Former Los Angeles attorney turned poker pro Mark Seif fields regular reader inquiries, offering his unique brand of poker strategy and advice. Mark's experiences have taken him from the most challenging courtrooms to the world's best poker rooms, and now to the reader. Mark is currently the resident poker professional at and the recent winner of the 2005 WSOP Limit Hold' Em Shootout and the No Limit Championship tournaments.
I read somewhere that it is a good strategy to play very tight at the beginning of a tournament, until about a third of the players have been knocked out. Do you agree with this strategy?
As is the case most of the time in poker, the answer is: It depends. This is due to the fact that poker, especially tournament poker, is highly situational. Indeed, higher buy-in tournaments ($500 and above) generally require a different approach than lower buy-in tournaments. I will deal with higher buy-in tournaments in the next two paragraphs, and then lower buy-in ones after that.
In higher buy-in tournaments that generally provide higher starting chip amounts and longer rounds, it is often good strategy to play a relatively tight game in the early rounds. This is for several reasons. First, the blinds are relatively small compared to the average stack, thus stealing blinds is not highly rewarded.
Second, you can't win the tournament in the early rounds, but you can certainly be eliminated. So you should be careful to not get into a situation where you make a big hand while playing a marginal hand, only to run into a real big hand! Third, you probably do not want to establish a loose or wild table image early on. Doing so might make stealing in the later rounds, when the blinds are much bigger, more difficult.
That being said, there are some advantages to playing somewhat loose in higher buy-in tournaments in the early rounds. This is mainly due to the fact that, because the blinds are low relative to the average stack, you can see more flops and try to make a big hand without endangering your chip position much. Furthermore, if you develop a somewhat loose table image early on, you can take advantage of that in the later rounds by continuing to "splash around." Only now you will have the goods and are more likely to get paid off.
Generally speaking, lower buy-in tournaments should be played pretty snug in the early rounds. This is because, unlike in higher buy-in tournaments, the lower starting chip amounts do not allow you to see and miss a lot of flops. Also, because the rounds are usually shorter, the blinds rise a lot faster.
Thus, you will be able to capitalize on a tighter table image by stealing the blinds sooner and more often. More importantly though, the blinds soon become a significant percentage of average chip stack in lower buy-in tournaments, thus making steals far more rewarding.
Remember, there are a lot of variables to consider when deciding what to do in a poker situation. Keep your head in the game and your eye on the prize.