Picking your spots in poker tournaments

World-Series-of-Poker-July-2010-dealer-tables-300x200I see spots before my eyes.

No, I don’t have an exotic disease. I am talking about how I have been taught to approach a tournament.

In my poker education, I have been fortunate enough to know or meet a few professional poker players and be able to converse with them about the game. About two years ago, I was in the common quandary regarding the tight aggressive versus loose aggressive debate in multi table tournaments. I posed the question to a few professionals. I did have one “I don’t know” answer, I had a couple it doesn’t matter, I had one (Jonathan Little) who told me professionals do not use hand charts, they just play the hands that feel right in the right spot.

However, one answer left an impression on my mind. Lee Childs told me that he generally plays a tight aggressive base game, however, he is constantly on the lookout for good spots to diverge from his base game. That was a light bulb moment. Professional poker players look for good spots. The others were basically trying to tell me the same thing, however, the way Lee communicated the information made me realize what they were telling me. So for me to improve, I must adopt the same mindset toward the game. I must look for good spots.

The next part of my study had me questioning, what is a good spot? After pondering this question for a while, I feel a definition of a good spot is a situation that allows for an opportunity to increase your equity in the tournament. This is mostly accomplished by winning pots. There are two ways to win a pot, by showing down the best hand or by causing your opponents to fold.

Therefore, we can label good spots to invest your chips as the following: 1) a situation where your hand has sufficient equity to be the best hand at showdown, 2) a situation that allows you to win the pot with a bet or raise, or 3) a situation where you neither expect to have sufficient equity nor expect to win the pot often enough with a bet or raise, however, the combination of the two allow for positive equity.

When considering a tournament from this perspective, there are two ways to make a mistake in this regards: you miss a spot or you invest chips in a bad spot.

There are two ways to miss a spot. The first and most obvious mistake is that you do not see the spot. This comes from lack of knowledge and experience. The more you study and the more you play, the more spots will start becoming obvious to you.

The second way to miss a spot is to recognize that the spot exists, however, you failed to take the spot. Usually, when you are first learning of a new spot, you are sometimes gun shy when you see a spot you just learned. However, my advice to you is to take the spot and see what happens. Trial and error is the only way to make good plays a part of your tool box.

Another has become the battle cry in forums in recent years, and to be honest, it is a recipe for blinding out. ”Wait for a better spot.” A good spot is a good spot, and there’s never any guarantee you will get another spot at all, let alone a better one in the future. Passing up too many good spots will cause you to blind out.

While on this topic though, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that you do not need to take every spot. If you had several spots recently your image may be such that re-evaluating a bluff opportunity may indicate that it is not such a good spot now, things such as your image or this specific target is not a good target for a move. This is understanding how all of the details may affect the spot you are currently facing that may turn a normally good spot into a bad spot. Additionally, you may be in the process of attempting to create a tight image for some meta-game reason, and this spot may be too thin, that passing up this spot now, may trade for greater equity later on.

The reverse problem of missing spots, is to invest chips in bad spots. The most obvious example is the weak player calling too many hands before the flop. These players obviously are investing chips in bad spots.

Another example on the other end of the spectrum is a player trying to run some complicated 3 barrel bluff line against a level 1 calling station. This was not a good spot, yet, this player tried to force the matter.

A way to make a mistake of investing chips in a bad spot is the situation of the third type, the combination spot. This is the type of spot where your combination of aggression and equity is what makes it a good spot, however, you play this spot passively. That would make a good spot into a bad spot based on your reaction.

To become a better tournament poker player, you have train yourself to learn to recognize good spots and develop the courage to take the good spots when they are available. This is partially what my articles will address. What are the good spots? I touched on a lot of these in my last series on short stack play. Additionally, you must develop the discipline to avoid the bad spots.

It is fairly easy when you are in a spot where your hand strength is what is making the spot. This is the first thing poker players learn. It is what is called level 1 poker. The hardest part is to recognize spots where your cards don’t matter and to have the courage to pull the trigger.

Joseph Pregler plays regularly in live tournaments on the East Coast and enjoys sharing his wisdom and experience to novice and intermediate players.  You can follow him at www.facebook.com/jjpregler 

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