An Introduction To Push / Fold Strategy Late In Poker Tournaments

A Strong All-in Or Fold Skillset Is A Building Block Of MTT Success
– This Article Covers The Basics

There are often situations late in poker tournaments where stack sizes reduce your decisions to shove all-in (or maybe call someone else’s all-in) or fold.

Sometimes you will be short-stacked, sometimes your opponent in the hand will be – and still other times, especially in turbo events, everyone will have relatively shallow stacks. In these situations you can make a superior knowledge of push / fold strategy a profitable edge, maximizing your chances of a deep run. This article breaks down the subject of all-in play in online poker tournaments, explaining the thinking behind this strategy and the common situations in which you will use it.

I will start by highlighting some situations in which post-flop play becomes difficult and the factors which go into spotting these. Next I’ll cover the ‘unexploitable’ all-in, and then bring in the important idea of whether shoving is optimal as well as unexploitable. Opponent types come next – this is especially relevant for lowest buy-in events, where you will meet many inexperienced players. Finally I will introduce equity math, in the form of ICM, which shows a completely different way of analyzing late-game situations.

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Push / Fold Strategy For Poker Tournaments – When Post Flop Play Becomes Difficult

As your stack becomes short the flexibility you have for post-flop play quickly diminishes – for example you can not play a flop with the intention of betting again on the turn if your bet is too small to make anyone fold!

There are a few different stack sizes to cover here, each with their own strategy considerations. These are less than 12 times the big blind,  less than 17 times and  less than 22 times. To save this article reaching too many pages in length I have summarized each size, and then put an example underneath the 'Click Here' for readers who would like to read these.

With 12 or less big blind stacks

Here you can not open raise a pot without risking ‘committing’ your whole stack. Re-raises (or calls, then reraises) will give you such huge pot-odds to call that you should rarely turn them down. However, if you would prefer not to risk your stack with a mid-strength hand then shoving all-in will often show a similar profit, with lower risk! Click Here To See / Hide Example ...

With 17 or less big blind stacks

Here you could raise and then fold. The problem with this stack size is that smart players will know you can not call a re-raise without getting yourself committed to the pot on all but the most dangerous of flops. They can thus re-raise as a semi-bluff, knowing your choices are to shove or fold – pressure you could do without. An additional danger lurks where you have a passive table, a couple of calls behind you can lead to a big pot in which you have little idea of where you stand. Here is an example of how easily you can hit a high pressure situation with a 15 big blind stack. Click Here To See / Hide Example...

With 22 or less big blind stacks

Here you do have some more flexibility in post-flop play, though not a huge amount. It is still possible to find ‘unexploitable’ ranges for your all-ins with this kind of stack, and against the very worst opponents who call anything and re-steal super-light there are situations where you might want to do this.

The most common situation for shoving will be to pick up a raised pot before the flop. For example a looser player makes it 2.5x, another loose player calls and you have a reasonable hand in late position (though not one you would be happy to play post flop when relatively shallow stacked). Here a shove will win a 6.5x pot a good percentage of the time. While this should be a weapon in every player’s armory, you need to ensure you do not only do this with a predictable ‘mid strength’ range – once this is obvious, good opponents will be happy to exploit it by loosening their calling ranges just enough to profit!

Unexploitable All-In Play In Tournaments – What Is This And How Is It Calculated?

It might surprise some readers, but there are many situations in poker tournaments in which you could turn your hand face up, shove all your chips into the pot, and still have a positive expectation in terms of chips! This is a little theoretical to start with, but has important implications for many real situations.

Unexploitable shoves work when there are few opponents left to act, and the blinds and antes are a big proportion of your stack. Say you turned over K-10 from the small blind, and then shoved all-in with 10 BBs.

A savvy opponent could look at the pot odds, then compare the winning chances of his hand to see whether he had enough equity to call. Most of the time he would fold (assuming your hand is not junk) and those times he does call you will have winning chances against his calling hands. So there are a few different scenarios, including the double-up.

Using the free tool PokerStove you can work out the equity of different hands compared to ‘ranges’ – the rest is just calculating odds of having those hands and the chips won * percentage of the time each outcome happens.

As you add more opponents the math becomes more difficult, any more than 2 people would see the chances of someone having a calling hand grow too large to make the math work – so this is mostly a button / small blind move.

Implications Of Unexploitable Shoves

Now, since it is possible to take a mid-strength hand like K-10 - show it before you shove – and still win chips, think about how powerful adding some mystery to your holding becomes… Now your opponent needs to assess his hand against your perceived range, meaning they will not have a clear decision and will often compensate by tightening up their calling range.

A couple of caveats here; first, make sure that your opponent is experienced, bad players will often call light (great if you have a real hand!). Second, remember that your past behavior affects ranges, if you do this 3 times in a row then someone out there will be just itching to call you!

Before you all get shove-happy in the later stages, I’d like to introduce a new concept. Even if you have an unexploitable shove, or other great all-in opportunity - there might be an even better line, which makes even more money.

Now, you need to balance your ranges somewhat. There is nothing more obvious than someone suddenly going from shove-maniac to limping or mini-raising. As long as your play is not obvious, you might want to think about whether you really want to encourage some action to win a bigger pot – or go for the all-in to (most probably) just take the blinds and the antes.

All-In / Fold Strategy In Poker Tournaments – Opponent Types, Stack Sizes And Situations

Just considering the math of your push-fold play and your own stack size will already put you ahead of the majority of your opponents. If you are aware enough to predict the behavior of opponents, work out how their stack sizes affect their judgments and spot good situations to make all-in moves, then your play in the later stages of MTTs will become downright dangerous!

Lets take those factors one-by-one:

Opponents: Some players will have nasty habits like flat calling raises (or even re-raises), floating flops (calling with nothing much to see if they can take the pot on the turn / river) or raising every time the action is folded to them in one of the later positions. By working out which opponents are capable of raise-folding and which are reluctant you already have a ‘target list’ for re-steals. If there are players behind you who are too likely to flat call, and will make playing mid-strength hands difficult, then you might prefer to take the value available from a shove all-in and wait for a better spot to consider post-flop play.

Stacks: Mid-sized stacks are most likely to release their hands facing an all-in. Short stacks can often be feeling desperate, and if they think you might be stealing then they can often take a chance by calling your shove. Big stacks may have enough chips to take a shot at your stack, remember, those extra chips of yours might take their stack to a new level, where they can steal with impunity… If you choose the mid-size stacks who are currently comfortable and would only call when tight, then you have a great chance of your shove winning the blinds.

Situations: Bubble situations are the best for all-in play, here most players tend to tighten up, waiting for the money before they try adding to their stack. The final table bubble is similar, lots of experienced players now exploit bubbles – which can lead to some interesting opportunities to call ‘light’ if you can stand the variance. Other situations to look out for involve players suddenly changing their plays, someone who is happy to shove suddenly mini-raising should set off alarm bells. A tight mid-sized stack making a bubble 3-bet should see you running a mile!!

Prize Pool Equity In MTT Push-Fold Play – How About ICM?

ICM stands for the Independent Chip Model, this is a way of making poker decisions based on the average equity you hold in the prize pool of a game, rather than just the amount of chips you hold.

This is based on the fact that prizes in tournaments (or SNGs) are top-heavy. Here is a simplified example to show the math in action.

4 players, each have 1000 chips, with a $100 prize pool divided as $50 for 1st, $30 for 2nd and $20 for 3rd (4th gets nothing). I will exclude the blinds for now to keep the example easy to follow.

Over 100’s of games each player can expect to win $25 here… all else being equal. In other words, their current prize pool equity is $25 each.

Now, player A raises all in to steal the blinds, and player B decides to call. Here, if player B’s decision were based on chips, he would be risking 1000 chips to win 1000 more chips… so as long as he won 51% of the time, his call would be good.

If we look at the prize pool equity, a different story takes shape. Here he is risking $25 in equity – but to win what?

Well, with the maximum possible winnings being $50 we can not say he wins $25 more, since the other 2 players are still very much in the game and will win some of the time. In fact, the math shows that over 100’s of games a player with 2000 the chips in the last 3 will win around $37 on average, with the other two players winning $31.50c each.

Going back to risk / reward, player B risked his $25 equity to win an average of just $12 more in equity… he would thus need to win 66% of the time that he called to make this a +ev play.

This is not some virtual currency, these decisions are in real money and cost players who misunderstand prize pool equity a lot over time. There are very few hands which are 2-to-1 favorite over a random hand in Holdem, and if you put the original shover on a tight range you quicky narrow the hands you can call with.

OK, how does this relate to the later stages of poker tournaments.

Things get more complicated in real life situations, different stack sizes, prize pools which are set up differently and so on. What you need to think about, especially at the final table, is the average value of your chips in terms of the slice of the prize pool you will win one the cards balance out (over the theoretical 100's of games). If you call an all-in at the final table then you are risking your entire prize pool equity, usually for a smaller gain in average equity – make sure that your gain is worth the potential loss.

I recommend that readers study ICM in more detail once you are familiar with the basics of push/fold tournament play. Tools like ICMIZER  can help you with the math and simulate situations in small tournaments and SNGs. Having this understanding could make a big difference to your bankroll should you hit a final table soon!

Push / Fold Strategy In Poker Tournaments – Bringing It All Together

You need to understand the factors which go into push-fold strategy, even if you make these moves only rarely yourself. There will be many times when an opponent moves their stack into the middle – and once you know how they are approaching the game you should be able to differentiate the ‘steals’ from the ‘unexploitable shoves’ from those time when someone is trying to look weak and really hoping to be looked up.

Tools such as Tournament Indicator will help you learn the math behind all-in situations – this one is approved by the big sites and will quickly pay for itself.

In my view experience is the key, and adding a solid all-in or fold strategy will soon be keeping you ahead of the blinds in those crucial situations approaching the final table.


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