There is no feeling quite like winning a big score in a multi-table poker tournament (MTT). But most players will rarely experience it - and many will never know it at all. That's because they are making too many fundamental mistakes.
Here are 16 of the biggest MTT poker mistakes that ruin win rates - read on and make sure you're not making any of them.
1. Playing Too Loose at the Beginning of an MTT Poker Session
It's tempting to play any two cards early on in an MTT when your stack is big and the blinds are low - after all, even 72o can make a monster with the right flop, and I've got loads of chips!
Don't fall into this trap: you are mathematically guaranteed to lose money over the long run. Trash hands will just not win enough pots to make up for all the times they miss the flop and you are forced to fold. You should be playing a tight-aggressive style in the early stages of a Texas Hold'em tournament.
This is especially true from early position. The further from the button you are, the more players there are left to act, and the more likely someone has a better hand. This means you may end up going to the flop multiway against better hands - reducing your already pitiful equity.
And it's not just trash hands you need to worry about. They probably aren't even the worst poker hands in MTTs, as at least you can usually get away from them pretty easily. Watch out for trouble hands with weak kickers where you might flop top pair only to lose a bunch of chips to a player with a better kicker.
To make matters worse, gaining chips early on is nowhere near as valuable as gaining them later. Stay patient while blinds are low and watch your results improve.
2. Over-Valuing Hands on the Flop
It's always nice when you make top pair - or better yet have a monster overpair like pocket Aces or Kings. But these are just one pair hands, and most of the time the really big pots (in terms of big blinds) are won by hands that beat one pair.
You always need to think about the flop Stack-to-Pot Ratio (SPR) before you start playing for stacks. The SPR is calculated by dividing the effective stack size by the pot postflop. If the flop SPR is bigger than 4 be very careful about playing for stacks with a one-pair hand. You'll usually be beaten.
Early on in the tournament, flop SPRs will be very high, as the stacks are big and the blinds are low. This makes speculative hands very valuable as you are happy to get stacks in with a set, straight or flush - but it makes one pair hands very dangerous. In the late stages of tournaments, things are different. The stacks will be small compared to the pots and so the SPR will be very low. When the SPR is below 4 your one pair hand rates to be a lot stronger.
3. Not Stealing Enough Blinds Late On
Winning big pots is great, but it happens rarely. In tournaments, you are facing a slow bleed of chips from the rising blinds and antes. You need to stay afloat - and stealing blinds is the best way to do this. Early on the blinds are tiny compared to your stack, but later on, the opposite is usually true.
It's best to steal when you're in late position, and when there are nits or medium stacks in blinds. Nits give up their blinds too easily, while even skilled players are hamstrung by medium stacks as they are too big to shove into you and too short to play much poker postflop. Big stacks, short stacks, and fishy calling stations are poor stealing targets.
4. Ignoring 3-Bet Opportunities Late On
The flipside of the last tip is that if players are incentivized to steal pretty wide from later positions, then they are extremely vulnerable to 3-bets. They'll fold a lot - and even if you are called you are still going to win a decent amount of the time.
Pay attention to their stack size and player type though, as well as your position - it's printing money to 3-bet medium stacked nits from the button, but risky to try re-stealing against a big-stacked maniac.
5. Not Profiling Your Opponents
As Phil Hellmuth puts it: "Think of poker as a game about people that happens to be played with cards." Unless you are playing perfect GTO poker (spoiler: you can't, it's impossible), you need to observe and categorize your opponents' playstyles.
Whether or not you use tracking software like PokerTracker4 that collects stats on your opponents and displays them on screen, most sites have a built-in note function. Use it to record your observations about players - it might come in useful later on in the tournament, or a later tournament.
You don't want to make the mistake of trying to bluff the same calling station twice!
6. Slowplaying Strong Hands
It's super frustrating when you get dealt pocket Aces only for everyone to fold to your open raise. If only I'd trapped them by limping, I could have won more than just the blinds and antes!
Wrong. Do you know what's worse than only winning the dead money with pocket Aces? Losing your whole stack when they get cracked by a trash hand because you limped and let a bunch of other players in for cheap.
The same principle is true when you make a strong hand on the flop - don't slowplay unless your hand is invulnerable (e.g. Quads or better) or the board is dry and uncoordinated. Otherwise, you will be giving people great odds to chase crazy draws to hands that beat you.
7. Not Playing Aggressively with a Short Stack
It can feel like the end of the world when you end up as a short stack. It isn't - but it will be if you don't do something about it. When your stack is less than 10bb, you have two choices: go all-in or fold. But you have to make a move sooner rather than later. The greatest crime in MTT poker is allowing yourself to get blinded out.
At least if you get it all you always have a chance of winning - and so long as your stack is big enough you have a very good chance of making your opponents fold.
If you are short stack you have to play like you have nothing to lose. But don't go overboard. Pick your spots. If you shove, try to be the first into the pot, otherwise, your fold equity will be greatly reduced.
8. Chasing Losses During an MTT - or Afterward
It's a common scenario: you're cruising along early in an MTT with a huge stack, only to get unlucky and lose a bunch of chips to some idiot. The temptation to try and rebuild your stack immediately can be powerful.
But don't panic. Think about your stack in terms of big blinds - so long as you're not below 10, you're not in serious trouble, and if you still have more than 40 then you're still a big enough stack to play some poker. Relax and wait for a good spot rather than desperately chasing your losses.
An even worse scenario is when you get knocked out before the money thanks to a bad beat or cooler. You've lost your buy-in and finished the tourney hours earlier than you expected, and it's just not fair.
It can be very tempting to immediately play another tournament - or even an SnG or Cash Game - to try and recoup your losses. But ask yourself whether you'll be playing your best poker if you're tilting and chasing losses. Because if you're not playing your A-game, you are more likely to lose even more.
And it's a recipe for an even bigger disaster if you start playing above your bankroll!
Poker will be here tomorrow. Never chase your losses.
9. Improper Bet Sizing
Everything in poker is relative. You should think about your stack in terms of big blinds, and you should think about any bets you make in terms of the existing pot size. If you bet the same number of chips on each street, your bet becomes a smaller proportion of the pot each time. You are telegraphing to your opponents that you have a mediocre hand, and you are giving them better and better odds to continue. If you do have a good hand, you aren't building the pot efficiently at all.
And don't min-bet! Unless the pot is very small, you will just be giving your opponents such good odds to continue you may as well have checked. If the pot is 10bb and you bet 1bb, then they are getting 11-1 odds to continue - meaning they can profitably chase a gutshot straight.
Bet sizing is one of the most complicated aspects of No-Limit Hold'em - but even if you are betting half pot every time that is infinitely better than thinking in absolute terms, or min-betting into a big pot.
10. Ignoring MTT Poker Positions
Position is power in poker. There are so many reasons for this, but as legendary poker philosopher Tommy Angelo puts it in Elements of Poker: "Acting last is like taking a drink of water. We don't have to understand why it's good for us to know that it is. And the benefits are unaffected by our understanding of them."
Now, the impact of position is reduced when stack sizes get smaller. If you get it all-in, you don't need to worry about position at all. But if you have a big stack, do your best to play hands in position and avoid playing them out-of-position.
Always be aware of your position and how that will affect things if you get involved in a hand. For example, it might be tempting to call pre-flop from the small blind - but don't forget that the big blind is still to act, and you will have to act first post-flop. Why make things harder for yourself?
11. Drinking While Playing MTT Poker
Poker is a game of making good decisions - and drinking alcohol reduces your ability to make good decisions. Many people tell themselves that drinking relaxes them and helps them play better. And maybe that's true up to a point.
But MTTs last a long time, and before you know it you've drunk five beers and are calling all-in for 100bb with pocket deuces.
Drinking is nice, but playing good poker is better. Save the booze for celebrating once you've won - or commiserating your bad luck if you lose!
12. Failing to Manage MTT Poker Bankroll
Bankroll management isn't sexy but it's just as important as technical ability and tilt control. Poker is a game of skill, but there is a large luck element over the short run. This is especially true with MTT poker, where you will be getting it all in a lot. Nobody can escape variance, but you can mitigate it with good bankroll management.
Playing in tournaments well above your bankroll is a recipe for poor play as well. Scared poker is losing poker. Aim to have around 100 buy-ins for any tournament you play - if not more.
13. Failing to Prepare for the Long Haul
Poker MTTs last a long time. 6-9 hours is a fairly standard tournament length, so plan ahead. Don't start one at 10 pm - even if you don't have work the next day you won't be making optimal decisions at 4am when the real money is being decided. Or worse still you'll punt off your stack long before then because you want to go to bed.
MTTs do have breaks - but they aren't that long and they don't come that often. Make sure you have enough snacks and drinks to get you through.
14. Not Adjusting your Play
Poker MTTs are not like cash games. They have distinct stages, based on the size of the big blinds and the proximity to the money - and you can't just top-up to maintain a 100bb stack size. You have to adjust your playing style depending on both your stack size and what stage of the tournament you are in.
We've mentioned you should keep it fairly tight during the early stages, but what you can't do is stay tight the whole way through and expect to do well. Barring an incredibly lucky run of cards, you will end up being blinded out - a pathetic fate.
Instead, you need to use your tight image to your advantage to steal pots. And if you get caught in a bluff, use that loose image to get value! You need to be able to change gears or you will be too predictable.
15. Not Folding to Aggression from Passive Players
There's nothing worse than being bluffed off a big pot, right? Wrong. There is something worse, and that's paying off a tight-passive player by calling their big river or turn raise when they have you beat.
Let's face it, even if they're not a complete passive fish, turn and river raises still need to be respected. At the lower stakes especially turn and river raises (at least if they are decent sizes) are very rarely bluffs.
Don't get overly attached to your hand. Look at the board texture, think about the player who is raising you, and think about whether you really want to make that hero call. Yes, you'll be right every so often - but most of the time you'll be wrong and your tournament life will be put needlessly at risk.
16. Not Taking Antes into Account
Most MTTs have antes and yet many players don't even give them a thought. But not only do they diminish your stack, but they also increase the amount of dead money in the pot. Antes are usually 1/10th the size of the big blind, meaning at a ten-seater table they add another big blind to the pre-action pot.
Poker is essentially one big math problem, so this makes a very big difference. If you're the button and the action folds to you when there are no antes, if you raise 2.5bb to win a 1.5bb pot you will automatically profit so long as the blinds fold more than 63% of the time.
If there are ante, you are raising 2.5bb to win a 2.5bb pot and you automatically profit if the blinds fold more than 50% of the time. That's a big difference.
This also incentivizes you to defend your blind wider - you only need to win the pot 23% of the time, and if you fold more than 50% of the time you are just giving your opponent free chips.
Poker Multi-table tournaments are a marathon and not a sprint. They require patience and vigilance - one mistake can undo hours of work, or ruin your chances before you've ever really got started. Steer clear of these 16 biggest MTT poker mistakes, and your bankroll will thank you!