Poker Tips: Lessons Learned Transitioning From Cash to Tournaments

  • Tournaments magnify the variance of poker so make sure to start smaller
  • You will make far more deep runs when playing tournaments earlier
  • Adjust your game for the tournament - know where your edge is coming from
  • Get yourself a crew of peers to help you with your play and approach to study
Poker table
Need some top tips for transitioning from cash poker to tournaments? Look no further. [Image:]

I’m mostly known as an online and live cash player, and it’s been my bread and butter in poker throughout my career. Recently, I’ve been transitioning to tournaments instead – partly for fear of the longevity of online cash in the AI era, but also because I’ve always found the games more interesting.

I’ve also been lucky to have the acquaintance of several crushers in tournaments to help me with the transition, but there have been a lot of harsh and costly lessons despite that. Since making the jump into full-time studying and playing in tournaments, here are the main things I’ve learned.

Start smaller

Variance is bad enough regardless of what game you play. Even in a format like online 6-max cash, most pros will have experienced a brutal, months-long stretch of terrible luck.

Tournaments magnify this by a huge degree. Not only will you need to run well, but you’ll need to run well in the right order. You could in theory win 95% of your flips but brick every tournament in a session. You might run deep in $11s but get nothing from the bigger events. There’s almost no such thing as a downswing for tournament players, because you’re essentially always in one.

By keeping your average buy-in spread tight, you’ll also keep things a bit more consistent

Playing smaller field events is a great way to mitigate this, while also getting great experience. You’ll regularly be on final tables, and get to navigate difficult ICM spots under pressure far more often. By keeping your average buy-in spread tight, you’ll also keep things a bit more consistent (and maintain your sanity a little bit better. It’s never a good thing when a win in a $20 tournament with 120 runners feels like a loss because you spent the last week playing satellites and bricking $500s.)

You need to nodelock

When you’re playing online cash, you’ll find that most pools play a preflop strategy that is a reasonably close approximation of the solver. There are differences – they won’t 4bet enough, and will 3bet slightly less, especially from the big blind. For the most part, however, it’s fairly close.

In tournaments, this isn’t the case at all. You will rarely see someone launch in 35bb vs a single raise with QJs. If you opened from the button and faced a 30bb raise and a snap cold call from the big blind, and they turned over 55 and A9s, you’re more likely to be up against two weak players, even though these are theoretically sound plays.

The result of this is that when you’re studying postflop, opponents will often show up with hands that don’t exist in the solver’s world. In many spots, this can move a slightly winning play into losing territory – and vice versa. If you can make use of a tool like GTOWizard’s nodelocking, it’s well worth it.

Play earlier

In the realms of pure theory, you’re best off max late registering tournaments. You’ll be closer to the money, and you’ll have to spend less of your precious time actually playing the thing, increasing your hourly rate. 

In practice, however, especially playing at lower stakes or any event which has a lot of satellite qualifiers, you’ll find yourself making far more deep runs playing earlier. 

you’ll get to use your expertise at playing deepstacked against tournament players

The reasons for this are obvious. Firstly, you’ll get to use your expertise at playing deepstacked against tournament players. Secondly, the worst players, who can’t wait to give their whole stack away, will usually bust earlier into the tournament.

While your edge will be higher, this will of course take a longer time to play, so the effect on your hourly may not be as great. However, it will decrease your variance, which is a major struggle when adapting to tournaments.

Work on developing your instincts

No matter how closely you try to approximate GTO play, you’ll be well aware that a lot of your edge in poker comes from experience. The more you play in certain games, the more you understand which spots are underbluffed, which spots are overbluffed, and what you can glean from different bet sizes.

In switching to tournaments, you’ll be back to square one on this. Players won’t overfold to triple barrels as often in smaller online events. They’re not going to show up with the same ranges when 3betting, and the mistakes they make will be different.

Early on, you should be trying to compile as many physical and mental notes as possible on the players in your typical games to speed up the process of learning how the field plays. Solver work is crucial, but it’s important not to forget how big an edge comes from just knowing your opponents.

Adjust based on your tournament

In the Big $11 on PokerStars, most of the field is going to be almost indifferent to the bubble. If you’re playing a big live event, you’ll find some amateurs become ludicrously tight, maybe even folding 100% of their hands or close to it in order to ensure they lock up the mincash. 

it’s important to know where your edge is coming from with regard to ICM mistakes

As a result, it’s important to know where your edge is coming from with regard to ICM mistakes. In smaller, bread-and-butter online tournaments, it’s more likely to be in collecting the free EV from people playing more loosely than ICM dictates. In big live events, it can often be pressuring people doing the exact opposite, making a big stack near the bubble far more valuable.

Consider PKOs

A lot of cash players who play tournaments tend to prefer those with slow structures and deep stacks, and while many PKOs also match that description, the bounty-hunting aspect of them can seem to reduce the skill element, if you’re a player who thinks about poker in that way.

However, PKOs can be a fantastic style for cash game players to get into. One area where cash players have an advantage over tournament players is their ability to play for all of the chips when deep stacked. Cash regs are used to thinking about how to get all the money in with strong hands from the first street, even when 100bb or more deep. This ability is crucial in the early stages of PKOs, when bounties are most valuable.

Secondly, PKOs have additional benefits. They reduce variance, since you’ll gain at least something back more often than regular tournaments. They’re more complicated, which increases the edge of skilled players. They encourage loose and aggressive play, which cash game players are also more used to, and you often either bust early or make a deep run, which helps with your hourly. Many cash game players turn their nose up at them, but it’s actually one of the best options available.

Get a crew

Not being a lone wolf in poker is timeless and solid advice, but it’s even more important when transitioning to a new format. Just running your hands through the solver isn’t enough – having a group of peers who know the games and the fields is invaluable for feedback on both your play and your approach to studying.

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