Stu Ungar

MTT early stage strategy

The problem with early stage large buy-in tournament strategy is, that if you started your online poker bankroll playing large MTT freerolls like many players did, you’re going to have to make some major changes when you move on to real money ones, especially large buy-in ones.

Something like the PokerStars’ Sunday Million involves a rather substantial investment ($200+$15) and that changes the input data of the problem significantly. In freerolls, the early going was simple: you had to play as tight as possible, because half the players early on were only looking to double up or to bust.

Because of the number of callers you had on every all-in (and because of the schooling effect that came with it), it was sometimes even reasonable to fold hands you knew were the best at the table at the time of the call.

High buy-in MTTs are nothing like that. There, serious play begins right off the bat, as everyone involved is looking to protect their investment to the best of their abilities. Therefore, while you may still get a few rogue players, the double up or bust crowd will be largely extinct in these tournaments.

Overall play will be pretty tight in the early stage: everyone knows that’s the way you’re supposed to deal with this stage, and therefore you won’t get people shoving all in on J3o, unless they sense that their table is so tight it’ll let them get away with it.

The only problem with that is, because the blinds are so small, it won’t really make a whole lot of sense to risk your tournament life for stealing them. That sort of value is just not there yet.

The best thing you can do is to approach the matter from the good old Harrington angle and then personalize things a little to suit the reads you get on your opponents. Your table may or may not be willing to let you get away with certain things but the bottom line is these folks will hang on to their stacks to the very last chip.

You should be aware that a double up at this stage will only likely come about at the end of a perfect hand situation (using the term loosely, which means it includes some poor soul running his two pairs into your set).

According to Harrington, at this stage of the game, you have more than 20 Ms (M is the sum of the BB and SB) in your stack. That means there’s no pressure on you, and you’re pretty much free to play any style you deem productive. Never lose sight of the fact though that your goal is to keep your stack above 20Ms (to stay in what Harrington calls the “Green Zone”), which means you will be required to chip up continuously.

Because of the relative lack of pressure, you can afford to play in an extra conservative way, or you can become an aggressive maniac too. Shifting gears to mislead your opponents is also still part of the weapons arsenal at your disposal.

All this means, there’s no clear answer to the question: how tight do I have to be in the opening stages? Ultimately, that’s up to you to determine. That’s what’s tricky about it.

Again: your goal is to keep your stack above 20Ms, knowing that the blinds will escalate. Take a long hard look at your table and set the course of action you deem correct for attaining that objective. You may not have to be tight at all, or you may have to turtle up completely. Whatever the case is, at this stage you can afford to adopt any of those approaches.

One thing though: you’ll have to be extremely flexible and adaptable. As players are eliminated and as you chip up, you will be tossed from one table to another, so you need to be able to adapt your strategy almost on the moment’s notice.

Don’t forget to sign up for rakeback either. When paying tourney fees of $15, a 30% rakeback deal, or a 27% one like the full tilt rakeback will earn you more than $4 on a single MTT alone. That’s the equivalent of skipping the tourney fees on every 4th tournament that you play. Poker prop deals offer even better rakeback percentages, so you may want to look into that matter too.