How to Win at Tournament No Limit Hold ‘Em

For Texas Hold ‘Em, cash game and tournament strategy are similar, but at times can be drastically different.  If you’ve been playing tournaments the same way you play a cash game, you are likely not having as much success as you could be.  Here we will explore more about tournament poker and strategies that work well in this format.

The M-Factor

You’ve likely heard of measuring stack size based on the number of big blinds you have in your stack.  For example, if you have a stack size of 30,000 chips, and the big blind is 300, your stack size is 100 bb.  However, in big blind ante tournaments, this measurement can be a bit misleading.  This is because often the big blind ante size is simply a second big blind.  There’s an additional question of how to account for the small blind as it relates to your stack size.  While it is helpful to know how many big blinds large your stack is, it can be a bit misleading or confusing compared to your actual liability with increasing blind sizes.

In his book Harrington on Holdem: Volume II The Endgame, Dan Harrington discusses the M-Factor as a way to gauge your tournament status and adjust your strategy accordingly.  The M-Factor is defined as the size of your stack divided by the total amount you will owe each time around the table.  Or in equation format:

M = stack / [small blind + big blind + antes]

Additionally, Harrington defines a term called Effective M to account for the decreasing number of players at each table as the tournament progresses.  This is to account for the fact that you will see less hands on each ring of play when your table is only seven- or six-handed.

M-effective = M x (number of players / 10)

Thus if your table is only playing five-handed, your Effective M would be only half the size of your straight M-Factor.  M-effective = M x (5/10) = ½ M.

By measuring your stack size based on your liability for each round of play, you can begin to get a feel for how quickly you need to make a move (small M) or how comfortable and speculative your play can be (big M).  With this understanding of the M-Factor, we can explore various strategies at different stages of a tournament based on stack size.

Early Stages

At the start of a tournament, everyone is on equal footing in terms of stack size.  At this stage, tournaments play very similar to a cash game.  The blinds are generally small compared to everyone’s stack size.  Players have a natural playing style and table image, and they generally play in line with those tendencies.  You’ll often pinpoint TAGs and LAGs and adjust your strategy accordingly.  It’s important to remember at this stage that you can’t win a tournament in the first few levels…but you sure can lose it!

One generally good rule is that early in a tournament, you can play a bit more speculative on small bet pots – meaning you can take risks on some weaker hands pre-flop that have good drawing potential post-flop.  If you hit a draw, you can generally win a decent-sized pot early.  But if you do not make a drawing hand on the flop, it is easy to fold without getting too invested in a hand.  For example, 4-5 suited is generally worth a call versus a bet that is 3x the big blind.  If the flop comes K-6-3 with two cards matching your suited hand, you have flopped a monster straight and flush draw that is worth seeing through to the end, perhaps even semi-bluffing.  However, when the flop comes A-K-9, you can easily fold your hand before betting further.

Middle Stages

After a few levels of increasing blind size, the field begins to diverge.  Players will find themselves in a group of the haves (big M) or have-nots (small M), or somewhere in between.  For those interested in detailed strategy based on M-factor, I encourage you to read Dan Harrington’s book.  But high level, when you have a big M, your playbook becomes wide open.  Similar to the early stages, you can speculate with more drawing hands pre-flop.  You can also bluff a lot more.

With an M-factor bigger than 20, it’s generally a good practice to never limp into a pot.  You will always want to raise or fold pre-flop, with the goal being to isolate opponents willing to call you and play them heads up.  You have a much higher EV (probability of winning a hand) when facing an opponent heads-up instead of playing a multi-way pot.  By being the aggressor pre-flop, you also leave your range open to the strongest hands that allow you to continuation bet (C-bet) on any dry flop.  A dry flop is one that has few possibilities for very strong hands such as straights, flushes, and full houses.  Think of unpaired, disconnected, rainbow boards like Ks-8c-2h.  It is easy to C-bet bluff on this board with a hand like Jd-9d because it is unlikely your opponent who called pre-flop has a King, and it’s impossible for them to have a good draw on this board.  Would your opponent call with hands like A-3, Q-J, 8-7?  It would be unlikely.

With a small M-factor, the tendency is to tighten up and wait for the strongest hands.  In the middle stages of a tournament, when M can still be ten or higher, this can be ok, but it is not an optimal strategy.  Especially when M is five or less, it’s best to adopt a shove all-in or fold strategy.  With a stack that is 5M, you still have some fold equity that can make average stack size players wary of calling you down with mediocre hands.  When picking hands to shove all-in, rather than waiting for pocket Jacks or better, it’s sometimes best to pick spots based on position when your hand contains two “live” cards compared to what would call you.  Think about a situation where you’re on the button, folds to you, and you see 9-6 off suit.  If you go all-in to steal the blinds, how likely are you to be called by an average stack that contains a 9 or a 6?  Even against a suited A-K call, your 9-6 off suit hand still holds 33 percent equity pre-flop.  Compare that to a K-J all-in that is called by A-K or A-J, your equity drops to around 25 percent equity pre-flop.

One last tip is to avoid standard bluffing with a medium to small M-Factor.  Imagine a situation where you have a stack size of 12M, and there are six big blinds in the pot.  Your opponent has a stack size of 30M.  Are they going to be likely to fold to a bet of 3M additional into the pot?  Probably not.  In this case, it’s best to determine your action based on the strength of your hand.  If you have a strong draw (open ended straight draw, flush draw) or a weak top pair hand, then it’s potentially worth going all-in to steal this small pot.  With any other hands, it’s best to check and then fold if your opponent bets.

On the Bubble

When the number of players left in the tournament is only slightly higher than the number of places paid in the prize pool, many players tighten up.  These players believe that the best course of action is to take minimal risk and wait for others to bust out so that they can go home with some cash, even if it’s a small prize.  Additionally, it is very tempting to play this way – it is human nature to be risk-averse.  We want to believe that our time and effort is worth some value and leaving with nothing feels like failure.

In actuality, a winning strategy is to overcome this temptation and begin playing more aggressively.  While everyone else is tightening up, you can steal blinds and steal blinds and steal blinds some more. This late in the tournament, the blinds and antes are not insignificant, and you can load up on chips for the final stretch.  This does not give you free license to play any two cards.  But you should be picking two or more medium strength or better hands to raise per ring.  If you can afford it, a 4x or 5x big blind bet sizing is appropriate.  In your next tournament, try to remind yourself to loosen up around the bubble and see how well it plays out.

Late Stages and Final Table

Often in late stages of a tournament, the blinds grow so big that all players find themselves with relatively small M-Factors.  If you’ve played the early stages well, and you’ve gotten a little lucky, you’ll be one of the bigger stacks.  This is the time to take ICM into consideration for each play you make at the table.  ICM stands for Independent Chip Model.  ICM is important for understanding pay jumps in the prize pool, and how these jumps may impact your tournament decisions to play a hand or sit back and watch.  While we won’t go in depth into ICM explanations in this article, the key idea is that when the pay jumps increase, you want to adjust your play even more significantly based on your stack size.  Now is the time where a small stack may prefer to wait for a premium hand before shoving.  A few more players could go out of the tournament without you even playing a hand, leading to significant jumps in payout amounts.

Another thing to keep in mind at final tables is that many players aren’t used to playing shorthanded.  When was the last time you played a cash game with 4 or fewer players?  Additionally, tournament tables are always combined and consolidated when the table hits a minimum of five players.  If you decide not to chop the pot and play to the end, and you have practice with these spots, you can find yourself with an advantage over an average player.

Winning at Tournaments

Keep in mind that tournament poker can be a challenge for winning.  As professional player Doug Polk has said regarding tournaments, regardless of your strategy, “Sometimes it is just your turn to die.”  You can play perfect poker and still finish out of the money when the cards don’t fall your way.  Therefore, when you cash in a tournament, your goal should always be to cash for as much prize money as possible to make up for all the other tournament buy-ins where you don’t make the money.  The next time you give a tournament a try, keep track of your M-Factor and try to apply the strategies described at each point of the tournament.  You may find yourself making bigger cashes, increasing the chances of playing winning tournament poker in the long run.

See you on the felt!