Monday, February 14, 2005
I just sat down to a little nightcap $5+1 SnG on Empire. Pulled out a 3rd place win. I won enough chips early on to keep me afloat through the blinds to limp into the money before shoving my last 585 (with blinds at 100/200) all in with QT - lost to AJ, Ace high. That's OK, I cashed, and for the late run of cold cards I saw, that is fantastico!
I've decided to write up my little $5+1 SnG strategy. Why, you ask? It's certainly not because I deem myself a subject matter expert. If you find something useful here, I'm glad, but this being my first attempt at verbalizing ANY form of cohesive strategy, be forewarned that it probably sucks! :) I wanted to get it down on paper (or on ones and zeros, as the case may be) so that I can reflect on it down the road and hopefully catch some of my mistakes, plug some leaks, see where I've improved and where I still need improving. This blog is primarily self-reflective at this point - self reflective in a very public sort of way.
On with my strategy...
Up until a few months ago, I spent a lot of time snatching up every blog post and web article I could find on single table tournament strategies. I'd dogear the pages in all of my poker books that referred to online play, particularly SnG play. I'd print out other people's lists of starting hands and try playing those. I'd write down other players' strategies for each level of play, and try that. I tried countless strategies on for size, and none of them quite "fit" me. It was like the shirt that looks so good on the rack, or on your friend, but is just too binding in the shoulders or too tight around the collar. Not deal-bustingly bad, but enough to just not feel comfortable.
After quite a few unsuccessful runs at the tables wearing other people's clothes, I gobbled up all of my notes and printouts and tossed them in the trash. Pshaw! Who needs it. I actually stopped playing SnG's for a couple months, figuring they just weren't for me.
Then, a couple months ago, I started randomly sitting down in them... and cashing. Huh? What's going on here? I tried going into Poker Tracker to see what I was doing in these games that was helping me to win. Oddly enough (or maybe not), my statistics were very similar to my ring game stats, in terms of how often I played pots voluntarily and out of the blinds, how aggressive I played pre and post flop, and how often I went to showdown. Hmmm. Well, there's no new information there. So what is going on?
The more I played, the more I tried to reflect post-game on what had been working for me, and what wasn't. I realized that I had taken bits and pieces from many different playstyles and strategies, and sort of molded them into a strategy of my own. It's nothing earth-shattering or different from anyone else's, except that it's mine. And it's working - for me!
The first thing you have to realize when you sit down to a $5+1 single-table sit-n-go game is that you get what you pay for. You aren't going to win a million bucks playing at these low levels, and you're not going to be playing with very high-caliber players. That said, these games are often no fold'em affairs early on, riddled with bad beats and river suck-outs, and crapshoots in the later stages when the blinds gobble up meager chipstacks.
Still wanna play? Of course you do! These games are actually really good for teaching the wonderful skill of discipline. Yes, it is a skill. And yes, it is hard not to fling all of your chips into the center of the table with a marginal hand when Sir_Bluffs_Alot has been running over the table with horrific calls and crap hands. It takes discipline to wait out the bad players and the maniacs, and to trust that your tight play will yield mighty pot drags as a result. These games also give you time to consider your strategy, formulate your own ground rules, and test them out relatively inexpensively. I can only imagine this thorough testing will benefit me in the long run, as my bankroll grows and I move up the levels to higher buy-ins.
I find that the two most important things to consider in these games are the level you're playing at, and the position you're in during the hand. You of course have to monitor the usual other things as well, like the size of your chip stack in relation to the blinds, and the tendencies that your opponents make visible to you. But those things vary from game to game, table to table, and therefore don't really fit well into any specific strategy. I'm sure you already have a strategy on how to play when you're short-stacked, or what you like to do against maniacs or fishies or rocks. Those strategies don't change, in my SnG strategy. I play those features exactly as I would otherwise, at any other game.
First, let's look at the levels. I'm using Party Poker and its skins as my SnG tournament ground. The first few levels of a cheapo SnG are usually wild and crazy. It's not unusual to see two or more people all-in on the first hand. I almost make it a rule of thumb never to play the first hand. The play in the early rounds is often very loose; lots of people want to see flops while they're cheap. I tried playing this way for a while, under the philosophy that if the flop didn't hit me, I could jump ship having lost very few chips. The problem is that too often, you'll get a piece of the flop - just enough to call off way too many chips and lose the hand. The hands early on in these SnG seem to be very hotly contested; I'm not entirely sure why. You've got a lot better chance of being called on an all-in bet in the early rounds than later on - which seems counter-intuitive to me. It's almost as if most players are playing with the "double up or bust" philosophy (another one I'd tried on for size, unsuccessfully). The moral here is, don't try to bluff early on. Don't make big bets unless you're holding the nuts. You WILL get called down.
In the first two rounds, I generally play monster hands only. I may limp for a cheap flop if I'm in late position holding a high-end marginal hand, but even then I try to sit tight. I might consider a hand like A-10 suited on the button or one off, or a suited Blackjack hand. Nothing less, though. No A-8 crap. No King-x suited. No suited connectors under J-10 - and even those I'll fold more often than not. No pairs under 10. Just oober-tight. I've got to be feeling pretty frisky to play anything other than AA, KK, QQ, or AQ early on. Even Jacks make me cringe. Let the psychos beat each other up and knock each other out.
By the end of 2 rounds, there are typically 2 to 3 people knocked out, and maybe one or two people who hold a small chip lead. If the table is loose, your 750 or so chips look like a goldmine in front of you against a backdrop of 225 and 450 ish stacks. With a few more rocks at the table, you're likely to be right around average. It doesn't much matter. The blinds are still tiny, leaving you with at least 15 or so big blinds in front of you for level 3.
My play at level 3 (25/50 blinds) varies. Usually, this is when I'll start to open up to my "normal" playstyle. By nature, I play tight, sticking to top ten hands and the higher drawing hands. Starting around this level, though, I will start considering making late position moves. I'll play a few more marginal hands from late position, either to see a cheap flop, or for a raise if the action is folded to me or there is only one limper in the pot. Don't expect to steal blinds yet; number one, they're not really worth it yet, and number two, most players are still playing a bit loosey-goosey. Rely on your post-flop instincts to get away from those marginal hands when they miss, and - again - don't expect to bluff very successfully just yet. Calling station mode is still in full effect.
At level 4, the blinds hit 50/100. For some reason, bringing out those 100 chips makes some players fold up like clams. If you're sitting with some of these passive types, try some blind stealing from late position. Hopefully you've won a few pots in level 3 to build up the chip stack a bit. If the blind steals don't work for you, stop doing it. No big loss. Swallow your pride and fold on the flop if your steal attempt got called and your opponent is betting into you (assuming you missed the flop completely). Just fold it. Move on.
Aggression starts working well in levels 4 and 5. By now, a few more people have gone out, and you may be approaching bubble time. While most people start clinging to their chips like greedy bankers, you should do the opposite, assuming you have a decent stack in front of you. Even minimum raises will get people to fold, and this is wonderfully good because you don't have to put a lot of your stack at risk to do it. Pick on the short stacks, and avoid messing with the larger stacks. With a decent stack, my play actually gets more loose and aggressive in these later rounds (whereas most players get tight and passive). Layeth the smacketh down and pick up those orphan pots so that your stack can survive some tight play once you're 3-handed.
Of course, if you are short-stacked, you're looking for the all-in move to double up. But, let's say there are 4 people left at your table. It's bubble time. Two of your opponents have 3,000+ in chips, and the remaining 2,000 is split about evenly between you and one other player. If you think your fellow short-stacker will go for the all-in-or-bust move, LET HIM. Fold those marginal hands and give your opponent a chance to make a mistake. Pray that he goes all in and busts while you limp into the money. Let him do the work for you. So what if you limp into the money? Are you too proud to limp into 3rd place cash? I'm not! So what if I go all in with my very next hand after limping into the money, and it busts me out. I won $4. So there! Limp limp!
If your fellow short-stacker is fold-fold-folding, you may just have to make your move, lest be blinded out. Do whatcha gotta do. Pick a hand and go all in and hope for the best. Just be sure you gave your opponent sufficient chance to take the risk first.
This is by no means a comprehensive strategy. It's more of a general sketch of my mindset throughout a $5+1 SnG. One thing I've noticed is that you really have to be ready and able to switch gears at the drop of a hat, and be able to go from tight to aggressive back to tight again. You have to be able to mix up your starting hand requirements as play dictates. You have to recognize the ebb and flow of the game and adjust to it - even if you're adjusting to a style opposite of your opponents' styles. The times you play opposite are often the times you'll score your biggest pots and make your most successful plays. It's the same with your own playstyle; your biggest and most successful plays will often be the ones that are directly opposite of your typical playstyle, because your opponents won't be expecting that from you.
The dichotomy is really intriguing. Poker is an amazingly wonderful and complex game.
Anyway - that's how I've been playing 'em lately, and it has served me well! See ya at the tables...