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Tournament Tips: Playing From Early Position

by David “The Maven” Chicotsky

Many poker players approach tournaments the wrong way—not realizing that they will be essentially forced to “make plays” in order to keep up with the blind increases. Even if you are very successful and get away with murder at the table, you’re still going to get naturally shallowed out by the basic structure of the tournament. Tournaments, quite simply, revolve around stealing the blinds and antes. If you’re coming from a cash game background where you can sit around all night long peddling the nuts, this hard truth can work against you.

Some of the easiest and most obvious spots to steal from are on or around the button. Make sure you’re also going out of your way to re-steal from people raising in stealing position. It’s not enough to simply call from the big blind and hope you hit your hand. We’re forced to take an active role in defending the blinds by re-raising pre-flop as well as making moves against positional raisers and bettors postflop. The key is applying controlled aggression from many different positions with many types of pre-flop hands. Getting value out of marginal cards is critical—as we are only dealt premium and semi-premium hands very rarely.

Look for reasons to make plays against certain opponents. Sometimes they’re playing too loosely and other times they are playing too tight. Generally speaking, we can exploit players playing too loosely to our right and exploit players playing too tight to our left. It’s up to us to target players and go after their chips; they’re not simply going to hand them over to us. Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if you open-raise and a player calls from the blinds—that’s a bad thing. It’s very hard for our opponents to win, on average, when they’re playing passively out of position. If we’re the original raiser and we have position, we have a decisive advantage; that’s a situation we’d like to get into as often as possible.

Obviously we don’t mind if we raise with trash and get folds from the blinds. Showdown free chips are as good as it gets. All of that said, it’s also a positive position to be in when we have the initiative (open-raising) and position. With all the small open-raises these days, like open min-raises, it’s often unrealistic to expect the blinds to fold too often. When they do call we need to have a plan of attack—in order to take down as many pots as possible. Keep in mind that in tournaments, players are oftentimes too willing to fold marginal hands in position—when an open-raise is clearly a positive expected value situation. It’s up to us to push the boundaries of what is possible and because of the nature of progressive payouts, it’s better to be too aggressive rather than not aggressive enough.

Just like with martial arts, it’s to our advantage to have our opponent leaning in too much or on their heels. If we encounter a player that is getting out of line by raising and re-raising at a higher than average frequency we’re able to successfully exploit them by counter-punching (re-raising, 4-betting, check-raising, floating and raising). If we encounter a player that is playing too tight, especially if they are to our left—we should be looking to raise into them at any chance we get. We have to be actively searching for players worth going after—on both ends of the spectrum, while playing them accordingly.

We should also take notice of other players picking on tight players and be sure to intervene in these situations. For example, if a loose opener raises into a very tight player, oftentimes this is a prime spot to “intercept” his raise by re-raising. I call this defending the weak. Look for weakness at the table and try your best to interfere when other players pick on the weak players. The next time you sit down to play poker, don’t just sit there and wait for good cards. Go out of your way to seek out situations where you can accumulate chips on your way to the final table.

David “The Maven” Chicotsky is the 2008 Online Player of the Year and a former #1 ranked online tournament poker player. He is also an experienced poker coach and can be reached at

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