The ultimate guide to poker tournament strategy

Dennis  «Dennis_Stets» 
15 Mar 2024
Holdem Strategy
15 Mar 2024

Tournaments are regular and exciting poker competitions that offer opportunities to make money. Tactics in this format of poker is very different from the strategy of cash games and requires a separate studying.

Many beginners start playing in tournaments, using the gained experience from cash games they played. It is a remarkable failure, which may lead to sad consequences. To avoid this, in today's article we will analyze everything that concerns poker tournament strategy.

How to play poker tournaments: basic rules

At the beginning of the event, when players are randomly seated at the tables, all participants have the same number of chips — equal stacks (except for tournaments with rebuys). Here the main goal of the game is to take as many chips as possible from the opponents and reach the prizes. In general it’s a simple formula: the higher the place — the greater the reward. Of course, the rest of the rules like betting rounds (flop, turn and river), players’ moves, etc. stays the same.

If a player loses all the chips, he is out of the tournament and cannot continue playing and get the money reward. If he reaches the prize place, he gets the prize according to the place he took.

During the tournament players, as in a cash game, make forced bets — blinds and sometimes ante. At the same time blinds and antes increase after each certain period of time. This is an important feature of tournament play, taking into account which a player chooses a tactics and style of play — depending on the ratio of his stack size and blinds.

4 stages of tournament game

In most types of tournaments it’s common to distinguish four stages of play. It may be combined or modified depending on the format and type of event:

Stage 1: the beginning of the tournament, when there are still many players who play by luck and not by poker strategy. At this stage of the tournament it is important to build up your stack at the expense of their mistakes. Many aggressors and loose players are eliminated from the tournament at this stage, so the game becomes more complicated. Blinds at this stage are still low and all participants can play comfortably.

Stage 2: most of the loose participants and aggressors probably are now out of the tournament. But some of them are still around and can be a great source of chips. Big blinds at this stage become prominent for short stacks, and stealing blinds is an opportunity to increase your stack. The game should be played more tightly than in the first stage, noticeably reducing the range of hands played. Short stacks, on the other hand, should play aggressively in position. Otherwise blinds and ante will ruin an already small stack.

Stage 3: the game is just before the prize area or the bubble. In theory, at this stage you should do everything to stay in the tournament and get into the prizes, which calls for a very cautious poker game. However, since most of your opponents do exactly that, you can take advantage of the situation and use aggressive play to build up your stack. You should be aggressive against players with short stacks, as they will save chips as much as possible.

Stage 4: the prize area and game at the final table requires particularly skillful tactics. Here it is recommended to play in the usual style, which by experience is profitable. A large stack gives ample opportunity to use tactical and deceptive techniques. On the contrary, a short stack with big blinds forces you to play the Push-Fold strategy.

Note: Push-Fold is a small-stack tournament game that involves only two types of decisions — 1 to go all-in from position with any less promising hand; 2 — to fold if one of your opponents raises and your pocket cards are unplayable.

Why does the Holdem tournament strategy differ from cash games?

In a cash game, any winnings immediately become part of the bankroll and the player. Here, having won a large pot, players can leave the game anytime. At the cash table you can take the amount of chips that the chosen tournament strategy requires.

Another popular situation: after losing all your chips you can make a buy-in and continue playing, for example if you want to break through. But for poker tournaments such an approach is impossible.

Next tip — in tournaments, things are different at least for couple of reasons:

Firstly, at early stage all players at the table have the same number of chips, which is regulated by the rules of each particular tournament.

Secondly, after winning some chips the player can not immediately exchange them for money. Tournament prizes are credited only to those who get into the prize zone (ITM). It turns out that in tournaments chips are not the equivalent of money, but awarded after a player takes the prize place.

Poker tournaments strategy depending on stack size (Dan Harrington’s Zone System)

In tournament play there are no chip buy-ins (except for rebuy events, but even there you can only buy-ins in a limited period of time) and a player who loses his stack is eliminated from the game.

Well known poker author and player Dan Harrington was the first to suggest changing tournament tactics. Depending on stack size and its ratio to blinds. This was described in detail in one of his works: Harrington on Hold'em, Volume II: The Endgame. 

This Texas Hold Em tournament strategy is the easiest to understand and is recommended for beginners. The WSOP champion's advice suggests that tournament play can be divided into five zone (stage of a poker tournament), where the ratio of your stack to blinds and ante is called "M":

Green Zone (M = 20+)

If the player's stack is greater than the sum of blinds and ante at least twenty times, you can safely expand the range of playable poker hands. It helps to use the entire arsenal of poker techniques to continue making big stack or save those chips that are available. In the green zone, you can choose both aggressive and tight style of play (you can alternate between them).

Yellow Zone (M = 10-20)

The yellow zone comes when the number of chips in the stack exceeds the sum of blinds and ante by 10-20 times. The conditions are such that the available chips should be used to increase the stack as efficiently as possible. This will require aggressive play, bluffing, but the spectrum of starting hands will have to narrow, virtually eliminating suited connectors and small pairs. The amount of chips is such that spending them on speculative hands is unacceptable.

Orange Zone (М = 6-10)

If a player's stack exceeds the sum of blinds and ante by 6-10 times, the situation becomes more complicated. This amount of chips will require maximum economy and they can not be risked on deceptive techniques, because the size of the stack will not allow you to effectively play a bluff. 

The player's main goal on this stage is to double his stack and therefore chips can be spent only to play big pocket cards. Getting a poker hand of premium starting cards (two aces, two kings, ace-king) should strive to go all-in to take advantage of the opportunity to double up.

Red Zone (М = 1-5)

In case there are only a few chips left for a few hands, as the stack exceeds the sum of blinds and ante only 1-5 times, it remains only to find the moment when you can go all-in. In this case, you may not wait for premium starting cards at all, and then you will have to go all-in with speculative hands. For example, in this case, an ace combined with any other card, is already a great reason to go all-in. 

In the red zone, you must constantly pay attention to the forced bets, as they will be fatal to the stack, as well as the ante. You can forget about position and when you get a more or less good hand, you can go all-in regardless of the blinds. The success of the game in this zone largely depends on luck.

Dead Zone (М = -1)

If the available chips are less than the sum of blinds and ante, there is nothing that can be done with the help of poker experience. In this case, you will have to go all-in with any pocket cards and rely on luck. Once in this zone, you should immediately put all the chips on the line, regardless of position and cards in hand.

This tactic of tournament play is a great help for beginners and allows you to play efficiently. However, it does not take into account some aspects of tournament play, for example — the peculiarities of the game before the prize area, at the final table, period during rebuys, etc. In addition, some formats require the use of special poker tournament strategy tips that are applicable only to specific types of events, such as hyper-turbo events.

Poker tournament tips for playing at the final table

Finally, let's highlight the top recommendations from professionals for successful tournament play.

Take a closer look at your opponents' seating

Whether or not you are out or in chip leader position is just as important to winning as skill. The first thing to look at on the final table is which side of the poker table: the short and deep stacks are sitting on.

You may be able to pressure the short stack with continuation bet, but the chip leader sitting to your right may do the same against you.

Don't forget about the style of play of your opponents. Sitting to the right of a tight opponent, you can pressure him with raises. But when you are to the left and your opponent has already invested in the pot with a cautious call or bet, your aggression to provoke a fold is more profitable.

Use poker software

Nowadays many people condemn programs for collecting statistics. They’ll 100% save you from unnecessary work. You don't need to make notes with descriptions of your opponents, get confused with paperwork, etc. Poker software does it for you. But even without statistics there is a lot of useful software online: poker calculators, highlighting for multitabling and much more.

Don't take away the advantage of using poker software, especially at the beginning of a career.

Keep an eye on your opponents via SharkScope

But HUDs only collect stats on opponents you have already played with. If you are playing with unknown players in the finals, look for their nicknames on the SharkScope. The website will tell you what limit the poker player is playing most often, his win rate, etc.

If your opponent has registered in an expensive tournament, he will stick to the final poker table and roll more cautiously. You'll be able to easily pressure him with tribets. But his move to a higher limit can mean a marked improvement.

Changing strategies

In order to stay in the tournament longer and place higher, roll more carefully and cope with short stacks. This is an advantageous tournament Holdem strategy when you are just starting out. You will have more time to observe more experienced players and determine their style of play.

But with good cards or playing at a very tight table, don't miss the opportunity to build up your big stack and take out your opponents by yourself. Aggressively bluff against unsure tight players, and having good cards, take chips out of maniacs. Also don't be afraid to 3-bet. We finished our first chapter — it’s all you should know about Hold Em tournament strategy at first.

Varieties of tournaments

Take note that playing tournament poker is diverse. Online events vary in terms of game types and formats. There are 2 types of events: regular and sit-and-go, so let’s check them out next.


They differ from regular events in that they start only when the required number of participants is reached. Such an event may start as soon as it is announced, or it may start only a few days later. 

They have the advantage that popular Sit-and-Go's don't have to wait long, which is appreciated by many players who can carve out some free time to play. Also take note that these events can be single-table or multi-table.


Classical regular event starts at the exact time, which is set by the schedule of the chosen poker room. However, for the event to take place, there must be a minimum number of participants. 

Unlike Sit-&-Go, a player always knows exactly what time the event will start and can adjust his playing schedule. In such events, the prize pool directly depends on the number of participants.

The more players take part in it, the greater are the number of prizes and the prizes for the ITM zone and first places.

Tournament schedule

As we mentioned, the variety of poker formats is pretty huge and each type of tournament requires you to customize your tactics. For example, the GGPoker schedule includes tournaments of the usual format, with rebuys (chip buy-ins), with rewards for knocking out opponents, etc.

Tournament play can also differ in the speed of blinds growth. For example, in regular events the bets can change every 10-15 minutes, while in turbo poker games they grow every five minutes.

How to play poker tournaments for free

All popular rooms regularly hold freerolls — poker tournaments where you can play for free. Here you can win different prizes: real money, tickets to cash events, loyalty points, etc.

Every player can take part in freerolls for free without making a deposit. But some of them are held as part of special promotions — to play in it you need to get a ticket by passing certain conditions of promotion (sometimes by making a deposit).

Playing tournaments for free can be a great way to improve your skills and winning poker events more often (or getting into the ITM).

Final thoughts on tournament strategy

Unlike the cash game, tournament play is more interesting and emotionally intense. Online poker events are a great opportunity not only to have fun, but also to make money. In popular rooms you can start your career as a tournament player with inexpensive events. Here you will be able to apply the recommendations on how to win a poker tournaments given in this article without hitting your wallet. How great is that?


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