Anybody who’s into poker knows the famous “chip and a chair” saying. As long as you are in it, you have the chance. If you have any kind of a stack, you could still end up winning the tournament. And, there is no denying that there is some truth to this conviction, as you most certainly can’t win a tournament once you are out of chips. When your stack is gone, so are your hopes of winning. But, there are way too many players who take this idea to the extreme, severely hurting their actual winning chances in the process.

In It to Win It

Unless you play some very specific formats, a huge percentage of the prize pool in MTTs will be concentrated at the very top. Top three spots get to share a huge percentage of the total money in play, and it is the goal of every tournament player to first get to the top three and then, if at all possible, be the last man standing.

If you want to play multi-table tournaments, there is really no way about it. You need a win every now and then just to keep you afloat. Small cash won’t cut it, especially if you play live and your expenses involve travel and accommodation expenses. You must be in it to win it – every single time.

To Win, You Must Lose – Often

The biggest problem people have with MTTs is the fact you have to bust a lot of tournaments before you win. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but on average, you’ll leave most tournaments you play empty-handed – especially if you play them the way you should.

Now, busting a tournament sucks. No matter how much you play, no matter how much of a professional you are, busting an MTT sucks big time, especially for live players who don’t get to play fifteen tables at the same time. That’s why people are so much more scared for their tournament life in the live setting.

There are many factors boosting this fear. Here are some of them:

  • Cashing vs. non-cashing: it feels bad to play for a couple of days and then bust just as the money bubble is approaching. It feels like you are so close now that it is worth passing on some potentially good opportunities to chip up to secure a min-cash at least.
  • Boredom: when playing a live event, players are often in a situation where, if they bust, they don’t quite know what they would do. This can influence their decisions at the tables, as they’ll rather sit on a short stack and still be in the tournament, instead of busting out and not knowing what to do next.
  • Pride: this one is especially present with less experienced players. In their minds, there is a huge difference between finishing in the money and outside the money, even if the cash isn’t all that relevant from the financial point of view. For them, cashing means success, non-cashing is a failure.

All these, as well as many other factors, will influence your game adversely. Going back to what we talked about a few paragraphs above, you should really be interested in making the final table from the very first hand dealt. That’s where all the money is and those are the finishes that will define your MTT success. Everything happening in between is just a small, fairly insignificant chapter of a large poker tournament story.

Of course, all of this isn’t to say that cashing poker tournaments isn’t important. Making the money is always better than not making the money, and there is really no arguing about that. The important thing to realize is that making it past the bubble shouldn’t really be a part of your overall strategy, but rather a reflection of a bigger, solid MTT plan, built to get you into those top spots.

“Tournament Life” Isn’t Real

So, you have your short stack, you’re just hanging in there, waiting for those pocket Aces to come around, and, lo and behold, they do. Finally, you get your chips in the middle, get a call, and win a hand. As you rake in the chips and stack them neatly, you realize that even after winning that hand, you’re still well below the average.

But, you still have your tournament life, and that’s all that matters, right? Wrong!

The survival tactics won’t get you anywhere in poker tournaments, except for those rare occasions when you get smacked with the deck. But, even then, you’d be so much better off playing proper poker from the start, as you could rake in way more chips that way.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: tournament life isn’t really a thing, it is an imaginary concept. Your stack is only worth it if it puts you in a position to win the whole thing. Everything else is empty talk. If you want to maximize your MTT earnings, you need to always be on the lookout for +EV spots to get your chips in the middle and grow your stack; hanging in there and trying to preserve your “tournament life” won’t get you very far.

Exceptions to the Rule

Nothing in poker is set in stone, and there are some situations when it will be more advantageous to just try and stick around. For example, if you had just lost a big hand and find yourself sitting in a late position with one or two big blinds remaining and one or two spots away from the bubble, there is nothing wrong with waiting and hoping for the best.

At this point, your stack is so short that even doubling up won’t give you any guarantees. When this is the case, and money is near, you can wait a few hands and hope for the best. This is the time when you can even consider folding some big hands, as making it past the bubble becomes your primary goal. You can put aside all the talk about winning the tournament and just focus on making the money. Sometimes poker gods aren’t cooperating and you need to be able to shrug it off and make the best out of a bad situation.

When you do find yourself at a final table with a short stack and there are other short stacks as well, you’ll need to do some calculations beyond straight up chip equity, as there are money jumps involved. This is a whole different topic, known as ICM (Independent Chip Model), but it only really comes into play when there is a significant discrepancy between the pay jumps. Other than that, you can safely stick to going for it.

Turning the Tables

Armed with this knowledge, you can use it to turn the tables on your overly-aware opponents. If you recognize there are players at your table who seem to be hanging around and protecting their tournament lives, these are the ones you want to attack. Steal their blinds, 3-bet their opens, and really put them to the test.

These players will be happy to let most of their hands go, as they think along the lines that there will be a better spot to risk their tournament. And, as they wait for the premiums, you’ll keep chipping away at them, growing your stack at their expense.

If you want to maximize your MTT earnings, you need to think about winning at all times and exploit those whose primary concern is making the money. If you get rid of this “tournament life” mentality and start pouncing against those who aren’t able to move past this misconception, you’ll see your ROI eventually soaring through the roof, guaranteed!