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how to win a poker tournament

How to Win a Poker Tournament | Helpful Tips

So, you want to know how to win a poker tournament. I don’t blame you. It’s an invigorating experience, and it never gets old. I should tell you from the start that while I have won more than a dozen Texas Hold’em poker tournaments in the four-digit range and cashed for more in bigger poker tournaments, I have yet to win a poker tournament where 1st Place pays five digits.

Do I know how to win a poker tournament? Yes. Am I the top source in the industry on how to win a poker tournament? No.

However, based on previous life trends, I think that can change. No, I don’t think I will become the top source on how to win a poker tournament. But I do believe I will ship one (and hopefully more) where 1st place pays five digits.

Everyone tells me the same thing: The first big win is the hardest, then you start to rattle them off. My biggest score to date is 7th of 2,373 runners for just shy of $21k. I also have several cashes in the $5k-$8k range, and many more lower than that.

Cashing vs. Winning

Recently, I haven’t been cashing big, but I have been cashing. I’m heading back in the right direction, and I know why. It’s because I’m not playing too many poker hands, which means I’m not playing too fast. I’m also respecting my poker position at all times, folding when I’m not sure, buying-in late, and telling Ego and Greed to go screw themselves, or each other.

All that said, the reasons given above are why I’m cashing more poker tournaments. They aren’t reasons why I have been winning Texas Hold’em poker tournaments. There’s a difference between cashing and winning. If you want to know how to win a poker tournament, that’s a different ballgame.

Fortunately, I know exactly why I’m winning small poker tournaments and only cashing in bigger poker tournaments. I’ll explain.

how to win a poker tournament - cashing vs winning

What’s amazing is that I wouldn’t know the answer unless I was writing notes for 19%, which is a poker experiment book I’m working on. I’m keeping tracks of Flops Seen. I know this is very similar to VPIP (Voluntarily Put Money In Pot), but I write for a broad audience.

If I were to use VPIP, the instant they read that acronym, they would run for the hills. They would be so steamed on the first page due to confusion that their brains would catch fire. Then I might be liable. I’m not sure, but I don’t want to take that chance.

How to Win a Poker Tournament: 19%

how to win a poker tournament - 19%

Anyway, here’s what I’ve noticed since I have kept track of Flops Seen for 49 poker tournaments so far (of 100). When I see more than 25% of flops, I pretty much have no chance of cashing. This happens more than you think, which is a big part of the book up until this point: I set out to play 19% of poker hands or fewer and I’m unable to do so, which leads to some fun (and hopefully funny) rampage vents.

There is one poker tournament where I was above 25% and did well, but other than that, seeing this many flops is -EV. I’m not saying that will be the case for you specifically, but it will be the case for most people. If you’re following my poker rules for winning, then I highly recommend not playing this many hands.

When I’m at 19% or below, I cash often. So far, this is +EV. This is great for my records and reputation, but cashing isn’t the same as winning. It’s winning money, but it’s not winning. If money is your goal, it’s not winning a lot of money either.

Putting Your Chips to Work

What I have found is that when I’m between 22% and 25% of Flops Seen, I have the best chance at making a final table. It might not seem like that much of a difference, but there is a huge difference. Every single hand plays a huge role in live poker. You’re not seeing nearly as many hands as online, which means you have a smaller margin for error.

When I go above 25% of Flops Seen, I’m putting myself in too many risky spots. When I go below 22% of Flops Seen, my chances at cashing skyrocket, which is great, but I’m also not taking enough chances on big pots to get all the chips in the room. You have to decide which approach is best for you.

If you want to know how to win a poker tournament, then I can sum it up for you right here: You need to put your chips to work while also knowing when to change speeds.

Two Recent Wins

I don’t know how many cashes I have had over the past two months, but I know my game really came back to me after I got crushed in Vegas and chilled the hell out. When I was in Vegas, I was trying to beat my chest and force the action. That’s Ego! It’s also a terrible poker strategy.

This is why I don’t want you to get the wrong idea and play too many hands. Keep in mind that seeing above 25% of flops is much worse than seeing 19% of flops or less. In fact, my lowest Flops Seen so far (by a landslide) is 14% at the RunGood Tunica Bounty Tournament. I think I finished 21st of 424. It was something like that.

Either way, that’s not easy when you’re one of the few bounties in the room because everyone is coming after you. Part of my poker strategy in this spot was to play fewer hands due to being a bounty. I might have taken it a little too far, but it was a decent showing.

One of the most important poker tips you will ever read, regardless of who is writing the poker tips, is the following: Play Fewer Hands! This doesn’t mean you should be a Nit. It simply means to play fewer hands. This won’t apply to all of you, but I know for certain that the people who lose the most are those who play too many hands.

How to Win a Poker Tournament: Winning

As far as those wins go, one was a $125 buy-in and the other was a $400 buy-in. Neither of these reported to HendonMob, so don’t even bother. My earnings are way higher than HendonMob, which is the case for everyone (and my HendonMob is under my legal name, which I barely use in real life). The first tournament was at Harrah’s Cherokee (not during the WSOP), and the other was at The Lodge Poker Club in Round Rock, Texas.

the Lodge Poker Club

On the first one, I could tell it was a passive table and attacked the instant the gun went off. I was in chip-building mode. Whenever I was met with resistance and I had nothing to work with, I would fold. I applied a ton of pressure otherwise.

On the second one, it was a different structure and a longer tournament, which relates to the $400 buy-in. I had to use a different poker strategy due to the structure, which was to be very patient for the first half of the tournament. At about the halfway point, I began applying pressure when I had position.

Since these players hadn’t seen me apply pressure earlier in the tournament, they gave me respect for these raises. Even more important is that they gave me respect for my continuation bets on the flop because this seemed like it was out of character. Nobody at the table knew that I had been setting this up for hours.

How to Win a Poker Tournament: Mindset

There is also a psychological factor here. When you’re at a poker table and you see someone who is weak and passive, you put your guard down and see them as a non-threat. When that person starts becoming a lot more active (and effective) later in the tournament, you begin to wonder what’s going on.

You first ask yourself if you had the wrong read on that player. Then you wonder if that player is being smacked across the face by the deck (that’s a good thing).

The bottom line is that you’re confused because now you can’t peg the player. You had them pegged as a Nit, but now they’re playing TAG, or maybe even AGGRO. It’s tough to deal with a player like that. If that’s the case, be that player!

When I was at the final table on the $400 buy-in tournament, I got the chip lead and would jam/call all-in with hands like A5, KQ, and AT. These aren’t hands I would go to battle with if I had a medium stack, but I knew that these were spots I was going to need to win if I wanted to win the tournament because the blinds were so high (and moving higher).

I didn’t win all of those hands, but I won enough of them where I was heads-up and my opponent asked if I wanted to chop (even chop). He had the chip lead at that time, so I agreed.

The Message

Everything sounds great so far. You might be looking at this as: Here’s some dude who travels the country to play poker and cashes. You’re correct, but what you don’t know is that I have yet to play like the person above in a truly big event.

Up until this point, when I play in big poker tournaments, I lean toward the tight side. That’s always the case, but I’m referring to the tight side without the necessary gamble to win a tournament. I will take some chances, but not enough. This needs to change.

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I’d like to think that since I recognize my fault, I can change it. If I was stubborn and closed-minded, I wouldn’t be willing or ready to adjust.

If I transferred my approach to the game to bigger poker tournaments, it would likely lead to better results. At the same time, I’m incredibly tough on myself, and should probably be happy with many final tables in the bigger tournaments over the past 15 months.

I strongly believe the correct approach on how to win a poker tournament is the approach I took with the $400 buy-in tournament.

I would first buy-in late (I didn’t tell you that earlier), play tight and stay out of the way until at least half the field is gone, use your tight image to your advantage when in position in order to accumulate chips quickly and get the chip lead, attack all passive players relentlessly, take chances on big pots (if circumstances are favorable), and then jam and call all-ins with marginal to premium hands.

Don’t be afraid to attempt to knock out your opponents with marginal hands when you have the chip lead. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.

Final Thoughts

If you want to cash in a lot of poker tournaments or win small poker tournaments, I can show you the way with a lot of confidence. However, if you want to know how to win a poker tournament that pays $50k or higher up top, I’m not there yet. I’m always going to be transparent. The good news is that I think I know how to get there. The potential problem is that saying it and doing it are two different things.

Let’s keep it simple for now. Something tells me you would be happy winning a small poker tournament that pays between $1,000 and $4,000. If that’s the case, I highly recommend keeping track of what percentage of flops you see.

Since we’re keeping it simple on how to win a poker tournament, the only goal right now is to keep it under 25%. When you’re at 25% specifically, I think you’re putting yourself at too much risk. If you want to increase your chances of cashing (not winning), get that number much lower.

If you’re a cash game player and wondering about traditional poker games, the same rule applies. When you play traditional poker games with these poker rules for staying below 25% on Flops Seen, you should do well. I would recommend getting it below 20% for better results.

Common knowledge would tell you to play more hands in cash games, but do you realize what that means? Since this is the common theory, most opponents are going to play too many poker hands. Since cash game players are willing to rebuy, and since players come and go, you’re going to get more calls when you’re holding a monster. Stick to the poker rules for winning provided here, kick back, and enjoy your methodical wins.

♠ pokerjournal.org / Tyler Nals

How to Win a Poker Tournament – FAQs

Q: How often should you cash in a poker tournament?

A: Too many variables, but the key to profitability is making final tables. That’s where you win the money to cover buy-ins for other poker tournaments.

Q: How do you prepare for a poker tournament?

A: Everyone is different. If everything is clicking, I sleep well, eat well, exercise, and drink a lot of water prior to playing. I see better results when I do these things?

Q: How often should I play poker?

A: It depends on how much you love the game. Tournament players play long hours and then take long breaks. Cash game players operate more on a weekly basis, such as four days per week or five days a week.

Q: What’s the difference between a re-buy and a re-entry in poker tournaments?

A: Re-buys are no longer popular, but they do exist. It means you can buy back in to the tournament at the same seat. Re-entry tournaments are more popular. This means you have to go back up to the cage and re-enter the tournament as a new entrant, which will usually mean a different seat.

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