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Basic Strategy For Sit And Go Tournaments

By Marc Weinberg

A number of solid poker players have argued that Sit 'N Go online tournaments are valuable because they simulate final table conditions that were previously only available to players who made it deep into the field of a major tournament. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Sit and Go is a great invention, but not for that reason. In fact, single table online tournaments are very different from any final table experience, and have to be approached in a unique way. Furthermore, I would argue that they represent the single most profitable opportunity for serious poker players who want to generate a consistent stream of income from online poker.

First, let me explain why the Sit 'N Go is different to a final table experience. For one thing, every player starts the Sit and Go with the same amount of chips. The issue of shifting your play based on your relative stack size to that of your opposition - a fundamental concept to successful tournament play - is not a factor at the outset. When you do make it to a final table you will see that all the stack sizes are different, and certain players are under a lot more pressure than others. The second substantial difference is that your stack size is huge relative to the size of the starting pot for at least the first 3 levels of play (usually 30 hands, or sometimes 30-36 minutes depending on the online poker room). At a final table the blinds are always large and there are frequently antes as well, and these considerations have to be taken into account when you play any hand.

Because all players start out level and the blinds are not an issue there is freedom at the first 3 levels of a sit and go, and there are two potentially profitable strategies that good players tend to follow: the first is to play very tight when the blinds are low, maintaining an initial stack size, and only playing premium hands. Even then, these players are conservative with their holdings. They wait for other players to eliminate one another, and when the size of the field is halved they start to play more aggressively. The second strategy is to contest a lot of pots early on in the hope of building one's stack by making a series of speculative, and at times loose bets. If you can see a flop for 15 chips and your stack size is 1000 chips there are very few hands that you should throw away. If you hit the flop you could potentially pad your stack and not have to worry about coin-flip scenarios for a long time. If you miss your flop it costs you a negligible percentage of your stack and doesn't hurt you.

Nearly all Sit and Go's have adopted the same payout structure, namely 50% to 1st, 30% to second, and 20% to third. When you play in these tournaments you must be aware that there are stages where the style of play shifts, and the most noticeable shift occurs when there are only 4 players left. No one wants to finish any tournament on the bubble, that is to say the last person eliminated without any reward for their efforts. If you go out in the first hand it is a bitter but acceptable pill to swallow, but to work for an hour only to finish 4th and still earn nothing is easily the worst possible result. Because all players look to avoid this scenario their play tends to tighten up at this juncture and you can exploit this if you pay attention. Stealing blinds is a lot easier when the table is tight, and you also need to know that if someone plays back against you or raises you that they probably have a solid hand.

Once a sit and go gets down to four-handed and three-handed action it then resembles a final table, because players are faced with the same problems that they would have to grapple with at a final table. Howard Lederer has argued persuasively that it is beneficial to switch gears at this stage and play more aggressively, precisely because the general attitude of the table is one of caution. The added value of finishing in the top 2 as opposed to third warrants this as well, because you then get to compete heads-up for 80% of the stake.

The best reason to play sit and go tournaments as opposed to other forms of online poker is that they are sealed environments - you will have the better part of an hour in which to work out your opponents, a luxury that is rarely afforded to online players. When you play cash games online the cast of characters shifts with annoying regularity. You work out a player's style and then he leaves and is suddenly replaced by a stranger. The sit and go eliminates this revolving door policy, which can also impact multi-table tournament play, especially online where everything is more rapid. Getting a read on an opponent is incredibly valuable in Sit and Go's because you should have the opportunity to isolate and exploit that player down the line.

If you play in a number of Sit and Go's and work your way up the financial ladder you will find the tournament experience you obtain is invaluable. I have made my living primarily from these single table tournaments, but besides being profitable they have taught me how to be a better no-limit tournament player. If I had to give you a few quick tips as bullet-points these would be my top 5:

  1. Be cautious in those early pots. Resist the temptation to get all your chips in the pot even if you have a big hand because you have no idea if you're dancing with a maniac or someone with an even bigger hand, plus either opponent can still beat you in a race.
  2. Understand the pressure that your opponent is dealing with. If a player is short-stacked and yet to act you must be aware that he can go all-in at any time. Does that change the play you were about to make? Or does it suit your hand?
  3. Have a plan of action, and follow it. If you want to bully players then you need to establish an aggressive table persona, preferably by showing good hands early on. If you intend to wait it out until the field is thinned that's fine too, just have a strategy going in.
  4. Time your moves so that they occur when the table is least comfortable. Attack smaller stacks and put pressure on when there are only 4 players left at the table.
  5. Pick your battles. In all tournament play the worst move is to fight against someone with more chips than you, unless you have a lock on the hand in question. Remember that big stacks and small stacks love to gamble, even if they know they're behind. If you're betting for value because you have a solid hand you need to focus on medium stacks, because they are the least likely to gamble against you.

Sit and Go's are a goldmine if they are approached in a thoughtful manner. Good luck at those single tables!

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