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No-Limit Holdem Tourney Self-Destruction

The last tourney I played had a £50 buy-in, no re-buys. That affordability guaranteed that many of the 60 entrants were, shall we say, unlike Phil Ivey. Here are two examples of flagrant self-destruction that I saw.

Before the second break, a good player at my table made several good bets and at least one top class lay down, and thus was one of the tournament chip leaders. Strangely, however, in the first hand after the break he went all-in under the gun with 99. The ONLY player at our table who had a bigger stack than him also happened to have better cards...the bullets, to be exact! The AA held (yes, that does occasionally happen), and all of this guy ’s fine play before the break was for nothing! Why would someone do that? His explanation was, "I wanted to grab the blinds and set the tone for the next session." Well, a certain tone was set: Those of us left at the table had to contend with a 100,000-chip behemoth when our stacks averaged about 20,000! That gave a whole new meaning to "Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am."

I doubt the man's explanation. I think a more likely cause was loss of focus, which I have observed in many players as a result of breaks (unfortunately including myself more often than I want to admit). We check our messages, calculate how much longer the tourney may last, etc., and in a very short time we can forget what got us to our current position. Instead, we should resolve to be extra-conservative immediately following the break to take advantage of others who have gotten out of sync.

Another road to ruin in NL tourneys is wasting chips with questionable calls because "I can afford it." Another of my opponents in this particular tournament (let's call him "Mr X") had a well-above-average stack of 50,000 chips after four hours of play, the second-biggest stack at the table. Mr X and the chip leader had wisely avoided getting tangled heads up for a while. However, there were 21 players left and only the top 9 would get paid. Mr X had K-J off in the 2,000-chip big blind. A player with 11,000 chips (Let’s say her name was Mrs Z") went all in, and everyone else folded. Without hesitating, Mr X called, and he lost to A-5 off when neither hand improved.

(Two sloppy calls and a bit of bad luck later, Mr X was heading for the cash games.) But before he called simply because he had two picture cards, and could afford to lose 9,000 more, he should have asked himself these questions:

1. "What does Mrs Z probably have?"
KJ is a clear favourite over any K-rag, Q-high, or J-high hand and any small-to-medium connectors, but how many people go all in with those? Isn't it far more likely that Mrs Z is risking her tournament life on at least an ace, especially since he knows that Mr X has him covered four times over?

Mr X should have taken a minute to recall all the times that he had seen short stacks decide, "This is the best I've seen in a while, and I have to make a move sometime!" If he had, he probably would've admitted that most of those players had an ace, K-Q, or a pocket pair. "Big deal," Mr X may have said to himself, "bring on that ace-rag!" Really? His K-J off was about a 57-43 underdog to a random A2. It was even a slight underdog to pocket 2‘s!

2. "What table image have I projected to this point, and how (if at all) do I want that to change now?"
Mr X had been playing well for a while to accumulate the 50,000 chips, but even if he'd been a bit loose and caught cards, he had a certain degree of respect from the others at our table. How long did he think that would last once they saw that he was willing to risk 20% of his stack calling an all in with just two picture cards?

3. "If I'm going to play K-J off, do I want to be the aggressor or the caller?" The answer to that one is obvious.
A good no limit poker phrase is: "Make your opponent make a decision." If your opponent goes all in first, nothing you do can change the decision she's already made. Moreover, backing others down can pay future dividends. Few scenarios produce more action for a big hand than a previous hand in which you made a big pre-flop raise, stole the blinds, and casually showed a bluff or drawing hand.

4. "Why now?"
Even if Mrs Z's hand made the outcome a coin flip, was that the right time for a coin flip? The blinds totalled only 6% of Mr X's stack, and he was still many places away from the money. If he beat the odds and knocked out Mrs Z, that wouldn't have been a significant step toward payday. Also, he had little risk of appearing too tight or too willing to give up his big blind. Any sensible player knows there are many hands one can have in the big blind that aren't worth defending for 4.5 times more chips.

5. "If I fold, am I making myself more vulnerable to Mrs Z later?"
Hardly. 14,000 chips aren't significantly more powerful than 11,000, which brings us back to the first question. Is Mrs Z's hand so weak that she's hoping no one calls, just so she can steal the 3,000 in blinds? Do we normally see small stacks bluffing?

But let's change the scenario slightly, and suppose that Mr X had ace-rag. Would that have made his call smarter? I think not, unless Mr X could read Mrs Z well enough to put her on an ace with a smaller rag or an outright bluff. I don't know about you, but only in the rarest circumstances can I read an opponent that precisely. Remember that the 8 is the middle rank. If you have an ace and a card lower than an 8, any other ace has you dominated. In conclusion, NL Hold'em tournaments are tough enough with your opponents trying to beat you. Don't help them by shooting yourself in the foot.

However, these are probably the things that separate us from the greats such as Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth. In poker it’s all about being in the situation, and you have to use your skills to choose the correct decision in that situation. I’d say that the person who was comfortably sitting on above average chips will remember this situation and will take longer and think about the decisions and choose the correct option in the future. It’s all a learning process and we are all looking to improve every time we play so just go and enjoy it and win some money on the way.

the Cut-off Razor


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