Monday, January 09, 2006

Low Buy-In Online Tournament Mainfesto Version 1.0: Guest Post from Joe Speaker

Editor's Note: As you know, I'm off for the first two weeks of the year working on my Las Vegas book project. In the meantime, my friends will be taking over the Tao of Poker. Here's the fifth of a collection of guest posts from your favorite bloggers. JoeSpeaker is one of my favroite writers and the author of Obituarium. He can not only write, but he can play poker too. I'm grateful he decided to share some of his pearls of wisdom. Thanks again to JoeSpeaker!

Joe Speaker's Low Buy-In Online Tournament Mainfesto Version 1.0
"Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms. It's by talking nonsense that one gets to the truth! I talk nonsense, therefore I'm human. Not one single truth has ever been arrived at without people first having talked a dozen reams of nonsense, even ten dozen reams of it, and that's an honourable thing in its own way...Talk nonsense to me, by all means, but do it with your own brain, and I shall love you for it. To talk nonsense in one's own way is almost better than to talk a truth that's someone else's; in the first instance, you behave like a human being, while in the second, you're nothing but a parrot!" -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
I am not as well read as my poker blogging brethren. In fact, I'm about to make a shocking confession right here and now. Though I play Multi-Table Tournaments almost exclusively online, I have never read The Bible: Super/System. I have it. I intend to read it. But I haven't yet.

I had a friend who was an amazing guitar player and he never took a lesson when he was learning how to play. When I asked him why, he said it was because he wanted to develop his own chops, didn't want to have the rote chord progressions pounded into his head. He wanted to find his own way, unrestrained by convention. It was only after he found his style that he turned to the seminal texts, and applied that knowledge to what he already believed to be his strengths.

I feel the same way about my tournament poker game. I have found a style that works and I stumbled across it based on my own experience. None of this is meant to discount the knowledge Doyle Brunson, Dan Harrington, et al have to share, for it is immensely helpful. But you can't fit a random individual's game into a box any more than there is a single stock answer for any poker question. As always, it depends.

In the last year, I've played probably 300 low buy-in ($20 or below) MTTs online (please note these tips apply only to freeze-out tournaments as re-buys are an entirely different animal that attract an entirely different species of poker player thanks to prize pools that regularly go north of $50K). I've found some chops that work for me. I've found what I consider to be essential truths for me to be successful. To be sure, none of this is new or groundbreaking. It is simply my nonsense. Perhaps somewhere in here, or beyond, is truth.

Hour One

1. Do not call raises with marginal hands. On the surface, this seems obvious. You don't want to get yourself into situations where you hit your hand but are second best. These are the types of players you want calling your raises and, believe me, they will, with hands like KT and QJ. Because the tourney fields regularly shed at least half the field in the first hour, it is important to double up. Sometimes, that very real motivation causes players to enter pots with less than stellar starting hands. Don't be that guy. The main reason is you will, an exceptionally high percentage of the time, get paid off when you DO have a monster hand. Which brings us to...

2. Leave your fancy ass plays at home. There is no need to be tricky. It is safe to assume the majority of your opponents are thinking at Level 1, if that. They know only what they have in their hand. If KQ calls your AA raise and flops a pair, they're going to war with it. TPTK is gold to these people. If Ax flops an ace, they're not concerned about their kicker. Pot bets, people. You must get paid off on your monsters. You must not slow-play them and let some backdoor draws hang in the pot. Shove in your chips, force your opponents to make mistakes.

3. Be willing to limp. In the beginning, I played raise or fold poker. I almost never limped. And I gave away chances to win big pots. If you're in position, with five limpers in front, and it's still in one of the early levels-where blinds are tiny compared to the stacks-take that flyer. You have to be disciplined enough not to chase a draw if you flop one and the price isn't right. You have to be willing to drop your limp if there is a raise behind you (unless it's a min. raise; then you KNOW everyone is paying the extra and your price is still right). Sometimes that flop just hits you upside the head and you can make a killing. A corollary to this is never fold your blinds to a min. raise, or, in some circumstances, a 3x raised family pot. You're never that much of a dog to the group. Now, you don't want to be playing every hand on an ultra-passive limping table, of which you'll find plenty. Chip conservation is still an issue. But if you take the opportunity to see some cheap flops with hands with potential-hands you wouldn't normally play to a raise, like JTs, baby pocket pairs, suited one-gappers--you just might find a flop to your liking, which you will, of course, bet as fast as you possibly can.

4. Pay attention. The early rounds of an MTT can be dull, especially if you're simply clicking fold over and over. There's no money at stake in the blinds and play is slow as people slough their way through. But that's no reason to take an eye off the screen and watch a ballgame. You need to spot the dead money so you can attack them later. You need to see who plays hands strangely and you need to see showdowns to get reads on players. You need to notice the tight guy over there who has folded his first 25 hands. Information is hard to come by in no limit where not a lot of hands get tabled, but you need to pick up every bit you can. Stay focused, take notes on players (as you will very likely see them again) and try to put people on hands when you're not in the pot.

5. When in doubt. There's this Cuban restaurant by my workplace. Good shit. My favorite dish is called Lechon Adobo, fried pork with citrus, onions and a metric ass-ton of garlic, with rice and black beans. Lechon Adobo is not the only reason I eat there often. There's also this counter girl. She can't possibly weigh more than 90 lbs. Just a wisp of a young lady with tired eyes and a ready smile. But the most easily recognizable thing about her is the enormous fake breasts bolted onto her chest. Each one is as big as her head. Besides being so disproportionate, the salt bags seem genuinely out of place on this girl. She's not some budding starlet or exotic entertainer. Not a Beverly Hills trophy wife or suburban cum dumpster. She's this little ethnic girl working in a little Cuban restaurant. With the hugest melons you've ever seen. Now, I don't understand any of this. I can't begin to get to the bottom of the back story, so I gave up trying.

Like our large-chested heroine, sometimes, in a poker tournament, I'll face a bet that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the hand. If I haven't committed myself to the hand and am not holding anything substantial, I just fold. I resist the urge to out-play the strange guy with the strange bet, cut my losses and preserve my stack for when I know where I stand. Harrington on Hold 'Em says, "Most bets mean exactly what they appear to mean," which is true in these MTTs, but if I can't figure out what the bet means, I cut and run. Call it Pussy Poker, and maybe it is, but I'd hate to stack off in the dark, hoping I have them beat, when I know there will be ample opportunity to shove in my chips when I KNOW I have them beat.

Hour Two

Like many aspects of poker, your play at this point will depend on many factors, perhaps the most important of which is your stack size. If you are short-stacked (say, less than the starting chip amount), you're pretty much resigned to a single play: Find a hand and push it. With a stack near or over par, your mission is equally clear...

1. Loosen up. The play will generally tighten up at this stage of the tournament and it is to your benefit to take advantage. For one, you need to accumulate chips in the second hour. Remaining static is not an option, as the blinds and antes will soon catch up with you. Second, those blinds and antes are becoming increasingly lucrative (antes in both the Stars and Full Tilt MTTs kick in at the 90-minute mark). Now that, theoretically, a bulk of the worst players have been eliminated, your table will become more cautious, giving you prime opportunities to pick up the blinds and antes with a ramped up aggression. I will almost always raise from late position if the action is folded to me. I will raise from less obvious "steal" positions with hands I'd normally toss in the first hour (Axs, medium suited connectors, two paint). It's time to take chances to get chips. You are not going to fold into the money.

2. Play the stacks. You must take notice of how the players handle their various-sized stacks. Are the small stacks pushing often? Or staying patient? Are the big stacks making a lot of calls of raises pre-flop? Or are they dictating the action with open-raises? In a perfect world, you will be able to isolate the smaller stacks with a big hand, since their range must widen or risk being blinded off. Pay particular attention to the three players to your left, those which will be in the blinds when you are on the button or in the cut off. Will they defend their blinds consistently? Will they fold to the slightest pressure? Generally, I will refrain from stealing off short stacks with air, as they are likely to come over the top with any naked ace, or even naked king. While this often gives you the correct price to call, you are now risking a not insubstantial portion of your stack when you are behind. On the other hand, do not be afraid to attack the big stacks, especially if you have a solid read on their play. A loose big stack, you will want to punish when you get a big hand, standard tight-aggressive play. A tight big stack, one that has worked hard for his chips and is loathe to risk them unless he's holding a monster, is ripe for the stealing and I will pound on him/her until they show an inclination to prevent it.

3. Don't Be a Pussy. By the end of the second hour, you are likely within sight of the bubble. Don't take the tack that cashing is your first priority. Going deep is your first priority. You are not going to get a solid return on investment from multi-table tournaments if you settle for minor awards. The big money is at the Final Table and a couple trips there can pay for months of bubble finishes. Yes, it can be frustrating to bubble, especially if you have a stack that was comfortably positioned near par. But that stack is going to get eaten up quickly while players accumulate around you. While protecting it may get you a small profit, you'll be at a disadvantage once you are in the money, as the large stacks will happily call your all-ins with garbage and suck out.

The Bubble

1. Keep Pounding. If you are fortunate enough to be one of those big stacks, you must keep pounding away. The play gets even tighter near the bubble, as the smaller stacks are doing exactly what I'm telling you not to do, trying to fold into the money or Waiting for Godot (in this case, a Group One hand). The tournaments I've Final Tabled (and won) have all shared a common characteristic: I chipped up greatly near the bubble. All of this goes back to The Theory of Poker: If the table's tight, loosen up; if it's loose, tighten up. You will notice we have followed that rule the whole way through. Don't forget it.

2. Get lucky. Or, better still, don't be unlucky. After the remaining players are in the money, the push frenzy starts again in earnest. Short stacks, happy to get paid, will push with any two. Big stacks will call with much the same. You can't sit these hands out. You still need to accumulate. But if you call a push with AK and you see you're up against Q7s, you're not much of a favorite. Winning these hands is less about skill (though you still need to have an idea of what you're up against. For example, if someone with an M Factor--chip stack/blinds+one orbit of antes--of 4 or less limps in, or min. raises, he likely has a big pair and is hoping to double up, rather than just get the blinds and antes) than it is about good old fashioned luck. We've concentrated on playing solid poker, but the naked fact is that you need to get lucky to win a tournament. The variance is higher, in that you can't re-buy after you go broke, like in a cash game. Continue to make good decisions, and hope Mistress Variance is on your side.

The Final Table

1. Relax. Congratulations you magnificent bastard. It is not easy to navigate a low buy-in tournament online and you've made it to the Promised Land. Don't freeze up. It's still the same game. If I'm sitting in the upper half of the remaining players, I'll tighten up for an orbit or two, see if I can fold to a money jump or two as the short stacks get knocked out. The cash difference between placings is substantial at this point and I'm happy to move up the ladder without risking chips. This further allows you to get a handle on how the table will play, since you've likely not seen about half of them yet.

2. Winnin' Time. As it is with all stages of tournament play, you cannot be afraid to go broke. If you feel you have an edge, push it. With a lot of chips in play, a lot of money at stake, players tend to lose their comfort zone, play differently from the way they did to get this far. Trust yourself. Think less of the payoff than of the hands, one at a time. It can be nerve-wracking making a big raise with a medium pair, but you have to. Remember, as players get knocked out, the table gets short-handed and those cards take on greater value. You'll be playing hands you would not have played all evening and you have to reconcile yourself to that fact.

3. Chat it up. A blogger once remarked to me that I was very "nice" at the virtual table. And it's a conscious effort. Congratulate everyone when the Final Table begins. Try to start a conversation and always compliment a good hand. It's simple psychology. People are less likely to fear you if you humanize yourself. You're no longer an avatar, but an actual person, who is cheerful and fun to be around. Players won't see your incredible poker skills, but rather, a regular guy just hanging out. They are not just more likely to look you up when you're holding, they also may wish you good luck after you bust them, like the guy who once told me he hoped I'd win after I sent him to the rail.

4. Put them to the test. Once you're down to 3- or 4-handed, you want to take over the table. You want to be the aggressor. Many players do not adjust to short-handed play and you'll be able to tell almost right away if they will meekly give up their blinds. You will also know when you're beat, as they will wake up and tell you with their betting. Beware of traps and also be prepared to set some if others assume the role of constant pre-flop raiser. Here's where you have to put all your faith in your instincts and abilities. Block out any distractions (which, really, you should have done already) and concentrate. And Get. It. Done.

* * *

What I've put down here is a philosophy, my philosophy. It's less about mechanics (starting hand requirements, flop textures, when to check-raise) than it is about attitude, mind-set, adaptability. It may not mesh with your preferred style, it may not be a manner with which you feel comfortable. It may be pure, unadulterated garbage. All well and good. I'm no expert player, though I play one on the Internet. But Pauly gave me the gig. And that should count for something.

Good luck,
Joe Speaker

Joe Speaker is a writer, poker player, and blogger from Southern California. He plays in the infamous Murder's Row L.A. home game.

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