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Evaluating Starting Hands In No-Limit Holdem Tournaments
There are three main factors that influence how you should play your hole cards in No-Limit Hold'em Tournaments. They are: your position, the size of your chip stack, and the size of the blinds. As a basic rule you need to avoid marginal hands that appear playable pre-flop but which can lead to huge losses in a single pot. The classic starting hands that fall into this category would be any Ax lower than AQ where both cards are unsuited, any Kx unsuited lower than KQ, and low suited connectors.
The tricky aspect of no-limit hold'em both in a tournament structure and in a regular cash game is that these hands can also lead to the greatest rewards. They are extremely volatile, however, and much of the skill of no-limit is knowing how to recognize when that starting hand is a liability and when it could potentially break an opponent. This requires a great feel for the game after the flop. Naturally beginners lack this experience and nuanced understanding of the game, and so it is far safer for a novice to limit himself to playing premium cards only before the flop. The problem then becomes one of predictability - if you only raise with big pairs you are unlikely to get any action, and when you do get action you're in trouble because the rest of the table clearly knows what you're holding to begin with.
If you are one off the button or on the button you should loosen your restrictions and play more starting hands, including those marginal ones, provided no one else has entered the pot showing obvious strength. To vary your play effectively you should also consider raising with these hands as a semi-bluff tactic, but no more than one in four times.
Keep most of your initial raises down to between 75% and 100% of the pot. If you make it 3 times the size of the big blind to go that typically equals an 80% pot bet. This will protect you in case you get re-raised or called by stronger holdings. If there are limpers in front of you and you are going to raise then you need to make a significant bet, especially in no-limit where you have to make it punitive for other players if they intend to draw out. In that case you could raise as much as 6 times the big blind.
Have a healthy and watchful respect for strong-tight players who are rarely in hands, particularly if they play the hand out of position. If a player like this raises in early position you should fold all those marginal hands, and small pairs as well.
When weak players have entered the pot, you should be happy to call and take flops with them provided you can do this inexpensively. Slow playing big hands has a higher expected value in No-Limit than it does in Limit games where it is rarely the right way to play. That being said, it is a skill that takes a lifetime to master, and can easily backfire on you.
As the blinds increase in tournament play you must be flexible with your evaluation of starting hands as you have to keep your chip stack well ahead of the pace set by the blinds. In tournament play you cannot wait for the perfect starting hand, and frequently you need to make your own luck. Be selectively aggressive, especially in the later stages of the tournament. Initially you should be tight at least until you have a good read on some of the opponents at your table. Try to avoid coin-flip scenarios where all your chips are at stake. This happens all the time in online tournaments where players feel comfortable going all-in on AK and equally comfortable calling that hand with any pocket pair.
The winners of tournaments at all levels are usually those players who pace themselves early on, make a move in the middle stages of the event, and then start all over again at the final table by once again playing strong-tight.
Ryan D. is a poker fanatic and regular poker tournament player. For more interesting articles about playing online poker, visit http://www.online-poker-insider.com. Online Poker Insider guarantees online poker room deposits up to $500.
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