Anybody that reads my blog will know that I am not a tournament player and that I essentially make my money from playing cash games. However, I know how to play tournament poker very well but choose not to do so simply because of the very high variance involved.
It is very difficult for any player, irrespective of ability, to be able to play tournament poker for a living. Millions of novice and intermediate tournament players go through their entire tournament lives little realising that their style of play will never win a large field event, with more than a thousand players in it for example.
Actually, the field wouldn’t even have to be as large as that for many tournament players to essentially have no chance of winning. So where do these players go wrong? Well, firstly, we need to understand what is required to win a big poker tournament. Clearly, we need a combination of luck and skill and you cannot win any poker tournament without luck. However, just what does “skill” actually mean in tournament poker and luck for that matter? Well, to better analyse that, we need to assess what your two main goals are in tournament poker.
These are to survive and to accumulate chips. If you don’t survive then you are eliminated and if you don’t accumulate chips then you are eliminated. Because of the rapid time frame, you have to take risks to accumulate chips, which decrease your chances of survival, but yet you have to survive to win… so you can see the paradox here. The real skill in playing tournament poker is striking the right balance between accumulating chips and not taking silly needless risks. There is one undeniable fact of playing tournament poker and it is that there will only be one winner and that winner needs to amass all of the other chips that are in circulation.
Now it stands to reason that you cannot achieve this (win every other chip in circulation) by getting lucky in the traditional sense. So waiting for strong starting cards in poker tournaments will only take you so far. The real truth of the matter is that you will have to be very active in stealing blinds and also re-stealing from the stealers. If you could steal chips once or twice per orbit on average then your chances of making the final table would be excellent.
The best tournament poker players in the world do not just rely on getting big starting cards and lucky situations. They understand that they have to get lucky to win poker tournaments, but their luck comes in different ways. For example, if they steal blinds then they may not run into a hand that can play back at them for long periods of time in a given tournament. Likewise if they re-steal from players that are looking to steal and never running into a premium hand! This is also luck, but it is a different form of luck to the player that sits back and waits for premium hands and big hands to come along.