As you’ll learn later in this book, an important component of winning poker is to take advantage of the other players’ weaknesses and tendencies. Players who have no financial investment (in other words, they play with play money only) are generally anxious to learn how the hand turns out. Consequently, they usually play too loose, calling bets with inferior hands just to observe the outcome. Knowing this, we can devise a winning strategy that capitalizes on this weakness.
The biggest mistake I commonly see when watching play-money SNGs is that bets and raises are way too small after the flop. Unless you’ve flopped a huge hand, such as quads (4-of-a-kind), a straight flush, or a full house, you seldom want to be called by more than one player, no matter what you have. I recommend that beginning players bet at least half their chips in any hand they decide to play.
This is the down-and-dirty trick to winning play-money SNGs; it’s explained further below.
I suggest that you try this out in the many play-money SNGs on PokerStars.net. This is the way to become familiar with what goes on in SNGs without having to risk one red cent! only move up to real-money games once you’re comfortable with the game and the stakes. To further prepare yourself, watch a few SNGs at the next level before jumping in.
I urge you to keep records. This will help you track your improvement, which can be fun, as well as give you an additional tool for learning. At a minimum, record the type of game you played and your result. Better still, make remarks and describe key hands. This can be done either by purchasing tracking software or the old-fashioned way, with paper and a pencil.
While you’re playing for play-money, you’ll probably run into many kinds of opponents. Some are trying to win and some are amusing themselves by clicking the buttons. Certain players try their best, while others just chunk bets into the pot to see what might happen, while they watch TV, chat on the phone with friends, or get drunk. Get used to a variety of styles while you’re playing for free, because the same types of players often await you as you move up the ladder to real-money games. By playing to win in every situation, you’ll more quickly gain the experience needed to advance.
Winners play less hands than losers but make bigger bets when they do play.
In the early stages of a free SNG, it pays to be patient and play very few hands. The important ones, those that will win the most chips for you, are the big pairs (AA, KK, or QQ). With these hands, if the pot’s been raised, bet all your chips. If there’s been no raise, bet half your chips now and when the flop (the first 3 community cards) comes, bet the rest of your chips regardless of the new cards and action. Because free-play players call too frequently, you’ll often get called by inferior hands and amass a pile of chips!
During the first 3 levels, if the pot has been raised before it’s your turn to act, fold all other hands.
If you’re the first to raise the pot (players who’ve matched the big blind—known as limpers—are oK), move all-in with TT, JJ, and AK-suited. When you’re dealt any other hands, fold.
Blinds are 10/20 and you have KK and a stack of 1,500. Two players before you just call the big blind. There’s been no raise, so bet half your chips now: 750!
Blinds are 15/30 and you have QQ and a stack of 1,470. One player raises to 120 and another one calls him. All-in, baby!
Blinds are 15/30 and you have AQ-suited and a stack of 1,200. There are 8 players remaining and you’re first to act. Fold.
Blinds are 15/30 and you have a stack of 1,350. You’re on the button with JJ and 3 players have limped in for 30 each. All-in!
You have 1,500 with blinds of 25/50. The second player to act raises to 150. You have AK. Fold.
Limping in isn’t a recommended option at the free-play level. In every case, you’ll enter the pot with a raise or a re-raise, committing either half your chips or all your chips. Be patient: In Chapter 4, where playing in real-money SNGs is discussed, other options will become available.
Seeing a Free Flop from the Big Blind
The big blind is a situation that might need some clarification. The big blind acts last before the flop. After the flop, the small blind acts first (if still in the hand), the big blind acts next, and the button (dealer) acts last. Sometimes when you’re in the big blind, others will have limped in, but no one will have raised, allowing you to continue playing without putting any more money in the pot. If you’re holding AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, or AK (suited or unsuited), moving all-in is the best play. With all other hands, check and see the flop. After the flop, if you have two unique pair (where each of your hole cards matches a separate card on the board), move all-in. To clarify, if you hold 33 and the flop comes KKJ, you have not flopped two unique pair, because everyone else has at least the KK. If you hold K8 and it comes K82, you’ve flopped the kind of 2-pair we’re discussing; if you hold 82 and it comes K82 you’ve also flopped a playable 2-pair. Furthermore, move all-in if your flop trips or a set. “Trips” means you hold one card in your hand and two of that rank come on the board; for example, you’re holding 96 and the community cards are 66K. A “set” means you hold a pocket pair and another one of the same rank comes on the board. If, for instance, you hold 44 and the community board reads K84—you have a set of 4s.
If you flop a full house of any size, a flush (if you hold two diamonds and the board is Jd 6d 3d, for example), or a straight, (say you hold 63 and the flop comes 754), then bet one-half of your chips now and the rest on the turn (the fourth community card, which is followed by the next round of betting)
no matter what card comes off the deck. If you flop a straight flush or quads, check and then raise to one-half your stack if you get the chance, then bet the rest of your chips on the turn. If everyone checks behind you on the flop, bet half your chips on the turn and the other half on the river. (The “river” is the final community card and signals the final round of betting.) If your hand is any worse than two unique pair (this will be the case the great majority of the time), check and then fold to any bet.
Avoid playing hands with 4 cards to a flush or straight. For example, fold Ah 6h when it comes Jh 4d 2h and an opponent bets, even though you’d have the best possible flush if a heart comes on the turn or river. Also, if someone bets, check and fold top pair (a hole card matching the top community card) with top kicker (the highest possible side card to a pair; for example, if you have As Ts and the board reads Th 7c 4d, you have top pair with top kicker). A hand such as As Jd with a flop of Jh 4d 2h, for example, may seem strong, and can be in the right situations. However, as a beginning player, you’ll struggle to identify which situations are profitable for you and which ones aren’t. often, with multiple opponents as you’re likely to have when you see a free flop from the big blind, there’s a very good chance someone will have flopped 2-pair or better and has you crushed. After you improve your game by reading the rest of this book and other books, playing more hands, and thinking about those hands, you’ll occasionally be able to play on in the early rounds with such holdings. For now, however, and as long as you’re at the play-money level, simply check/folding these hands will be your best play.
From the fourth level on, as you’ll read below, top pair with top kicker is playable on the flop from the big blind, but during the first 3 levels, you should fold. you could easily have the best hand, but it’s best to wait for another time when you know you’re a strong favorite. I’m removing all the guesswork that I can, since at this point you’re probably not too good at guessing and that means I don’t recommend that you pursue drawing hands, such as four to the straight or flush, or one-pair hands in play-money SNGs just to see what might happen. Establishing good habits now will serve you well when you advance to real-money games.
Blinds are 25/50 and you have 1,425. You’re the big blind and hold 6c 4s. Three players limp in, including the small blind. You check, and the flop is Kh 6d 4c. The small blind bets 200. Push all-in! You have 2 unique pairs. Go for it!
You have Ac Qs in the big blind with blinds of 15/30 and 1,470 chips. There are 4 limpers
to you. You decline your option to raise and the flop is Qs Th 9h. The small blind bets 100. Fold. Although you may have the best hand here, the small blind has bet and there are still 3 players left to act after you. The chance of someone having 2-pair or a made straight is too great. There will be better chances later.
Take a look at the summary tables at the end of this chapter. They list all the recommended plays for each stage of the sit-n-go. I suggest you print out these pages or have them open on your computer to refer to while playing.
Level 4 and Higher
As the SNG progresses, the blinds and antes increase, costing you more each orbit as the blinds move around the table. Suppose you have approximately the same 1,500 chips you started with at the fourth level on PokerStars, when the blinds go to 50/100. What now? you still have enough ammunition for roughly 10 orbits, which is the number that gives you just enough to play poker, as opposed to simply pushing all-in or folding before the flop. Despite your somewhat comfortable position, however, it’s now correct to shift gears and play more aggressively, because even winning only the blinds is meaningful.
Another way to think about it is that the preliminary rounds are over and the real tournament now begins. Ideally, you’ve been watching what the other players have been doing, making mental or written notes. In most cases, the other players won’t be changing their stripes, or rather, gears. The type of players they are has usually been revealed and the kinds of plays they’re likely to make have often already occurred, so use hand histories, notes, and stats to your advantage.
If you’re thinking that someone out there has noticed that you’ve been playing “tight” and only entering pots with excellent hands—great! If other players think that you’re too timid to enter pots without
a big hand, they’re making a big mistake, as you’ll now be switching gears and playing much more aggressively. The players who have you pegged as tight and timid will now almost always fold when you bet. This is great for you! This being said, however, at the lower levels it’s unlikely that anyone will be so observant. Furthermore, it’s also unlikely that they’ll alter their play because of it.
From the 4th blind level onward, AK (suits are unimportant) is also playable if multiple players have just limped in or if only 1 player has raised. If there’s been a single raise when you hold AK at the 4th-blind level or higher, whether or not it’s been called by other players, your best play is to go all-in.
you do this for several good reasons—you might have the best hand right now, but even if you don’t, AK has a very good chance of improving to beat better holdings by making a pair (note that when you make a pair with AK, it will always be the top pair with top kicker), and sometimes when you don’t have the best hand you force your opponent[s] to make a tough decision for all their chips and they just might make a mistake. when you move in, you have two ways to win the pot: your opponent can fold or you can show down the best hand when all the cards have been dealt. This is a key concept in no-limit hold ’em. If your opponent folds, wonderful!
As you can see, the idea here is to over-bet your really good hands early on, because other players
will call you with garbage, especially if their hand is “soooted” (suited, when both hole cards are the same suit, is often referred to in jest as “soooted,” because many players, especially newer ones, overvalue this distinction) just to see how the hand unfolds when all the cards are out. Curiosity killed the cat—and many a poker player, as well! When you graduate to playing very small-buy-in real-money SNGs at PokerStars.com, you’ll notice this tendency for inquisitive players to play highly speculative hands, risking far more of their stack than their hand warrants. Their mistakes become your profits! Winning poker is all about making fewer mistakes than your opponents.
A hidden benefit of strict hand selection in the early going is that the other players are likely to be playing wildly and knocking each other out. Each time a player gets knocked out, you get closer to the top 3, and the top 3 are the winners in SNGs. Even though one player might double his chips, you gain in your expected return each time a player is eliminated.
Suppose 3 players have been eliminated. Even if you haven’t played a single hand, you’re now ahead of the game. Don’t worry about not having the most chips. you’ve still got lots of time to double your stack and be right in the thick of things. you might not even need to double your stack. It’s possible to win 3rd or even 2nd place in an SNG without ever winning a single meaningful pot. I’ve finished 2nd in SNGs without ever having more chips than I started with. Patience is truly a virtue in the early stages.
Play More Hands from the Fourth Level On
From the fourth blind level until only 4 players are left, you should become more aggressive by adding some hands to your repertoire. If an opponent has already raised, move all-in with any pair 99 or higher, any AK, or AQ-suited. Any time the action gets to you and no one has yet raised, you should raise all-in with any AK, any AQ, AJ-suited, AT-suited, KQ-suited, and any pair 77 or higher. If you’re the first one into the pot (no raisers or limpers) as the button or the small blind, also move all-in
with any hand that has any pair, or 19 or more blackjack points in it (any picture card and the tens are worth 10 points, aces are 11, and 9s and 8s are worth face value) —these are (in addition to the aforementioned) A8, A9, AT, AJ, KQ, KJ, KT, K9, QJ, QT, Q9, JT, J9, T9. Remember, there are two ways to win when you go all-in!
When You Have Fewer than 10 Big Blinds
If you have fewer than 10 times the big blind at any time and the pot hasn’t been raised (multiple limpers are oK), you should additionally move all-in with any hand that equals 20 points in blackjack so long as it’s suited. For example, Kh Th is okay to move in with, while Ks Td isn’t. If someone raises before you, move all-in with any pair 77 or higher, AK, or AQ-suited. If two (or more) people raise before you, move all-in with pocket queens or higher, or AK.
when You Have Fewer than 5 Big Blinds
If you have fewer than 5 times the big blind at any time and the pot hasn’t been raised (multiple limpers are oK), you should move all-in with any ace, any pair, or any hand that equals 20 points in blackjack. For example, if you hold, 2c 2s, Ac 4h, Qs Js, Jh Td, etc., bet all your chips. If someone calls and shows a better starting hand, you can still get lucky. Understand that you’re increasing the number of hands you’ll play, because you’re desperate, with the blinds and/or antes eating away precious pieces of your stack. Waiting for big hands is no longer a viable option. If someone raises before you, move all-in with any pair 66 or higher, AK, AQ, AJ, or AT-suited. If two people raise before you, move all-in with pocket tens or higher, or AK.
Blinds are 25/50 and you have A3-suited and a stack of 220. Six players remain and one player limps. You have less than 5 times the big blind, so it’s time to push it in and hope to get lucky.
On the fourth level and beyond, if you get to see the flop for free in the big blind, push all-in
if your hand is at least as strong as the top pair with the top kicker. Note that this is slightly different from the advice given for the first 3 levels. So if the flop comes 762, push all-in with A7, a pocket pair of eights or better, any 2-pair, or any set. If only 1 or 2 people see the flop with you, push all-in with the top pair and any kicker. All worse hands should check and fold.
Four Players Remaining – The Bubble
When you get to 4-handed play and they pay 3 spots, you’ve arrived at what’s commonly called “the bubble” (meaning that those who advance one more spot get paid, whereas the one who finishes one out of the money, and is usually referred to as the bubble player, gets nothing). The most important thing to realize is that all your decisions can be reduced to two simple actions—move all-in or fold.
At this stage the blinds and antes are high and you can’t afford to limp in, then fold your hand if someone raises, or make a raise and lay your hand down if you get re-raised. It’s all-or-nothing time and you’ll need to be courageous and bold. It’s time to throw caution to the wind and play a wide range of hands. At this stage, fearlessness is a virtue.
In play-money games, no one is trying to just squeak into third place and make the “money.” There’s no money here, only the ego victory of first place. However, the completely lunatic, wild, and loose players are more likely to be out than still in. There may be one or two left, but your opposition will probably
be a bit saner. you might see play tighten up a tad near the end, but not as much as it probably would if there was real money involved.
As a result, any time you’re the first to enter the pot (everyone before you has folded), move all-in with any ace, any pair, or any hand that equals 15 points in blackjack. you’re hoping to pick up the blinds and antes and being the first one in the pot makes this job a lot easier. If anyone has limped or raised before it’s your turn, stick to your tighter default strategy.
Blinds are 200/400 and you have QJ with a stack of 3,600. Four players remain; the first player folds and the second raises to 800. You’re in the small blind. Fold. Someone else raised before you, so stick with your tight-play strategy.
Blinds are 150/300 and you have 9c 6d with a stack of 2,600. Four players remain and you’re first to act. You have 15 blackjack points, so push all-in and pray everyone else folds. when you’re the first one to enter the pot, you’re hoping that you can push people out with your big move. It’s much easier to win the pot by pushing all-in than by calling an all-in. That’s why we’re aggressive with our pushes, but tight when someone else comes in first.
Three Players Remaining
your aggressive play will carry over as you move toward the top. When you play 3-handed, you’ll be “in the money,” but everyone is going for first, so don’t be afraid to move all-in and put your opponents to the test. If they allow you to win the blinds a few times, you’ll likely build up an insurmountable lead.
When you play 2-handed, you’re forced to play even more hands. The simplest of all strategies is just to move all-in every time you’re first to act or whenever he limps. This puts the onus on your opponent and forces him to make a big decision, often for all his chips. That’s right! Time for the mantra: when you move in, there are two ways to win.
Anytime you get called and turn over garbage (a random hand), you may get some verbal abuse. Just smile and move on. If that person now enters the next SNG with you, he might well call in the early stages when you move all-in and have him smashed.
At all other stages of the tournament, the small blind is directly to the left of the button and must act before the button on the last three rounds. In heads-up play, the small blind goes to the button, so that on the first round of play (before the flop) the button has the disadvantage of acting first. This is done to offset some of the power of the button acting last after the flop. Don’t let it surprise you the first time you see it.
What happens when he’s first and comes in for a raise? What kind of hand do you need to re-raise him with or call his all-in? Re-raise all-in with any pair (from the lowly 22 to the lovely AA) and with any hand that totals 20 or 21 in blackjack. Those hands are AK, AQ, AJ, AT, A9, KQ, KJ, KT, QJ, QT, and JT. All other hands can be mucked. By moving all-in with these hands, you’ll put your opponent on his hind foot. It’s
a fairly big selection of hands and is designed to give you the optimal chance of winning. Unfortunately, you’ll sometimes run into a bigger hand or a lucky opponent, but don’t let that persuade you to begin to play in some other way. Stay the course and you’ll be happy with your results in the long run.
If your opponent’s original raise is an all-in from the button before you’ve acted, the same hands listed above can be used to call or to re-raise all-in.
If your opponent only has enough chips for 4 big blinds or less, you should call his pre-flop all-in with any two cards. Similarly, if you’re in this situation, move all-in with any two cards.
- The most important thing to notice is that your hand values change dramatically as you go from nine starting players down to two. Additionally, the blinds and antes get much larger, which means that the reward for winning the pot becomes progressively more significant. Both of these changes cause a change in your play from cautious at the beginning to loose (you play a lot more hands) later on. Simply put, you no longer have the luxury of waiting for good hands, because the blinds and antes eat you alive if you wait for top hands. So you rely more on your opponent’s fear of losing by acting aggressively in short-handed situations. when you push all-in, you’re opponents can fold and you’ll win immediately or you might have the best hand when the hand is dealt out. This is a powerful one-two punch! while playing, refer to the charts provided for guidance.
- Try not to get too caught up in results. what do I mean by this? well, often you’ll throw away KJ, or 85,or K2, or 22, and notice that had you played all the way, the cards would have made you a winning hand. That doesn’t matter. Your goal is to win the event and you do that by continually putting your money at risk with the best hand. Damon Runyon once said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet!” How true!
Now you’re ready to beat play-money SNGs. As soon as you’re a consistent winner, I encourage you to move up to real-money play, but for very small stakes. Depositing just $10 into your PokerStars account is enough to get you started. See you at the final table!