MTT Strategy: An Introduction

No-limit hold'em multi-table tournaments are the most popular of type of tournament and definitely the most frequently broadcast on TV. Major series like the European Poker Tour (EPT), the World Poker Tour (WPT) or even the World Series of Poker (WSOP) are resounding names that attract thousands of players every year, and of course even greater numbers of enthusiastic spectators. Most of the big stars in the world of poker made their names by winning huge sums of money at tournaments. For example Chris Moneymaker, winner of the WSOP Main Event 2003, the icon of a poker generation, and the German poker elite around Katja Thater, Sebastian Ruthenberg & co. all first attracted attention with their top placings in big tournaments.

Poker as a sport

One reason for this phenomenon is perhaps the fact that the sporting aspect of the game is more apparent at MTTs than it is in cash games. Placings can be directly compared, all players start under the same conditions in terms of chips, and, just like sport, there is not only money to be won but also cups and other trophies.

Online too there is a wide range of tournaments, big and small, at all times of day. Sunday is the big day for tournaments. In addition to the Sunday Million, Warm-Up and Hundred Grand there are a whole lot more MTTs at PokerStars. In fact, there are now so many tournaments that professional poker players are able to make a more than decent living just by playing them.

General information on MTTs

All MTTs are structured in the same way: we pay a certain amount, known as the buy-in, in order to take part and we get a previously determined number of chips in return. Once the tournament has begun it is a matter of everyone playing against each other, and one player after another being eliminated until only the winner is left. 

By contrast with single-table tournaments, in which a maximum of ten players can participate, the number of participants in MTTs is often limited only by the technology or by the number of tables and dealers available. In MTTs, poker is played simultaneously at many tables. If players are eliminated from the tournament in an uneven fashion, for example three players from the first table and none from the others, then the tables will be balanced. This is done by taking players from the full tables and distributing them amongst those tables where more than one player has been eliminated, so that conditions are the same again for all players. If more players per table than planned are eliminated from the tournament, then one table will be closed and those players distributed amongst the remaining tables. This is always done when the number of remaining tables is divisible by the number of players per table (e.g. ten) without remainder. Only at the final table (FT) does the game continue until all but one player is eliminated.

So-called "shoot-out" tournaments are an exception. In shoot-outs there is a winner at every table, and the winners of the individual tables are then distributed amongst new tables. For example, if there were a thousand players at a hundred tables (ten players per table), then every table would play as if it were a single-table tournament, in other words, until a winner has been determined for each one of them. The one hundred winners would then be drawn to ten new tables of ten players each, and ten new table winners would be determined. The ten winners form the final table and play until the overall winner has been determined.

The major differences between the cash game and the MTT

In cash games the blinds remain constant and so we have plenty of time to wait for profitable starting hands. These are good conditions for ultra-tight players and they can regularly make money at cash games. But in tournaments it's different and players are forced to become active. As players are eliminated from a tournament, the average size of the stacks belonging to the remaining players increases and the blinds are continually increased at certain intervals. Moreover, an ante is often introduced in the later stages. This is in addition to the blinds and is a fixed amount to be paid by every player before the first card is dealt. Pressure on the players increases at every level. 

So, because the relation between blinds and stacks changes continually in the course of a tournament, the strategies for profitable tournament play differ considerably from those for playing the cash game profitably. Hands that appear poor at first glance can suddenly become good to play at the higher blind levels of a tournament, whereas hands that would often be good in a cash game may, depending on the blind/stack ratio, be almost unplayable in a tournament.

If we have no more chips in an MTT we normally have to leave the table. In cash games we can buy more chips as often as we want. The exception to this rule in MTTs are the so-called "re-buy" tournaments where we are allowed to buy more chips during a specified period of time (usually the first hour) if our stack decreases to a level below that of the initial stack.

Another important difference is that in a cash game, players can get up and go whenever they want, cashing in whatever winnings they may have. This is not possible in a tournament. Here, players leave only when they no longer have any chips. They get whatever prize is awarded for their (final!) placing, or nothing at all, depending on the number of chips they had at their maximum during the tournament.

All of the above points are reasons why experience in cash games alone is generally not enough for playing tournaments. This is one of the aspects that causes many players to fail when it comes to making the change from cash games to tournament play and vice versa, and why there are necessarily tournament specialists as well as cash game specialists. Only a handful of players are world-class in both disciplines.

One crucial difference between the two is that as a rule, we can't buy more chips at a tournament. When we've lost all our chips the tournament is over. In a cash game, however, we can always decide when we want to leave.  

In all, a multi-table tournament consists of four different phases: the early and middle phases, playing in the money, and the game at the final table. Each phase of an MTT must be analysed and managed separately.

In this series of articles we want to provide a detailed explanation of these phases, as well as of other topics such as bankroll management, playing on the bubble, push or fold and making a deal.