Three keys to final table strategy

Poker books go into great detail discussing the various strategies necessary to get to the final table of a tournament. However, not as much has been written about final table playing strategy. Here are some tips to help you make it from the final table to the winner’s circle. Take what the table gives. This is a simple concept but one that can’t be overlooked. In fact, this philosophy applies not only to poker, but also to sports such as football and basketball.

Sometimes, late in NFL games, the team protecting a lead will often go into a prevent defense, trying to defend against the long pass.

Trying to throw a bomb against that type of coverage isn’t a very good idea. Instead, the opponent takes what the defense gives, and throws shorter passes while continuing to move the chains.

In the NBA, Kobe Bryant has the ability to blow right by players who guard him too closely. But, if someone lays off of him, he’ll just pull up and shoot a jump shot.

Pretend for a second you’re the Laker’s star, and the defense is playing tight and guarding the rim. Well, they’re giving you an open look at a 15-foot jumper! Would you try to drive the lane or take the easy shot?

I hope you said the easy shot.

At the final table of a poker tournament, you must base your choices on how your opponents are playing — in other words, what they’re giving you. If the table is playing passively, and everyone is waiting for others to get knocked out, that’s your cue to drive the lane and play aggressively.

Conversely, if there are overly aggressive, wild players at your table, then the best course of action is to sit back and wait for them to pick each other off.

You cannot win a tournament when there are still nine players at the table. So, your goal in the early stages of final table play is to set yourself up for the short-handed battle to come.

Adjust. One of the most difficult challenges novices face at a final table is making the necessary adjustments for short-handed play.

During most tournaments, play is nine-handed all the way down to the final table. As you get down to six, five, or four players, though, the correct playing strategy will change dramatically.

It’s true that a player may succeed by waiting for premium starting cards on his way to the final table. However, if he continues playing that way short-handed, the blinds and antes will surely eat away at his stack.

Hands such as A-7 offsuit, cards you wouldn’t play in a nine-handed game, become raisers when play becomes short-handed. To stay afloat, you need to win one set of blinds per round. If you’re playing four-handed, that means you need to pick up a pot one out of every four hands. If you fold A-7, you may not get a better chance.

Play the players and your stack. The cards become less important at the final table than they were in the early stages of a tournament. At the final table, shift your focus to determine who you can steal pots from and who you can trap. You’ve got to play the players.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to play the players when you don’t have many chips. If you’re on the short stack, you’ll be forced to sit back and wait for a good opportunity to either double up or to steal the blinds.

It’s a much rosier picture if you’re one of the bigger stacks at the final table. Now you have virtual free reign to attack and pressure your opponents. There’s no need to be reckless; the other players will be forced to respect your stack size since any hand they play could be their last.

So let’s review. Let the game come to you in the early stages. Make the necessary adjustments once play becomes short-handed. Finally, always be aware of your stack size in relation to the others.

If you focus on those three key elements, you’ll often find yourself playing heads-up for the title.
By Daniel Negreanu

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