Whether you play online or live poker tournaments, you’ve probably had an opportunity to hear players (even some quite experienced ones) that early levels in a good structured MTTs almost aren’t worth playing. I wouldn’t dare question the judgment of some of the MTT crushers out there, of course, and in the case of events featuring mostly hardcore pros this might make some sense, but I also believe it could lead an average player to wrong conclusions.

The Source of Misconception

First things first, where does this idea that you can’t win big pots during early levels come from? If you’ve heard about it, you’ve probably heard it from the “big guns,” the likes of Daniel Negreanu, Jason Mercier, et al. What you need to understand is, when they talk about tournaments, they usually talk about tournaments with great structures, filled with players of their caliber (or better). We are talking Holzs, Kurganovs, Iveys, and the likes.

If you are up against the players like this, then the premise holds water. Fedor isn’t going to punt off 500 big blinds on a top pair, third kicker. He might pull off a huge bluff, but that’s hardly a prime spot you’re looking for. So, in these types of events, you won’t really lose much value if you skip on early levels. In fact, if you aren’t as experienced and have found yourself in a situation where you have to face a strong field on average, you’ll probably be better off playing shallower. Your decisions will be simpler, and you’ll avoid huge mistakes.

Back to Reality

If you are reading this text, the odds are you don’t belong to the top 0.05% of the poker elite, and you don’t play in the $100k tournaments on a regular basis. Most average poker tournaments, online or live, will not feature this level of players. It will be a mix of few decent pros, aspiring amateurs, and punters. This last group is where most of your value will come from, and to them, whether they’re playing with 20 big blinds or 2,000 big blinds doesn’t make that much of a difference at all.

In fact, from my experience, it will be much easier to extract a lot of value while blinds are small, because they won’t feel as bad to give up 5k in chips if they still have 20k behind. After all, they’ll still have plenty of chips to play with, and that’s all they care for. They don’t think along the lines of slowly building their stacks and navigating their way through the field. They are there to play, have fun, and pull some bluffs and hero calls.

Tips & Tricks: Make Those Early Levels Count

Let’s say you find yourself sitting in a tournament with 40k starting stack, one hour blind levels, and blinds starting at 50/100. I’d call this a fairly decent structure and much better than most average events you’ll find anywhere. Being this deep, how do you go about maximizing your value?

The first thing is always trying to figure out who’s at your table. Play the first few hands very conservatively (if you don’t know the players already) and observe what’s going on. If you’re an experienced player, it won’t take you long to recognize who’s there for a serious grind, and who came to splash around.

Once you’ve identified the wildcards, it’s time to start getting involved – big time. I understand there is this idea that it sucks getting busted out during the first or second level, but it’s really the same as busting seven or eight hours in. As long as you’ve put yourself in a good spot, it doesn’t matter, and since there are no prizes for staying in a bit longer, if I’m going to bust, I’d actually rather bust early.

So, once you pinpoint which players are likely to give away their chips lightly, try to get involved with them as much as possible. Of course, you should do it with hands that have a good potential – pocket pairs, decently suited connectors, and such. If you’re going to play for a 200 big blinds pot, you want to have a hand that resembles the nuts.

The Fine Art of Overbetting

If you have a good hand selection and play against loose players in position, the odds are, you’ll flop and turn a few decent hands over the course of the first couple of levels. When you do, it’s time to make some money.

Remember, the whole point of playing these people is to extract the maximum, so you can’t really use the controversial approach. You may know what it means to commit 100 big blinds to the pot, but they don’t. All they see is the number of chips they’re putting in, and the number of chips they have behind, and if those numbers are satisfactory, they’ll have no problems giving up a third of their stack.

So, for example, let’s say you flop the nut straight with your 7h8h in position. The preflop aggressor continues, and he bets around the size of the pot. You decide to just call and you see the turn come to an off-suite deuce. He bets strongly into you once again.

There are two options here. Either he’s bluffing, which doesn’t matter that much because you probably won’t be able to make too much money, or he’s got something like Aces or Kings in the hole. Now, in this second scenario, you can take a huge chunk of his chips, and no, that won’t be a cooler if you’re playing 400 big blinds deep. It will be their inability to give up a one pair hand against someone who clearly has the goods.

Back to the example, say there is 1,200 in the pot on the turn, and they lead for 750. You could make it something like 1,800 to try and extract some value, but why do that? Why not make it 4,000? The thing is, players are often afraid of losing value by doing this, but at this point, it’s like 10-20 big blinds, which isn’t all that relevant. If you can grab 100 big blinds or more, that becomes very relevant.

So, go for a big raise, and if they call and check on you on the river, bomb it. Just go for it. Put them in a tough spot and ask them the question: are you good enough to lay those pocket kings down? (not verbally, though, unless you really want to take things to the next level). You’ll be surprised how often you’ll get paid and increase your stack by more than 50%.


A poker tournament starts with the first hand dealt, and if you want to really maximize your value, you want to be there from the start to the end. You never know when the opportunity will present itself, and skipping on the early levels because they are “not worth it” is just a wrong way to look at things.

There is plenty of value to be had against less experienced players who simply don’t know how to handle a big stack, and will be more than happy to punt off heaps of chips to you with just one pair. Get involved with these players and when you do hit your big hands, don’t be afraid to go for it. Go for big bets and put them in a tough spot, and you’ll often find yourself raking in huge pots and building a big stack while other players are still roaming around, waiting for the blinds to “become significant.”