Welcome to MTT Poker Basics! This is the first in a new series of articles designed to help recreational tournament poker players build their hobby into a profitable endeavor. The advice here is a reflection of my own experience as a non-professional player learning the ropes in 2022, with all the tips and resources I’ve found along the way.
As we begin 2023, tournament poker may be as exciting as we have ever seen. Live poker has made a tremendous comeback following the early days of COVID-19, online tournament series are growing bigger by the season, and mystery bounties are being pulled for $1 million. If you have an interest in poker, the tournament scene is hard to ignore these days.
But make no mistake: tournament poker is a game of precision among chaos. Unlike the steady deep stacked cash games you know and love, tournaments can be a tilt-inducing minefield of all ins, dwindling stacks, and major swings. They can be a roller coaster of emotion for the faint of heart but a rewarding path to glory for those willing to cut their teeth and learn the fundamentals.
As a recreational player who has started taking the game seriously, I can tell you the number one way to bring some level of order to this chaos is simple. You must learn your preflop ranges to succeed consistently in tournament poker.
Adjusting to opening positions
If you are reading this, you have likely played poker and are familiar with solid hands. (If not, we’ve got you covered.) There are simple things that everyone knows. Big pocket pairs are good. Two face cards are nice. Connected small cards can make sneaky good hands. But learning how each of these common beliefs holds true across stack sizes and situations is key.
For example, at 80bb (80 Big Blinds, for those learning online poker-speak) from early position you look down at QTo (Queen-Ten offsuit. We see you!). You have two cards that might make top pair or straights occasionally. How quickly can we put the raise in, right?
That thinking may have flown in years past, but these lesser offsuit broadways have become easy folds as the game has progressed. With several players left to act, hands like these leave you in trouble postflop out-of-position far too often. Since we are more likely to play out of position, we prefer to raise our best suited holdings from early position. At 80bb, we basically fold all offsuit hands worse than ATo and KJo. This way, we can comfortably call 3bets with the best parts of this opening range and flop both strong hands and draws when we go postflop.
If you are raising first to act at an eight-handed table, you are only opening the top ~17% of hands. This includes these very best offsuit hands, all of the suited broadways and Aces, and suited two gappers down to about 98s. We can even fling pocket pairs like 22, 33, and 44 into the muck at some frequency.
The range of hands you should be willing to open will widen as you approach the BTN (Button, to the right of the small blind and in position. I’m sorry.) At 80bb on the BTN, you can widen your range to more than 50% of hands. The opportunity to steal the blinds and play in position postflop is so valuable that you now open hands as weak as J3s, 74s, K5o! It’s night and day compared to early position, and it’s crucial to open this wide. Players still play too snug from the blinds and you will pick up more chips from late position than anywhere else.
For more on these broad preflop concepts, I highly recommend starting with this PokerCoaching.com video from Jonathan Little:
Once you’re ready to go into more detail, create a free account on GTOwizard.com and start exploring their Solutions tab. This area is totally free and allows you to study opening ranges across stack sizes up to 100bb. Understanding how your opening ranges change is key, and GTO Wizard offers the best free preflop resource out there.
Practice makes perfect
It’s great to learn about different groups of hands in your ranges. You need to refer to these charts away from the table when you review your play. But in my experience, there’s no better way to get your opening ranges down than good old fashion drilling.
Pick a position and stack depth, then pull up a random poker hand generator online. Generate 20 random hands and write each down with “Raise” or “Fold” as you move along. Once you’re done, log into GTO Wizard and double-check if your responses were right. You can run through 20 hands pretty quickly, and if you’re doing this even a handful of times a week, then you are going to make progress fast.
Sometimes being card dead can get a little boring too. One way to keep yourself busy is drilling at the table. When you are dealt a hand you clearly fold from an early position like 92s, ask yourself, “What’s the worst suited 9 I should raise here?” Asking these questions and reviewing later is a great way to constantly challenge your understanding.
One of my favorite PokerCoaching instructors Matt Affleck has a great free video below that dives deeper into studying and memorization that I highly recommend as well. You can’t go wrong watching any videos they offer on this subject.
Preflop is only the first step
It’s one thing to know where you open QTo from, but what to do when you face 3bets out of position? When you get called by four people and go multiway to the flop? Which hands should you be calling all ins for 8-10bb with? Or even 15-20bb?
There are tons of concepts and situations to understand, and they will not come overnight. My advice is try not to get overwhelmed by that. If you take learning this format one step at a time, you will be surprised how quickly results may come in your favor.
Let’s be clear: improving preflop alone is not going to win you any WSOP bracelets. But as a beginner, it’s the surefire first step toward success. Focusing on preflop accuracy early on may be your best bet at the tournament tables.