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How to Win Poker Tournaments Against Better Players

There are hundreds of poker books out there and they’re all geared towards making you a better player. The idea is that the better you are, the more money you can make and that’s true for the most part.

You can select your tables when you’re playing cash. You can find a table with a lot of bad players and target the fish while avoiding the sharks. Tournaments are different.

You can’t tournament select. If you want to play the Sunday Million at Poker Stars, you have no choice but to play against the players that sign up. Sure you can avoid the sharks in the beginning. Just take a look at your table and target the poor players and avoid getting involved with the good ones. Unfortunately, that strategy will only work for so long.

Eventually the bad players will bust out of the tournament and you’ll have to deal with an increasingly difficult field. There could be a time when you draw a table so tough that you’re the weakest player. What now? Do you curse your luck and give up on your hopes of making first place? Is there a way to win a tournament when you’re not the best player?

In no-limit Hold’em, the answer is yes. The no-limit structure allows you to make a move that completely negates your opponents’ edge: the pre-flop all-in.

Is it cowardly? Maybe. Is it “real poker?” Probably not. Is it effective? You bet it is! Here’s how to win tournaments when you’re totally outmatched.

The System
I could turn this article into a mini-book that discusses ICM shoves, Nash Equilibrium, Sklansky-Chubukov numbers and game theory; but David Sklansky already proposed a much simpler system in his book Tournament Poker For Advanced Players.

The System basically uses your stack size, the blinds and your position to decide when you should go all-in (the only move you should make according to The System).

Before you make any move using The System, you have to figure out your Key Number. Here’s how you do it:

X = Stack Size/(Big Blind + Small Blind)

So if you have a stack size of 10,000 chips and the blinds are 200/400, your equation would look like this:


Now we’re ready to find our Key Number. Here’s the formula:
Key Number=(# of limpers and players left to act)X

So if there were 3 players left to act in our example, our equation would look like this:

Key Number=(3)(16.67)
Key Number=50

So our Key Number is 50.
Here’s how Sklansky recommends using that Key Number:
• Only shove AA with a Key Number of 400+
• Shove AA/KK between 200 and 400
• Shove QQ+/AK between 150 and 200
• Shove TT+/KQ/AQ+ between 100 and 150
• Shove 22+/54s+/A2s+/KQ/AQ+ between 80 and 100
• Shove 22+/A2+/K2s+/23s+/35s+/KQ between 60 and 80
• Shove all the above plus K2+ between 40 and 60
• Shove all the above plus any suited cards between 20 and 40
• Shove any two cards with a Key Number below 20.

The System might seem a little complicated to use at the table, but it’s easy enough to follow if you study it for a while.

You should understand the basic premise behind this strategy! It is two fold. One, by shoving all in, preflop, you do not give better players a chance to outplay. They are faced with a simple decision themselves, to call or fold. Secondly, the smaller your stack size and the fewer people in the pot, the more hands you are willing to shove all in with, while the bigger your stack size and more people in the pot, you should be a little more judicious about shoving all in and wait for a better hand.

* * *

Obviously Sklansky’s system is not the optimal way to play poker, but it’s a reliable fallback in case you find yourself seriously outmatched at the poker table. Sklansky’s system is powerful enough to minimize even the toughest opponent’s edge and give you a chance at winning the tournament.

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