Poker strategy: Vicky Coren's guide to changing gears

Team PokerStars Pro Vicky Coren enjoyed a great run at this month's PokerStars Caribbean Adventure main event, finishing 30th for $40,000. With life tournament winnings of more than $1.2 million, including $941,513 for the EPT London title in 2006, she's an ideal person to write about the importance of changing gears to improve your tournament results.

by Vicky Coren

The art of multi-table tournament poker lies in the pace. There are two big general mistakes that beginners can make: either they play too slowly, waiting so long for good hands that they are blinded away by the relentless clock - or they play too quickly, pushing unnecessary hands and knocking themselves out as if they had a train to catch.

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Vicky celebrates her EPT London win

The balance is difficult to find. It's all about a mathematical equation: you are playing according to the size of your stack, the size of your opponents' stacks, the size of the blinds and the speed of the clock. But all these factors are changing all the time. It can be discombobulating. Playing a tournament is like climbing a long staircase, in which the size and shape of the steps is altered every few minutes, and (every so often) a tub of oil is tipped down them. If you stop concentrating, you'll tumble backwards and break a leg.

Generally speaking, the best principle is to let your pace gather speed with the blinds. That is the safest strategy: to play tight at the beginning (not overplaying marginal hands when the blinds and pots are too small to be worth stealing), and gradually broaden the range of hands you raise with, in direct proportion to the blinds going up and the field getting smaller. If people want to push you around at the beginning, let them. But when the blinds get serious, flex your muscles and take a stand.

By "playing tight", I don't mean waiting for aces. In a deep-stack tournament, where you can afford to see a lot of flops in the early levels, you can play pre-flop almost like a cash game: creeping in, or making unexpected raises, with those interesting hands like 8-10 suited or J9 suited, trying to catch a monster. It's more a case of (when you fail to hit) not throwing good money after bad. If you can afford to give up, don't get stubborn.

In a big opening field, such as the PokerStars Sunday Million, there can be a strangely hurried feel. Players want to jostle ahead of the crowd so they play aggressively, pushing marginal hands and even moving all in, from the earliest levels. Some of them want to build a big stack fast, or get out early. If this is the mood at your table, don't get sucked into the panicky betting frenzy: sit patiently and bet only when you want action. Pre-flop raises won't clear opponents away. Bluffs will fail more often than they succeed. But value bets should pay off nicely. Don't bother trapping with sets, straights or flushes: bet them openly. It's worth seeing a few cheap flops in late position with a wide range of hands, but play on only if you hit because you will get paid.

Remember, in a multi-table tournament you have two sets of opponents: those on your table (whose chips you are trying to take directly) and those on other tables who you may meet later. So you should always have an idea of what the average chip stack is for the whole field. On PokerStars, it's easy - the lobby will always tell you. In a live tournament like an EPT, there should be a wall clock with that information.

You are there to play poker and win the tournament, not count your way nervously towards the payout spots. But the chip average should be in your mind as a constant backdrop, to gauge the general health of your stack.


Vicky on her way to $40,000 at the PCA

In the middle stages, you cannot afford to waste chips. At this point, it's all about selective aggression: picking your spots to play, and then playing like you mean it. In the early stages you can make speculative calls, in the middle stages you can't. Beware the mediocre hands like A-9 or small pairs; you're better off playing a 6-7 suited. Why? Because you'll know where you stand. You should be raising or re-raising your way into pots with hands where you know you want action, or know that you don't. The same applies after the flop. With every bet you make, be certain what response you want.

Around the bubble is a great time to increase your aggression. Many players will be loitering, trying to make the money. You must find the bravery not to be one of these people. But pick your targets with care. The small stacks are forced to gamble and the big stacks can afford to. Put pressure on the middle stacks, who may be trying to safeguard their chips for the payout spots.

What about the size of your own stack? You must make sure it never goes below ten big blinds. If you find you have 15-20 big blinds, it's time to start re-raising all-in while you can still make the original raiser pass. If you get to 10 big blinds or fewer, it's all-in or fold. You must not raise and then pass; it's like burning money. And you mustn't flat call, because timidity is tournament death. With ten big blinds or below, if nobody else has raised before the action is on you, you must be ready to move in with any hand at all. Anything. Even if you have 7-2 and somebody wakes up with A-A, you still have a 12% chance to win the pot - whereas, if you let yourself get blinded away, you have 0% chance of winning the tournament. And if you can find the nerve to start moving in with any hand in the late stages (or when you're on ten big blinds) you have a much higher than 12% chance that nobody finds anything to call you with, and you can boost your stack with those valuable blinds and antes.

Two important notes: what applies to you applies to everyone else as well. If you have good chips and someone else moves in with less than ten big blinds, you must widen your calling range to reflect their need to move with anything.

Second note: in any form of poker - cash game or tournament, Holdem or Omaha, multi-table or heads-up - you must always be counter-intuitive. Whatever your basic strategy (and the above, to increase aggression as the tournament goes on, remains the best) you must mix it up at least once per level. Never let your opponents get complacent. Do what's right but, every so often, just do what's unexpected.

Simon Young
@MrSimonYoung in PokerStars news