To novice players or people who don't know a damn thing about poker that they haven't learned from watching Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore spit in the face of the game in 2007's "Lucky You", poker is basically a glorified crap shoot.
Anyone who has played even semi-seriously, however, knows that winning poker isn't just about luck. Or more to the point, it's not even mostly about luck. But yes, one must concede there is an undeniable element of chance in poker, especially in tournament poker, and it can make or break your bankroll if you don't know when to appeal to the gambling gods, and when to keep your sights set firmly on cold, hard facts.
Schools of Thought
There are a couple of schools of thought in tournament poker. The first was made popular by such books as Making the Final Table by Eric Lindgren, and Every Hand Revealed by Gus Hansen. This philosophy is about trying to find every edge you can in a tournament, no matter how small, and being willing to bet the house. As long as you are at least a 51% favourite in any situation, you can expect to eventually win a tournament when you have a streak of good luck if you follow these strategies. If you can put in enough time, all these small edges will add up and you'll get the big score.
The second school of thought places a much higher value on tournament life. Players like Phil Hellmuth stand by this philosophy, saying that by simply being in the tournament, they have a huge edge and don't need to take big gambles. They don't need a big chip stack to be able to work their way through a big field. Players that subscribe to this philosophy believe that they can make their chips by stealing, re-stealing, and playing a solid small ball approach.
Which philosophy is right? Which one is the way to go?
If you've watched any of my videos or read any of my blogs, my answer probably won't come as a surprise. The right approach depends on you. I think both approaches are a winning formula for tournaments, if implemented correctly. Ideally, a mix of both will give you the best chance of getting those winning results.
Before I get into the specifics of tournament play, however, I want to touch on cash games since they are easier to understand and a concept from this will leak into tournament play.
To call or not to call? That is the question.
Calling All-In in Cash Games
What does the math say? In cash games, you generally want to favour the decision that has the highest expectation, and that means going with the math. If your equity (i.e. chance of winning) against all your opponents’ possible holdings (i.e. their range) is higher than the pot odds you're getting, then you're probably going to want to get involved. Your odds of winning are greater than your odds of losing. You're staying ahead, and this is what winning poker strategy really comes down to. The only time I can think of an exception is if your goal for the evening is not to make as much money as possible. You're not trying to maximize every situation and squeeze out every penny. If you just want to have fun, and didn't bring extra reloads to keep playing, then you're probably going to want to pass up close spots in the interest of playing a longer session.
Calling All-In in Tournaments
From the MTT Strategy Guide, you should know the main goal of a tournament is to win the event. So what are your odds of winning? That depends on how many players there are left in the field, your stack size compared to your opponents' and the average skill level left in the field. Know these factors, and it's always possible to get an idea of your odds of winning the tournament.
So, if you have an average stack with 50 players left, your odds should be at least 1 in 50 to win the tournament. If you have more chips than average, then those odds will be higher - maybe a 1 in 40 chance- and if you have fewer chips, the odds will be lower.
BUT your odds do not work in direct proportion to your chip stack. Doubling your stack does not double your chances of winning the tournament. That also depends on the skill level of the remaining players and what their playing type is. With a tight passive player, you can do a lot more with a shorter stack size than you could with a tight aggressive player.
There's a lot to consider.
If you can always keep in mind your chances of winning the tournament before every decision you make, you'll be on the right path to being smart with your all-in plays.
The real question is: do I need to gamble to get what I want? Or can I get what I want without it?
Remember, when you're faced with a decision about whether or not to call an all-in, the first thing you want to consider is your odds of winning against all your opponents' possible holdings. (Again, I'm talking about range. You can use tools like PokerStove and EquiLab to help figure this out.)
Next, consider your pot odds. When you have a good chance of winning, generally, you just want to take the gamble. There are precious few times you wouldn't want to take this edge. 60%-80% edges don't come around very often and if I have a solid chance of chipping up with those odds, I'm generally going to take them.
It's when we're looking at the 45%-55% range that things get a little murkier. Maybe you're at a final table and you have a chance to flip with the other big stack. There may be spots where you don't want to take the flip since you're guaranteed to take 4th or 5th place with your stack already and you have a pretty good shot at winning the tournament. Yes, taking out the other big stack would increase your chances of winning, but 1st place isn't a priority. You'll still cash without being number one.
You want to look at your stack before you do anything. How much flexibility do you have in your stack? What weapons do you have access to? Will you be able to maneuver through the field with your stack? Can you put pressure on your opponents and find ways to chip up? Or are you just sitting on a stack, waiting for a spot to jam all in or reshove over an open? As a general rule, the less flexibility you have, the more you should be inclined to gamble to get that flexibility.
Ask yourself: If I call and win, what will my chip stack be? What sort of flexibility will I have? How much higher will your odds of winning the tournament be?
Likewise, do the same exercise if you take a gamble and lose. Will winning the gamble make you better off than losing would leave you worse off? And does it even matter? Do you already have a good shot at winning the tournament or are you already pretty much out?
Ask yourself: What stage of the tournament am I in? When you're near the end, each chip is worth more since you are closer to the pay off, whereas early on, each chip you might win is not worth as much as the chips you already have since the finish line is far off.
This is what you'll want to consider when deciding if you want to take a close spot by gambling.
When calling all-in, you're always going to be gambling. You have to work out your odds of winning and whether the potential payoff can outweigh the potential loss.
To learn more about the weapons you need to win poker tournaments, check out my MTT Video Strategy Guide! 6 hours covering all the fundamentals needed for tournament poker.