Strategy: Steve Paul-Ambrose takes you deep in Sunday Million

Earlier today, we showed you how the top players won the biggest tournaments online (and if you missed it, be sure to go back and check out the 3-1-09 Online Poker Show). Now, here's some advice from Team PokerStars Pro Steve Paul-Ambrose on how to make it happen for yourself.

By Steve Paul-Ambrose

There's an undeniable appeal to the prospect of turning $200 into $200,000, and in the poker world the quickest way to do that is to win the Pokerstars Sunday Million.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy. The tournament draws over 7,000 players every
week. In this article, I'm going to look at a few strategies and adjustments to make when playing large field tournaments, particularly one like the Sunday Million. I'll start out with a few general observations, and then move on to strategic adjustments during each phase of the tournament.

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One of the most important things to remember going in is this: no matter how well you play, you cannot win (or even go deep) a 7,000 person tournament without getting lucky. That may sound somewhat discouraging, but realizing it is important both to playing well and to staying sane during your rough patches. Secondly, too many people look to pass on edges and survive their way forward in the tournament. But when there are 7,000 other players, you need to be accumulating chips, not just surviving. There are a couple exceptions to the following which I'll touch on later, but first and foremost your goal in the tournament needs to be to maximize the number of chips you make every hand (remember that very often folding and winning 0 chips is better than any other options for the hand.) A final minor point is that the structure of the tournament has little bearing on your general strategy. Structure determines if and when you get to the different stages of a tournament, but it should very rarely dictate how you play a hand.

Early Stage Play

Early stage play in the Sunday Million has three important characteristics: deep stacks, no antes and nine handed tables. In most cases, it is largely correct to assume you're playing a cash game as tournament payout implications are smallest at this point. The one exception is at a very weak table, you may want to try to avoid playing for all your chips with a small edge, but I feel most people lose more looking for spots like this than they gain correctly identifying them. Remember, accumulating chips is your number one goal. If you bust early making a correct play, that's a perfectly good result for the tournament.

Because of the lack of antes and full tables, generally correct play tends to be fairly straightforward tight aggressive play, loosening up in position. A side benefit of playing in this way is you are likely to be viewed as tight and players may be slow to adjust when the antes come in and you start to ramp up the aggression. You should also be looking to develop reads and looking to play pots with the weaker players, particularly in position. Most of the value during this stage comes from exploiting people who are playing too loose and in such a large field there are generally lots of these types of players. Unfortunately, often these players won't last long, so you need to put yourself in as good a position as possible to be the one that gets their chips, before someone else does.

Mid Stage Play

During this phase, antes come into play and stacks begin to get shorter. Antes promote more aggressive play, as pots are now bigger and there is a larger incentive to steal the blinds. Also, as stacks get shorter, preflop play becomes begins to dominate. As a result, you should get more aggressive, particularly with preflop raises and reraises. Reads continue to be important, especially knowing who is too weak from the blinds, who is capable of reraising or four-betting without a big hand, etc. While describing strategic adjustments in all table conditions is far beyond the scope of this article, I will offer some advice. First, the focus begins to shift from exploiting the looser players to exploiting those playing too tight. Though loose (more specifically loose/passive) players will likely still be targets, their play is made less incorrect by the larger antes. Also, picking out and reraising more often the players who are adjusting to the antes and opening more pots becomes imperative to a winning strategy. Most importantly, remember that there is no one "best" strategy during this, or any, stage of a tournament. Different players and tables require different approaches so be willing to adapt.

As the bubble approaches, your play should likely change, although moreso to adapt to others than because of the money bubble. While you should be less willing to call off your chips preflop, remember that the first payout level tends to be between one and two buyins, whereas first is somewhere in the area of 1000 buyins. Again the key is adjusting to your table, attacking those who care too much about making the money, and picking good spots against other "attackers."

Once the bubble bursts there's often a long stage where stacks are quite short relative to the blinds and play is almost entirely preflop. Correct play becomes largely a math problem, and one in which your instincts will prove to be wrong more often than not. The best advice I can give here is to do your own work away from the table. There are lots of tools available, but most of it can be done with Excel, or with a great free program called Pokerstove. Working out correct ranges to move in or folding preflop will drastically increase your edge in almost all tournaments, particularly ones with quicker structures like the PokerStars Sunday Million.

Late Stage Play

As the final table begins to approach, the most important change is that you will often be playing at less than full tables. Again this will require an increase in aggression, and since you'll be playing more pots with more marginal hands, reads become even more important. Being able to adjust to those who are looking to make the final table as opposed to those looking to win is essential. Ideally you should be able to look at each person (or avatar) at the table and have a good idea of where your edge against that player will come from, whether it's by playing tight and value betting them, attacking their blinds more than normal, reraising more than normal or in the case of a great player just avoiding them. In reality it never quite works out this well and we operate with incomplete information, but recognizing that this is the goal will help keep you focused.

Most importantly, recognize that making the final table in and of itself is meaningless. Your goal should be to maximize the money you expect to make, so don't be afraid to make a play you believe is correct. Remember that there is a huge luck element deep in tournaments and try to play your best. Having gotten 10th in the Sunday Million, as well as bubbling a couple WPT and WSOP events (and countless online tournaments), I know it sucks to make it that deep and bust, but most of the money is in the top three spots, so don't let yourself blind out just trying to make the final table.

Most of what I've written in this article can be summed up in a few key points:

  1. Preflop play is extremely important in tournaments. Do work off the table to be prepared for this.
  2. Reads are extremely important in all stages of a tournament, but especially deep and around the bubbles.
  3. Winning a tournament takes a huge amount of luck, so try to ignore results while playing your best and having fun.
Simon Young
@MrSimonYoung in PokerStars news