In The Money and Deals


So in tournaments with around 12-15 players left, things often get weird. Even though the payouts don’t change much if you get knocked out soon after, lots of people start acting like there’s another bubble. They sit back and barely join any hands, seeming to just wait for more players to get eliminated so they can “move up the ranks.”

There are a couple of reasons this might happen. Some players might just be too focused on the story of “making the final table” and want to brag to friends. Others know they don’t play as well with fewer players left, so they hang back waiting for a full table again where they’re more comfortable. And while it’s not a good strategy if you don’t like short-handed play, many people admit to this weakness.

So how can we use this to our advantage? When others are turtling, we should punish them by continuing to play aggressively as usual. Also, most of the players we see now will still be there at the actual final table. So it’s a great chance to see how each person handles short-handed situations, which is important info since we want to be in the game at the end.

The Final Table

When the tournament director comes around smiling and congratulating the remaining players while shuffling the seat cards, I like to take a quick mental break. There’s usually a couple of minutes before the action starts up again, so I use that time to take a short walk. Then I do something that most players at this level seem completely unaware of.

I take a look at the chip stacks and where everyone is sitting. Unless there are a couple of world-class players there (unlikely) and a few who’ve never studied poker (possible), the most important thing in deciding how to approach the final table is how the big and small chip stacks are positioned relative to me. This matters less if I’m the chip leader, but if I have an average stack, it’s super important.

The ideal setup is short stacks on my left and big stacks on my right. Then I can put pressure on the short stacks by attacking their blinds since they’re on my left. And having the big stacks on my right means I can see what they do before I have to act since they could bust me out. Generally, it’s good to have an active big stack on my right too, since then I can three-bet shove over their raises.

But what if it’s the opposite, with short stacks on my right and big stacks on my left? Then I’ll need to tighten up my game a bit. Again, the exact chip depths matter, but usually, the short stacks will be all-in or fold mode (under 13 big blinds), average stacks are good for three bet shoving (13-25bbs), and one or two may have more. If I have an average stack, short stacks shoving before me take away my option to fold. And big stacks on my left can shove over me if I open, again denying me a chance to get all my chips in.

The key thing is these short-stack situations have been analyzed extensively, so there’s no reason I should ever make a mistake. In addition to videos in pro training sites, I recommend spending time with a calculator like HoldemResources, which also accounts for payout structure moving from chip EV to cash EV.

I mentioned the push-fold range is around 13bbs and below, and three-bet shoving starts there up to 25bbs. There are rules of thumb, like shoving with up to 10x an open, but studying it in depth with a calculator is better long-term than shortcuts.

I’ll say again – how I play when chips are in the middle determines my overall tournament ROI. While this stage is somewhat “figured out”, most of my opponents won’t have studied it thoroughly. They’ll also give things away through bet sizing tells and other leaks. Some common leaks I see are min-raising from a late position with hands they plan to fold to a shove while opening larger with hands they want to get all-in pre-flop with. Players seem to have picked up they should be stealing blinds, but haven’t looked at their ranges methodically. Often their raise-fold combos far outnumber raise-call combos, making them auto-exploitable. If that’s combined with bet sizing, I’m going to have a good time at the final table.

I see these ideas and guidelines as starting points for further study. There are details I didn’t cover, but serious players need to get their short-stacked playdown pat. The goal is to make almost no mistakes in these situations, and with most opponents making errors, the profits will be huge.

The Deal

Alright, so we’ve reached the part of the tournament that I like the least – the deal. Since moving to Vegas 7 years ago, I can only remember one time when I made a final table, and some kind of chop wasn’t agreed to. I think the main reason I don’t like deals is that I’m not very assertive. I’d probably do better if every tournament just played out normally, especially since I have a lot of experience playing sit-n-go’s online, so I’m used to playing with fewer players. But if you enjoy negotiating, like when buying a car, this is your chance to shine and get a better cut.

My first tip is to never be the one to bring up a deal. For me that’s natural since I don’t want one, but even if you think a deal benefits you, starting the negotiation has downsides. Mainly, it puts you in a weak position right away. You’ve said you want to end the tournament, and more confident players will take advantage of that. It doesn’t matter why they think you want a deal – tired, uncomfortable with fewer players, etc. All they have to do is say they want to keep playing but will chop if you give them a bigger cut, and now you’re on the back foot.

It’s better to stay quiet and see who brings it up. That gives you a better read on where people are at mentally. Anyone too eager to wrap things up will settle for less than their fair share. Also, if your goal is to keep playing, it’s helpful if someone else rejects the idea first.

Players here really like deals. If you’re the one blocking it, they’ll be annoyed with you. I’m past caring what strangers think, but the reality is you’re putting a target on your back. Say you’re 5-handed and the other 4 all want to chop – when you say no, it just got harder for you. Even if they’re good people who wouldn’t collude, they’re likely to play against you differently than each other now. It may be subtle, but there’s no way 4 players who want out are going to make decisions that DON’T hurt your chances of getting your fair share.

To avoid messy situations, I now have two ways of handling it. If I’m short and they can calculate an accurate ICM chop, I’ll take that. It’s better than letting people use their system. If I’m the big stack, I’ll say I want to keep playing but will chop for a certain amount. ICM chops usually give big stacks less than expected, so I throw out a number I think is fair. Check out ICM calculators too so you know how it works.

One last tip – you’ve got some cash now. Be smart about getting it home, since some people may see that as an opportunity in the casino.

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