After playing thousands of STT's, and learning quite a bit more about poker in general, I now am a master of these tournaments. I don't play STT's with a higher buy-in than $50, but in the ones I do play, I am a consistent money finisher, and I almost never finish 3rd. I'm here to share with you the secrets to my success in STT's.
Let me first make sure all readers understand that I'm referring to STT's with a buy-in of $50 or less, and that I generally stick to "full-table" STT's with this strategy. A number of adjustments are needed when playing in higher buy-in STT's (where play is tougher and more aggressive) or in shorthanded STT's, such as the 6-seated ones on UltimateBet. I'm not going to get into those adjustments in this article, so just know that what you are reading refers to low buy-in, 9-handed or 10-handed STT's.
The reason I like full-table STT's is that the payouts allow you to still make a decent profit even if you aren't able to win heads up, which can often have a lot to do with luck, since the blinds get so high at that point. Another reason I like them is that it allows for a nice long "bubble period" in which I can abuse all the players at my table who are afraid of missing the money. I'll get more into that later in the article...
Please know that the strategy I will be discussing in this article (particularly how to play the first two segments of the STT) is a proven winner, widely accepted by a large number of internet professionals. I provide more specifics, however, in order to try and clear up some of the grey areas.
There are 3 key segments of a STT:
1) The beginning
2) The bubble
3) In the money
Hopefully if you follow my advice, you'll be making it to the 3rd part more often than not. So here is how to play each of these segments.
It is very simpleâ€”play tight. Most of the players in these tournaments are flat out bad, and just sitting around without taking any silly gambles will allow you to watch half the field get eliminated. Sometimes during this period of time you will get a big hand. AA, KK, AK, QQ are big hands. If you get one of these, play it aggressively before the flop, and if you miss the flop (A hits for KK, nothing for AK, A or K hits for QQ), don't go any further with it.
If someone hits an underset against my overpair, well, I usually just get eliminated. I can deal with that, because the chance of it happening is so slim when I am involved in so few hands. That doesn't mean I always will be all in if I have an overpair with QQ, KK, or AA, but on a non-scary board, I'm not afraid to get all my chips in with these hands, especially since most players in these tournaments play top pair like it is the nuts. An exception to this, of course, is when I know that my opponent is a strong player. That is rarely the case though in low buy-in STT's.
The only other times I see fit to enter a hand are when I hold pairs smaller than QQ. If the amount I have to call to see a flop is less than 7-8% of my stack, I try and see a flop. An exception is when the raiser has many fewer chips than me (i.e. not enough to pay me off 10x whatever I call preflop)â€”then I will generally fold, since I don't have the opportunity to win a huge pot if I hit a set.
When playing smaller pairs, I am very careful in STT's, and typically will not go too far with one unless I hit my set or am otherwise nearly positive that my hand is the best. Specifically, I won't call big bets with small pairs after the flop unless I hit my set.
I use these guidelines for my STT play until the field narrows down to 5 players, unless the big blind reaches 1/100 of the total chips in play while there are still more than 5 in. For instance, if I'm playing a sit-n-go on UltimateBet and the blinds get to 50-100, since there are 10,000 total chips in play, the big blind is now 1/100 of the total chips in play. When the blinds reach this level OR the field is narrowed down to 5, my play changes dramatically.
When my STT gets down to 5 players, I turn up the heat....bigtime. In the rare case that the blinds are still small at this point, I stay fairly tight (although not as tight) until they get to be something significant (50-100 on UB, 75-150 on Stars). If the blinds get significant while there are still more than 5 players in, you have no choice but to become more aggressive.
Players at this point have invested a fair amount of time into the tournament, and they do not want to exit without getting at least a little bit of money back. This works to my advantage, as I am able to win a lot of pots without showing down my cards.
One quick note about all this: You always have to adjust to the way your opponents are playing. I can generally figure out pretty quickly which players are fearful of busting out on the bubble, and I focus my aggression against those players, as well as any player who isn't able to take more than about half my chips in one hand. Be careful not to just start firing away at this point, as some of your opponents will be good enough (and fearless enough) to play back at you.
That said, the hands I raise with at this point in the tournament more or less fall into the following categories:
1) Any ace
2) Any pair
3) Any two cards T or higher
4) Any suited king
Position plays a factor in this of course. I won't raise with K2 UTG, for instance. Also, I only want to be opening pots with these hands. I don't want to be raising a limper with 3 3. Stick to pots where you are beginning and controlling the action, unless you have a big hand.
I will enter pots that other players have opened, but I will only do so if I'm reasonably confident that I can push them out (or I have a big hand), and I will almost never flat call a raise. I like to move in on a scared raiser during this segment with most pairs and strong aces, but again, I will only do so if I feel confident that I can get that player to fold. I really don't want to be called more than maybe 20% of the times I make this sort of move, so I use a lot of discretion as to my timing for something like that.
I generally raise the same amount every time I enter a pot at this point in the tourney unless I am on one of the blinds. If the blinds are 75-150, I will raise to 375. If they are 50-100, I raise to 275. I don't want to raise the minimum because I know many players are willing to call a minimum raise on principle, but I don't want to raise any more than I have to. I think keeping the pots small works for me at this point because I am the aggressor. The exception when I'm on the blinds is due to the fact that I don't like playing hands out of position. I will usually only raise on the blinds with a big hand, and I will raise big (4x the BB).
If you get called, play carefully, particularly if you are up against a tight player. I often will check down after the flop or only take one medium-sized stab at the pot, unless I hit a piece of the board. If I hit any piece and it is checked to me, I will make a bet, but I will still play carefully if I get action. You have to use some judgment in these hands, but the bottom line is that you don't want to lose all the chips you've worked for in one hand.
What inevitably happens to end this segment of the STT is one of two things, and they both have to do with one of my short-stacked opponents finally moving in over the top of my raise. Either I actually have the best hand and bust them or they have the best hand but I outdraw them. Either way, I'm only all in with them if I'm risking a relatively small % of my stack, so I'm willing to take that chance, especially when I've already got some money in. It also sends a message to my opponents that I will not fold to a reraise.
If I lose an all in to a small stack, I just keep playing the same aggressive style and generally build back up rather quickly. People just continue to play in fear of busting out, and you have to take advantage of that. A big advantage of playing this part of the tournament the way I do is that you rarely get to the final 3 with the short stack. You will almost always have a competitive amount of chips, which will give you the ability to get one of the top two payouts, which are generally where 80% of the money is. Occasionally you will get unlucky and bust out in 4th or 5th, but so what? In the long run you will make more money.
Before I go on to how to play once you are in the money, I would like to note that I do not enjoy playing short-stacked at this point in the tournament, but if things don't work out as I want them to and this ends up being the case, I still try as hard as possible to avoid showing down hands. I will push in whenever I have the opportunity to open and am holding any of my "raising hands," and I will hope to pick up a few blinds and/or get lucky and win a showdown. I don't waste time trying to see flops for cheap, because every time I do that, I'm giving up chips that I can possibly use to push my opponents out of a future hand.
In the Money
OK, you made it! But you want more, right? I know I do. Most ten-handed STT's have a payout structure in which 3rd gets two buy-ins (20%), 2nd gets three buy-ins (30%), and 1st gets 5 buy-ins (50%). So as I stated before, 80% of the money is in the top 2 spots. Don't settle for third!
Generally I have the most chips or am in second place by a small amount, so I am still able to be the bully. However, there are some adjustments I have to make at this point. Particularly, if I notice that a player is happy to have made the money and now willing to go all in with any marginal hand, I will have to play somewhat tighter against that player.
Often I will bully the LARGER of the two stacks at this point. Why, you ask? Because that player is the one who most likely believes he is capable of winning the tournament, and he won't want to take as many chances as the shortest stack.
There are certain moves that I simply will NOT make at this point. Say there are four left and I have 4000 chips, and a player with 1700 raises the 100 chip blind to 300 on the button. I would likely move in from the big blind with hands as weak as 6 6 or AhTh, because I know this player would rather hang onto his 1400 chips than risk being eliminated on the bubble. I will not do this once we are in the money, because I know players are much more willing to race and/or chase once they are guaranteed a piece of the prize pool, and I don't want to raceâ€”rather I want to win as many pots as possible without showing down hands. I only want to show down when I'm either holding a big hand or up against a stack that can't hurt me.
When I get to heads up, I try to detect patterns in my opponent's play and use them to my advantage. If there's a certain bet I make that always seems to get raised, I will let him push me out a few times and then make the same play when I have a big hand. If he is always folding when I bet big, I bet big all the time and fold if he raises. If he's willing to fold to minimum bets, I make minimum bets every hand. I simply will not call off a large amount of my chips heads up unless I'm pretty sure I'm far ahead in the hand. I still want to be the aggressor, so I would rather be playing a medium sized pot if I'm the person who opened it.
All that said, I am really not a heads up wizard, so I think I'd best defer on that topic to someone like jsup, Denny Lemieux, or LatestLines2, who regularly play 1-on-1 sit-n-go's online. It is still something important to consider, though, if you are trying to make regular money in STT's, because the difference between first and second is often 2 buy-ins, which is significant.
Try out my strategy and see if it helps you win more money in STT's. Any feedback on the message boards would be great, as I am always trying to learn too. Good luck!