SNG Strategy: An Introduction

The following series of articles deals with single table Sit and Go's (abbreviated as SNGs). The special thing about this type of tournament is that SNGs don't have a fixed starting time. They start as soon as the required number of players has taken place at the table. Then one player after another gets eliminated as soon as he has lost all of his chips. The last player at the table is the winner of the tournament. No one can say for sure whether the "Go" stands for the fact that the tournament starts as soon as the required number of players have taken their seats or that you have to go once you have run out of chips. There is support for each viewpoint.

A SNG as discussed in this series of articles is played with six, nine or ten players and has a fixed buy-in. There are no re-buys available. At PokerStars, the maximum number of players is 9, in contrast to live SNGs which often start with 10 players.

In a typical SNG with nine players distribution of prize money looks as follows:

  • 1st place: 50% of the prize pool
  • 2nd place: 30% of the prize pool
  • 3rd place: 20% of the prize pool

As places 4 to 9 go away empty-handed, the basic strategy is:

  • to play tight and cautiously at the beginning and avoid unnecessary risks.
  • when the blinds go up and the stacks become significantly smaller in relation to the blinds, we should play more loose and, above all much more aggressively.

The aggressive playing style has its pros and cons. The advantage is that we can often play big pots with our premium hands more often and thus maximize value. By playing aggressively we can also win pots where we force players who are actually holding a better hand to fold. The result is that we usually reach the money with a lot of chips if we have made it that far.

And this brings us to the disadvantage: If we play very aggressively, the number of ITM (in the money) finishes will decrease. Especially in the middle and late stage of SNGs you will get busted more often and in fact before we have reached the paid places.  

Due to the on average bigger chip stacks, with which you will reach the money, we will finish in first or second place much more often and this will be reflected in better statistics, i.e. more profit.

Established tournament players, in particular, have problems to change gears in the right moment from their usual tight style into playing more loosely and aggressively if necessary. But that is an essential part of the recipe for success in SNGs and the key to maximizing your profit in the long run. Let's take a look at a unit of measurement with which we can easily calculate success, the ROI.

ROI (return on investment)

The success of a Sit and Go player is measured by his ROI. The higher it is, the better for the player.

  • Definition:                                                                                                                                  Your ROI basically describes your net profit (return) divided by the total amount you've spent in buy-ins (investment).


If we have played a sufficient number of SNGs, we can assume that the ROI practically matches the expected value for future SNGs.

The ROI for SNGs is calculated as follows:

ROI in % = ((prize money – buy-ins) / buy-ins) x 100

If the ROI is bigger than 0, I have made a profit. If it is less than 0, then I have made a loss. In the beginning, the ROI only has limited signifcance, since in the short-term luck as well as bad luck could be a huge factor. But after hundreds or even after a thousand of SNGs, we can use it to derive the expected value for future games.

As a guideline which ROIs are realistic, here are a few general figures based on experience:

ROIs that should be reached at the respective levels:

  • Small buy-ins ($1-$10): 15%
  • Medium buy-ins ($20-$100): 10%
  • High buy-ins ($200 and higher): 7%

Everything above that is evidence of solid and good SNG play.

You play ten SNGs. Why are you better off winning three and finishing in second place two times, than to come in third ten times?

After we have played a few SNGs, we may ask ourselves whether it is better to make the money every time instead of being eliminated before the paid places? Or whether it is better for the ROI to make the money only fifty percent of the time but instead come in first or second when we do reach the paid places

Let's look at an example. In order to facilitate the calculation, we take a $10 SNG with 10 players. The buy-in is $10 + $1 (=fee) = $11. Then the prize money is distributed as follows:

  • 1st place: 50% of prize pool = $50 => profit = $39
  • 2nd place: 30% of prize pool = $30 => profit = $19
  • 3rd place: 20% of prize pool = $20 => profit = $9

So how does the ROI look like if we finish in third place 10 times out of ten games compared to being eliminated early five times, but win three times and finish in second two times in the remaining five games?

The ROIs for both scenarios are calculated as follows:

ROI(10 x 3rd) = (10 x $20 - 10 x buy-in) / 10 x buy-in = ($200 - $110) / $110 = $90 / $110 = 0,82 = 82 %

ROI(3 x 1st + 2 x 2nd) = ((3 x $50 + 2 x $30) - 10 x buy-in) / 10 x buy-in = ($210 - $110) / $110 = $100 / $110 = 0,9 = 90 %

Even though we made the money ten times in the first case and therefore twice as often as in the second scenario, we still get a worse return on our investment than in the second example. The risk of being knocked out earlier but instead come in first or second when making the money pays off in the long run.

What kind of players are best suited for SNGs?

SNGs are a perfect fit for players who do not want to invest a lot of time for a tournament but nevertheless want to play tournament poker. It is essential to be able to change gears because in the long term it will be difficult for us to reach the first ranks in a Sit and Go without mixing up our game.

Differences to cash games

While in a cash game the chips are the equivalent value of the amount of money we bought in for, in an SNG we get a certain amount of chips and play with these until we have won the SNG or have been eliminated. The amount of chips is therefore limited, in contrast to a cash game where we can make  a re-buy at any point in time. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to this. One of the advantages is certainly the fact that our risk is limited. We have a fixed buy-in and try to get as far as possible with our starting chips. Many SNG players (especially those who only occasionally play SNGs) play much more loosely than they would in a cash game due to the limited risk. Even tight cash game players are tempted to play too loose, especially in the early stage of a SNG.
That gives tight players a considerable advantage in SNGs, since they usually start the hand as a clear favourite, especially in the first levels.

A disadvantage of SNGs is that you don't have the opportunity to re-buy and to win your money back by playing tight and solid poker after we have lost a hand in an unfortunate way. As a short stack, we have to take a higher risk in SNGs, especially because of the increasing blinds.

Another disadvantage of SNGs is that extremely tight players quickly come under pressure. As a consequence they are forced to give up their tight playing style. In a cash game the blinds remain constant, so players have the opportunity to wait for good starting hands. In the late stage of a SNG, we have to adjust our playing style if we want to maintain a good chance of winning.

Differences to multi table tournaments (MTTs)

Even though the characteristics of SNGs and MTTs are similar in many aspects, there are some differences.

One advantage is that SNGs don't take so long. While in an MTT with e.g. 500 players we have to play for many hours to actually reach the paid places in contrast to an SNG which is usually finished after 30-40 minutes.

Another huge advantage of SNGs is the fact that we can achieve success more quickly than in MTTs. In a SNG with ten players, we will make the money in 33% of the cases, but in a typical MTT, only 10% of the time.

The fact that SNGs are offered online round the clock with almost all possible buy-ins, sometimes even several SNGs at the same time, should not be underestimated as well. In contrast, MTTs that match our individual preferences are often scheduled at very inconvenient times or only infrequently (e.g. once a week). 

MTTs also have a few advantages, of course. The most important one is probably that the winner of an MTT gets a multiple of his buy-in. In some cases you may even be set for life with a single victory (WSOP Main Event, for example). In a SNG, however, we at best can win five times the buy-in.

In the next articles we will explain how to play in the different stages of a SNG.