending on the structure of the tournament. In the WSOP main event, players each start with 30,000 chips and blinds of 50/100.

The blind levels go up every 2 hours, an absurdly deep structure, but fitting for the biggest poker tournament of the year. This deep structure allows for the more skilled players to accumulate more chips from their weaker opponents over a longer period of time. Because the blind levels increase super slow, there is plenty of time to exercise your skill and build a chip stack.

The early stages of a poker tournament are generally very slow with not much action. Good tournament professionals play the early stages of a tournament much like a cash game, trying to size up their opponents, pick up some pots, and build a stack for the later more meaningful stages. It doesn’t make much sense to get out of line early in a tournament by trying to bluff, there is no reason to risk a lot of chips just yet unless you have a deadly accurate read on a certain opponent. The optimal strategy here would be to sit back, wait for big hands, and value bet them relentlessly. If you are lucky to get dealt some good cards and win some chips, you can use these additional chips to your advantage as the blind levels increase.

Middle Stages of Tournament Poker

The middle stages of a tournament are where many players will separate themselves from the rest of the playing field. Getting lucky and getting good cards is once again a luxury, but you will not always need to be dealt good cards to win pots. A lot of weak players get restless if they are not being dealt cards and tend to force action in these stages hoping to double-up, or bust their entire tournament. Patience is one of the biggest skills to have in poker, and a majority of poker players lack patience.

It is important to identify these weak players, and many players will give away their level of playing ability with their body language and what they say at the tables. It is common to see players get restless, complain to dealers that they are “card dead”, and generally play very poorly due to lack of focus. This stage of the tournament is crucial for identifying these players, and exploiting them when the optimal opportunity arises. Generally, I like to slow play big hands against restless players, especially when I have position on them. If one of these opponents makes a hand like top pair/good kicker, I am hoping to hit 2 pair or better and take their entire stack.

The Money Bubble

phil ivey professional poker player

Phil Ivey

The “money bubble” is one of the best times to accumulate chips due to the fact that many players will be playing “tight”, hoping to lock in a profit. If we have built a stack, we can safely open a majority of pots and face minimal resistance. When faced with resistance, we can fold for cheap and still reap the rewards of each pot we stole. Be sure to recognize which players at your table also have bubble awareness, meaning they understand what your aggressive play entails. Good players will often play back at opponents they know are trying to run over the table. We don’t want to play pots against these opponents without position and a good hand. We have to exercise patience and exploit the weaker unaware opponents.

When the money bubble bursts, look for a lot of opponents to loosen up and not be afraid to go all-in. After all, they have cashed and are now basically free-rolling the rest of the tournament. Most players are satisfied with a cash, but if we are looking to maximize our ROI, we are only going to be satisfied with a win. Don’t get too out of line right after the money bubble bursts and put yourself in marginal situations. If you have a stack over 20bb, you are in a good position.

The 20bb Stack

While only having 20bb might not seem like a lot of chips, it is vital that you understand how to play this stack size optimally and not make fatal mistakes. With 20bb we are able to open/fold pre-flop to a re-raise, pre-flop jam all-in to an open, and slow play our monster hands. We can still attempt to steal blinds and fold if we face resistance. We can jam all-in to a late position raise knowing our opponents range of hands are generally weak, and we can disguise our monster hands by open limping, hoping we get raised behind. One of my favorite plays is to limp in early position with a hand like AA or KK, hoping i get a few callers than get squeezed all-in by an opponent trying to pick up dead money. If he has 20bb as well, we can win his all-in jam a majority of the time and be sitting even more comfortable with 45bb+.

The 10bb Stack

The 10bb stack is really easy to play. Go all-in or fold pre-flop. That’s about it. You don’t have any implied odds to play speculative hands anymore, and you simply are hoping to steal blinds with your fold equity or double through another opponent. We lack fold equity to a pre-flop open raise if we jam all-in because we are giving the initial raiser good odds to call our all-in with a wider range of hands than 20bb. Pick your spots wisely.

Late Stage of Tournament Poker

As we approach the final table, we must understand that a majority of weaker players that have gotten lucky to this point will most likely be extremely fatigued and not playing 100%. If you are an experienced tournament player, this is the time to exercise your ability to the fullest. Most players will be looking at the prize pool payout and looking to move up as far as possible. We already know that all the money is reserved for pole position, we are not interested in simply sliding up the prize ladder. When we get the opportunity to run this deep in a tournament, we can’t be concerned about anything except first place.

The late stages of the tournament will dictate whether or not I bust now, or go on to make the final table with a big chip stack. I want to have a big stack at the final table because I can run over the smaller stacks with ruthless aggression. I want to be able to put opponents at decisions for their entire tournament life, while never facing the risk of being all-in myself. If I have the chip lead with less than 18 players to go, I am comfortable open raising every single pot pre-flop. I will steal the blinds a good amount of the time, and if I get dealt a big hand, my opponents will not be able to pin me on it. I can fold for cheap when faced with resistance from tighter players, and maintain my big chip stack.

The Final Table

ryan reiss wins 2013 wsop main event poker

23 year old Ryan Reiss wins the 2013 WSOP Main Event

You made it. You have outlasted the entire tournament field and it is down to you and 8 other players for the top prize.

How should we play?

Once again, it all depends on stack sizes. The final table is where the Independent Chip Model (ICM) comes into play, and you must have a fundamental understanding of this concept if you want to play optimally. Final tables are usually stacked with strong players, and possibly a few lucky players that navigated their way through the rest of the field. Get a feel for how each player is playing, and develop a strategy for how to play against each player and chip stack size. Once again, we want to put players at decisions for their entire tournament instead of facing the decision ourselves. When in doubt, aggression never fails.

As players get eliminated, a new dynamic of short-handed play is created. The blinds will hit you more often, and you have to expand your opening hand range if you want to accumulate more chips at this point. Knowing when to 3-bet and 4-bet pre-flop is crucial. We are looking to 3-bet opponents in position, and with less chips than us. If we are faced with a serial 3-better to our left, we can 4-bet jam all-in if our stack size is appropriate. Against a good opponent who loves to 3-bet light in position pre-flop, a 20bb stack is perfect for 4-bet jamming all-in. If we have 30bb+, we don’t want to get too out of line with marginal holdings.

Booking The Win

In an ideal scenario, we want to have the chip lead heads-up so we can apply maximum aggression to our opponent. We are looking for him to make a fatal mistake against us after we wither him down. Depending on stack sizes, heads-up play will be very quick, or very slow. In the WSOP main event, it is not uncommon for both players to have close to 100bb, creating an intense heads-up match that could last for hours. We have plenty of information on our opponent if we have been observant up to this point, and we need to exploit his weaknesses as best as possible. We need to know his breaking point, the point where he wont continue with a hand unless he has a monster. We will be bluffing and semi-bluffing a majority of the time, and we need to know when to fold.

Should You Make a Deal?

If myself and my opponent have similar stack sizes going into heads-up play, I always want to discuss a deal. We will both guarantee ourselves a majority of the prize pool while leaving a small amount for whoever finishes in first. This is done to counter the variance that heads-up play entails with two experienced players. You will always have this option in a live tournament, but not every online poker site offers this option. I would always take it unless I know my opponent is super weak (rare.)

If you are able to go on to win the entire tournament, congratulations! Your bankroll will receive a nice boost, and you can use this boost to invest in bigger games while still exercising strict bankroll management.

If you want to continue to succeed in the long-run, you MUST exercise strict bankroll management or run the risk of going broke. Even the best players win the world will eventually go broke if they don’t manage their bankrolls correctly. Don’t allow your ego to make financial decisions for you. Run your poker like a business that is looking to generate profit in the long-term. Failure to do so will ultimately find you on the losing side of the coin.

Good luck at the tables! 🙂



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