Switching Gears in SnG

by Jason Kirk

Having a basic strategy is a must for anyone who plays tournaments, especially quick-moving no-limit hold'em sit-and-go tourneys. Without one you're basically hanging in the wind, making decisions without regard to where you stand in relation to the other players or the size of the blinds and antes. That's a poor way to manage the limited number of chips you begin a tournament with. But even with a basic strategy in hand table conditions and your starting cards may conspire against your well-laid plans and leave you with few options other than moving all-in with any two cards. At times like these it's important to be able to shift gears and alter your style of play. Knowing when to do so can be the difference between finding yourself short-stacked and making it into the money. The key to figuring out when to change gears is to know the other players sitting at your table as well as you can. Usually you'll have nothing more to go on than the first fifteen to twenty hands you play before the blinds begin rising to significant levels, but you can learn enough to make good decisions in a relatively short amount of time.

Unless your cards and position dictate otherwise, it helps to play conservatively in the first two levels or so and pay close attention to every hand your opponents contest. Make use of the note-taking feature in your card room's software and comment on how often each player raises, how often they limp in with odds, whether they like to play multi-way pots, how many opponents they will bet into, and what sorts of cards they show down. By the time you've finished two levels or so, you should have a pretty firm grasp of what sorts of players you're up against.

By this point, assuming you haven't hit a monster hand early on to double up, you'll most often find yourself down a bit from your starting stack. This isn't anything to worry about, as you now have enough information to start picking spots where you can exploit your opponents' tendencies. As long as your table isn't fully loaded with hyper-aggressive Gus Hansen types, the other players have probably noticed you haven't been playing many hands and they will give you some degree of respect when you enter a pot. This will usually work out well as you begin to loosen up your starting hand requirements, allowing you to take a few pots and build your stack back up a bit.

How do you decide when to switch gears? Watch for your opponents' tendencies to change around the third or fourth level, starting with the most aggressive players. When these opponents begin to sit back on stacks they've built up, it's time to jump into action. Most of your truly tight opponents won't shift gears themselves quickly enough, so this is prime territory for picking up a lot of small pots with aggressive play. Begin looking for opportunities to raise in any position with hands you might not otherwise consider - any pair, any ace, any two face cards, and suited connectors as low as five-four will work great. There will be a period - maybe as long as a full level, but sometimes less - where your opponents won't realize you've changed your approach, giving you a lot of chances to claim blinds that are now worth taking. In addition, your opponents will have a harder time reading you when they realize their initial impression of you as a rock wasn't correct, so if you hit a monster you'll most likely be paid off.

The key to knowing when your opponents have picked up on you - or when you need to let go of a hand when you're challenged - is the time you spent getting to know them in the beginning of the tournament. The guy who's only raised twice throughout the entire game probably has a real hand. The formerly aggressive player who's been sitting back, but suddenly comes to life when you get aggressive, has probably recognized signs of his own style in the way you've been playing and has decided to play sheriff. You'll have to rely on your reads in these situations, as there's no one-size-fits-all solution to navigating tough hands when you've changed your approach. Keep in mind, though, that the further you get into the tournament, the more likely you're going to have to be willing to go all the way with a hand that isn't the stone cold nuts. If you did your homework in the early going, your chances of making the right decision in such a situation will be much greater. Don't be afraid to trust your reads and switch gears when the situation calls for it.


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