Should you play a live tournament solely by feel, or instead, take a strict mathematical approach and look to play in any +EV (positive expected value) situation?
This discussion recently came up on a radio show called Poker Road between a young, mathematically-oriented internet player and one of the hosts of the show who opts to play by feel.
At one point, the internet player said to the host with much disdain, “You just don’t know how to think about poker properly.” He then went on to state his case in favor of math-based poker, a philosophy that’s shared by many other internet players.
Though it’s clear that many of today’s internet young guns dissect the game merely from a mathematical perspective, they don’t sufficiently consider the people part of the game when they play in live tournaments.
Obviously, you can’t see your opponents when playing online. That makes it difficult to get a read on your competition and to exploit their weaknesses. So, to be successful, online players tend to rely on their math skills and think about the game in terms of +EV.
And although +EV is not a terrible way to approach a live poker tournament, it isn’t quite enough. In a live tourney, there are other considerations in addition to pure mathematics that should be factored into your decisions.
Here’s a list of several important factors that I find essential for live tournament poker success. Internet players – take note.
Is your table full of weak players or is the competition strong? Answer that question and you’ll be able to exploit situations where donkeys are present, and to make the proper adjustments necessary to beat tougher opponents.
At an easier table, avoid high risk situations. It’s much better to wait patiently for lower-risk opportunities that will eventually appear.
At a tougher table, you’ll be forced to take more chances and will need to employ a more mathematical approach.
Where are the big stacks? Where are the tough players?
If the big-stacked sharks are seated behind you, look to take on thinner +EV situations, and play them aggressively.
Conversely, if you have weak-tight players to your left, take the safer approach and try to win a lot of smaller pots.
Stage of the Tournament
Your competitors will likely vary their style of play depending on the stage of a tournament. Adjust your game to those changes. It’s common, for example, to see players take on a much more conservative approach as the money bubble nears. That’s a good time to kick up your level of aggression in order to exploit this observed tendency.
The rate at which the blinds increase should also influence your play; the faster the blinds escalate the less patient you should be. Conversely, in a slow-paced tournament structure, pass up marginal situations and look to be more selective about the risks that you take.
Mental State of Opponents
It’s always important to focus on your opponents’ state of mind. Look for fatigue, desperation, confidence, and patience. Remember that a player’s mental state will usually be affected after he loses a big pot. Use that to your advantage.
Your Table Image
Be aware that your opponents are always watching. What have they seen you do recently? What do you think that they think it all means? If you limp into pots, do you think they’re fearful of strength, or do they assume that you’re playing a garbage hand?
You can never discount the value of mathematical analysis in poker. But to be truly successful in live tournament play, you must start to think about these other considerations even before the first hand is dealt.
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