The Mid-tournament Bind

The Mid-tournament Bind

Friday, 19 July 2013

Adjusting to stack size

One of the most important live tournament skills is adjusting to stack size. As the hours pass and the hands come and go, it’s easy to fall into a routine, especially pre-flop. Dud hands get folded without question and medium strength hands get raised in late position without considering how much they hold up to a re-raise.

It’s ironic that we often find ourselves in cruise control at precisely the point when we need to be at our sharpest. Throughout the first three or four levels, we have chips to play with. We’re deep and the action is not dissimilar to cash games in terms of moves we make and odds we can chase. Even a big hit won’t put us in mortal danger.

But then somewhere around level 8 or 9 – usually when the big blind reaches about 1,200 or 1,600 – the average stack has dwindled to 25 big blinds and will be as low as 20 big blinds by the next level. In that hour or so, something crucial happens: the people who had been on cruise control all afternoon suddenly wake up and realise that the game has changed. It probably changed an hour or two ago but they didn’t notice. If they don’t do something soon, they’ll be out of the tournament.

For the most part, it’s too late by then. For one thing, many of the completely dead-money players will have busted, making it more difficult to pick up easy, risk-free chips. All of a sudden we find ourselves having to take risks we thought weren’t worth it when we were deeper. Another irony here is that, now, we wish we could be that deep – we would gladly take those risks!

Second, the dynamic has changed. Those serial raisers are taking down pots worth taking now. More to the point, because they’ve been more active, they have a keener understanding of how everyone at the table plays. Fewer flops are seen, the action rarely lasts more than two streets, so opportunities just seem less common.

Worst of all, stack sizes in this situation tend to narrow the range of hands one can play – especially for value. Depending on stack size, either in this level or the next, all sorts of hands will no longer be able to face a re-raise: hands like 5-5 or A-To will mostly have to be 4-bet shoved or folded. Under these circumstances, options are quite limited. The tight aggressive (TAG) player will tend to polarise their range because bet/folding becomes expensive. With this stack size, the TAG prefers to have no doubts if they get re-raised, so it’s better to have either a premium hand or something like 7-6s. The “in between” range – hands which could easily have been opened with two or three levels ago – might be better off in the muck.

By contrast, loose aggressive (LAG) players will have a more merged range, but this is the part of the tournament when they really come into their own. They’ll raise the top 20% of hands or so, depending on position and table dynamic, and are not afraid to bet/fold something like A-9o if the situation deems it. At least in theory, they are picking up chips often enough to let the odd one go when they face resistance.

While the TAG strategy may come into its own again later in the tournament – say on the bubble or early in the final table – during this mid-tournament section it may we wiser to follow the LAG’s strategy. Especially if the player has been tight up until now, it will take a round or two for others to realise that he has changed tack.

As I say, the real problem lies in not making this adjustment soon enough. Harrington called these pivotal points in a tournament inflection points. In general, inflection points are individual – ie, they depend on the specific player’s stack size and how it has changed as the blinds have gone up. This point in the tournament – about midway between the start and the bubble – is usually the first inflection point players come across.

But tellingly, because so many tournament players play a similar (tight) game they all tend to get to this inflection point at approximately the same time. It’s standard practice for recreational players to be reasonably tight, hope to pick up chips when they have value and try not to bust out early because that would be embarrassing, a waste of a journey. They want to get their “money’s worth” out of the tournament. This makes it very difficult to change strategy at that moment – after all, everyone else is doing exactly the same thing.

To make matters worse, many tournaments are actually structured deliberately to ramp up the stakes – literally – around this point. Tournament directors are sensitive to the fact that many recreational players want “value” from their tournaments. They like to be deep at the beginning, to have plenty of chips, and plenty of time to wait for their aces (to get cracked). The problem tournament directors face is that eventually they’re going to have to start busting people. Dealers need to end shifts, lucrative cash games need to start running, and they might need to whittle the field down to a certain number by day 2.

It’s not that the blinds start going up any quicker. For the most part, structures have smooth blind jumps. The key factor here is starting stack, coupled with the fact that most players will have been playing tight for hours, waiting for a decent spot. The mid-tournament bind is usually around the point where starting stack, plus some interest (gained from those rare juicy spots), hits that first inflection point – as I say, usually somewhere between 20-25 big blinds.

If you find that it’s usually around this time that you struggle or even bust, try the following tips:

1. Set an alarm on your phone to ring at the halfway point in every level from about level 5 onwards. This will give you a round or so head start on the blinds going up and so you can ramp up the aggression before the less aware players realise you’re doing it.

2. If you feel confident enough to change your style to suit the tournament dynamic (eg, from TAG to LAG around mid-tournament, as explained above), remember to study the table in advance of your change. Which spots won’t you be able to steal easily from? Who is still in TAG mode?

3. If there are any terrible players at the table, remember to ramp up the risk factor against them before other players do. Sure, in level one or two it’s easy to wait for a solid hand before going to war with them, but, by level 6, it’s going to be only a level or two before you take some much bigger risks against them. Better to invest those “risk” chips now where you can be more in control of the hand, and failure isn’t so costly.

4. Use the threat of your whole stack. TAGs know to use their stack as a weapon when they are short-stacked because Harrington/Kill Everyone tells them to. However, there’s no law against doing it earlier in the tournament, save for it being more risky. Given that you’re going to be risking your whole stack later with a more marginal hand or risky bluff, why not try it now and win a big pot?

The more you try strategies such as these, the more likely it is that you will have a bigger and therefore more comfortable stack throughout this mid-tournament bind. Sure, you might bust a bit more often trying to get there, but over your whole tournament career, it’ll be worth it.

Tags: Alex Rousso, Pickleman