Sunday, 19 October 2014

Tourneys Are Different

Today I want to talk about how tournaments differentiate from cash games. I will do this on the basis of a hand that a reader sent to me.

Let's take a look at the written HandHistory:

Canada Cup Final Table
Blinds: 100k/200k, 25k Ante

Notkin (CO) (7.95M, 39.75BB) with KK
Miller (BTN) (600k, 3 BB) with KQo
Jaques (SB) (7.5M, 37.5BB) with ATo
Rivers (BB) (1.25M, 6.25BB) with 88

Preflop: CO calls 200k, BTN raises to 600k (All-In), SB raises to 7.5M (All-In), BBcalls 1.25M (All-In)

Board: Js7d3h 7h 5c

Total pot: 17.3M, Robert Notkin wins.

More information about this hand can be found at the PokerStars Blog. A PDF about the Tourney Structure is available at the website of the Playground Poker Club.

Prize Structure:
1st: ~367k$
2nd: ~257k$
3rd: ~165k$
4th: ~122k$

Let's talk about the game! We're in a tourney and we're already in the money. This means that we are making more money whenever a player busts. There are no bounties, rebuys, or addons available.
Let's see how the absence of a rebuy button significantly changes our strategy. Please be aware that I have no knowledge about the players or any history generated in the previously played hands. Getting strong reads on how people look when they bluff or have their bowel movement does not bother me... at least for today.

If you are too lazy to read all of my thoughts, please feel free to skip the gray text and proceed with the Cliffs at the end of the post!


I will tell you what I would assume is the best play in every players position by using my personal knowledge and some analysis that I did with the help of smart computer software like CREV, Equilab and PokerSnowie. Please be aware, that calculations with CREV and Equilab for mulitway-preflop scenarios are extremely time- and CPU-intensive. So it is impossible to calculate every part of the game tree. Numbers can't be accurately correct depending on the number of EV-runs.
Also not every spot is calculated by software. Some things are just based on my intuition. So please don't take everything for granted.


If We Were Playing A Cash Game...

Seeing both sites before talking about a difference is important. So let's first assume we were playing the same hand in a cash game.
CO: Game theoretically, limping from any other position than the SB is almost never correct. Generating fold equity and not giving people free chances to draw out our strong hands for free is mandatory in any game. Exploitatively this play could indeed work against overly aggressive or passive opponents. If people on the table are isolating too much, our limping range has to include some strong hands that are able to limpreraise. Limping KK is possibly a good play, but incorrect against optimal players.
If we were raising, we should have a ~25% range against strong players in the Blinds and on the BTN.
BTN: This is interesting! After a CO-openlimp the BTN can not expect to generate too much of Fold Equity since the BB and the CO would be getting extremely good odds to call him. Since he could press the rebuy button at any time in a cash game, there is no need to ship any hand that is not clearly winning money against wide calling ranges. Let's assume that the CO limps what should be his opening range and that all people behind are continuing with an optimal range. My guess would be that unexplainable shoving is correct with about any Ace (take away some offsuited wheel Aces), any Pocket Pair and some Broadways. This leaves us with a shipping range as small as 10-15%. Clearly, the absence of a rebuy button would have an extremely significant influence on this range. More about that later.
SB: Even though, we are getting extremely good odds on a call against the 3 BB BTN Shove, there is still a random range in the BB and a limp in the CO. Since a CO openlimp is not theoretically correct and we don't have any knowledge about the CO, it is hard to estimate what range we should be playing with.
To find a starting point, let's see what we can call with when we ignore the BB and the CO: Getting 5.5-2.5 we need 31.25% equity which results in a range as big as 45% according to Equilab Hand range calculator. But if we put a random range (BB) and a 25% CO limping range (just a guess) into the game, we would just be able to continue with AQ+/TT+ (about 5%). After getting a feeling for our range, we are still left with the options of calling, minraising and shoving.
Strategy 1: After all, it is possible to minraise a pretty wide range (as big as maybe 15% at my first guess). If we do this, we should minraise or fold our whole range. If the CO shoves, we will call our strong hands and fold our bad hands (pretty easy, huh?). Minraising ATo is correct. Of course, you do not need to exactly minraise. Raising on the amount of BB's stack is a good alternative play.
Strategy 2: The other option is to shove some very strong hands (about 5% which is our TT+/AQ) and to call with some mediocre hands. When we call, we possibly need to call almost any2 against a BB shove while we almost fold a big part of our range against a shove from the CO. In order to not be exploitable, we need to call with some stronger hands some percentage of the time. Calling ATo would be correct, but shoving is a clear mistake.
BB: This is just a question of pot odds and the range of the CO. Seeing that the range for a shove from the SB has to be as tight as 5% and that the CO is capable of having strong hands in his range AND the BTN is already All-In with a relatively strong range for a 16.5 BB main pot (including our call), we do not want to call very wide. We are getting 10-5.25 (16.5 BB possible main pot and 5.25BB remaining stack after posting the SB), so we need at least 24% equity against both ranges. Equilab tells me that our range hast to be about 13%. Against two people being already All-In suddenly a hand like 98s becomes better than KQs equity-wise. We have to be a little bit tighter than that since there is still a CO left to act behind us. Calling 88 is correct.
CO: We openlimped Kings and saw three people shoving all their money in. That looks pretty good? Well, the equity of Kings decreases when the pot goes multiway. But since two of the three opponents are playing for the little main pot or one small side pot, the most important point to consider is our equity against the bigstack in SB. We obviously call KK. But: Our range shouldn't be too wide. In fact, if the SB really is shoving as tight as 5% even calling QQ would be close.

All this seems reeeeally tight? Well, it is. If we expect other people to play optimally, we can't mess around a lot. This might not be the case in practice. For example, if you are playing in an everyday cash game with 50-100BB stacks you're probably right by opening a lot wider than 25% from the CO.

But We Are Playing A Tourney!

Now let's find out what is different. In order to not let this post become a multi-part book, I just want to concentrate on differences and not on exact numbers.
CO: According to Independent Chip Model a single chip in our stack is less valuable (in $EV), the more chips we have. Consequently, with the biggest stack on the table we are risking less money (not chips!) by opening than other people. Please be aware, that we do not want to gamble for all of our chips. But we like other people to gamble for all of their chips as long as we do not risk big parts of our own stack. 
This means our opening range should be wider than it was in a cash game. Again, seeing the flop should not be free for our opponents. With our big stack we want to put pressure on our opponents and raise! Skilled tournament players like to open between 40 and 100% here.
Limping is probably an exploitative speculation on the BTN to ship wide, which is risky. If the BTN decides to do anything else but ship the money in, it is very likely for the blinds to proceed cautiously and take a cheap/free flop. This would be a disaster for our hand. Of course we should have a whole range here instead of only one hand. But I don't see a way to build a limping range in this spot.
Notkin may had a tell on someone being inclined to move his money in right now. The other option is that his opponents were just crazy. Both things would make limping a great play here.
BTN: Our chip count gets close to zero and we have just one more hand before the BB comes to us. So it is time to gamble and shove a wide range.
Since the BB is always getting a decent discount on our raise, this is the place to look first when evaluating the size of our range. In this case, the BB is the shortest stack (besides us) on the table. Seeing that he has to risk a big percentage of his stack, we are luckily able to generate some Folds here.
Unfortunately, the biggest stack on the table already limped in front of us which might be a trap. Even if he limps some mediocre hands, he will probably fold nothing for just 2 BB more to call.
After some consideration, we estimate that shoving 76s+, any Ace, any Broadway and some KXs/QXs is a good starting point here. So we decide to put the money in with about 30% of our starting hands.
Shoving KQo is clearly correct.
SB:  Seeing that we and the CO are the biggest stacks on the table beside two very small stacks, there is really no reason to mess around with the CO. Our game plan is to constantly put pressure on the two small stacks and hope for both to bust out. If this works out, we can be pretty sure to win at least 257k$ AND have a solid shot at the first prize.
Again, the two possible strategies I mentioned in the Cash Game section apply. Either we minraise our whole range or we split our range into a shoving- and a calling-range. Since the only person who still can stack us is still in the pot, I don't like to get in all my money with anything but the nuts here. It is also extremely likely that the CO has set a trap here. Consequently, shoving ATo and risking our entire tournament life is not just a clear mistake, but a total disaster. Jaques could have finished third if the BB folded by losing his stack to Notkin. He could even bust out fourth if Miller also had won the main pot. This play is a pretty safe loss of ~100k$ in EV.
Minraising or raising to BB's stack size would be fine. If we minraise, we should be ready to fold if the CO comes over the top.
In this specific scenario I prefer minraising over calling for range building reasons.
BB:  Our game plan does not allow us to sit and wait for hands too long. We want the BTN to bust out before we do. Beside that we like to get a chance to at least double up ASAP. Finishing at least in third position should be our goal in first place. 
So what? We've seen a strange openlimp from the CO, a ship from what appears to be a wide range and an extremely strong shove from the SB. Even though we don't want to gamble too much here, it is important to consider that we are able to lose the main pot and still finish third as long as the BTN loses.
88 is extremely close here. It is probably not a clear mistake, neither is it a clear call. After intensive calculations with CREV I would tend to fold 88/99 and call TT+/AK/AQs. Knowing that SB is gambling with a range way wider than optimal, 88 is probably a fine call.
CO: It seems like SB has a strong hand and is ready to bust out both small stacks now. Even if SB wins against both guys, we would have a decent position in the HU game. And if one of the short stacks gets to double up - we'll still be in a good position. But gambling for our whole stack and losing against the SB is a disaster. Consequently, we like to be tight. KK is still a call. In practice it is also pretty rare to see the SB just shipping all the chips in with a hand as strong as AA. Strong, but vulnerable hands like AJ+ are more likely to get shoved. So we're happy to go for it as long as we have a premium hand.


Cliffs:  What Is Different?

  • CO Open: When we have a bigger stack, we like to raise more than in a cash game. Putting pressure on people with smaller stacks makes sense according to the ICM.
  • BTN Shove: As our stack gets smaller, we are forced to put the money in with wider ranges in a tournament than in a cash game. The absence of a rebuy button opens the opportunity to get blinded away.
  • SB Shove: If we have a big solid stack relatively to the blinds and opponents, we do not like to gamble for our whole stack against the chip leader.
  • BB Call: In tourneys, calling is more than just pot odds. If we decide to put our tourney life at risk, we like to have a strong hand.
  • CO Call: Again, if we have a big stack, we do not like to gamble for all of our chips.

Closing Words


In Tournaments there are new facts to consider: The Payout Structure changes our game significantly. Hands and Ranges are a lot harder to calculate. But to make the hardcore generalization: Raise more, call less.
Great thanks to tournament professional nilsef for sharing his thoughts with me. You have helped me a lot.

PokerStars Zoom No-Limit Hold'em, $5.00 BB (6 handed) - PokerStars Converter Tool from

saw flop | saw showdown

Button ($564.57)
SB ($603.20)
BB ($300)
Hero (UTG) ($513.25)
MP ($853.09)
CO ($251.49)

Preflop: Hero is UTG with K, A
Hero raises to $15, 1 fold, CO calls $15, 2 folds, BB calls $10

Flop: ($47.50) Q, 10, J (3 players)
BB bets $15, Hero calls $15, CO raises to $236.49 (All-In), BB raises to $285 (All-In), Hero calls $270

Turn: ($853.99) 6 (3 players, 2 all-in)

River: ($853.99) 7 (3 players, 2 all-in)

Total pot: $853.99 | Rake: $2.80

Results below:
BB had 10, 10 (three of a kind, tens).
Hero had K, A (royal flush).

CO didn't show
Outcome: Hero won $851.19 

CO mucked JJ. There is not a lot to say about this hand. :)

This post is sponsored by Spreaditfast.