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Step by Step Guide to Hitting that First Big Poker Tournament Win

Poker StrategyI often wonder how many of today’s poker pros would never have followed the poker path if it were not for a tournament win early on… or a hot run in the cash games. By the same logic there may well be people sitting in ‘regular’ careers who could and would have been poker pros but for losing one coin flip at a vital moment!

This page gives you an overview of some of the main strategy and game selection skills needed to give you a better chance of hitting that first tournament win. Variance is huge in poker tournaments (too many crazy opponents only too happy to put a beat on you!), however with a structured approach you can improve your chances a lot.

The first section below is about selecting the easiest tournaments (there are HUGE differences between the skill levels at different sites and buy-ins), and finding a game with the right setup and structure follows that. Underneath you’ll find some hints about strategy for the early, mid and end stages – outlining the major adjustments to make.

Winning Your First Poker Tournament – Not All Sites Are Equal

Certain large poker sites attract a lot of ‘pro grinders’, these are smaller stakes players who play 8+ tables / tournaments at once, and make a small profit from each – adding up to a side-income or even a full time wage.

Other sites do not reward multi-table play through their loyalty scheme, or do not have the volume of games needed to make this profitable… so you’ll find more amateur players and regular players who just enjoy the games. For non-US players, 888 Poker is a great example of an amateur poker site – while PokerStars is where every aspiring pro and his dog end up!

Things are easier for US players as far as selection goes, with the offshore sites not yet big enough to support pro grinding. America’s Cardroom stand out for their focus on tournaments (including events and their semi-regular $1 million guaranteed specials).

A big advantage of choosing a smaller traffic site is that the fields for tournaments will be measured in the 100’s and not 1000’s. If you are hoping to win your first poker tournament, battling through fields of several thousand is not recommended. Even if you play well, the sheer size of the fields mean that you’ll struggle to reach the final stages. For those players with work to go to, staying with the smaller sites also means that you won’t still be playing at dawn! Check out this article for more on table selection. 

Selecting Poker Tournaments with Good Structures

Danger Signs Online GamblingYou’ll find a lot of variations of poker tournament structure online these days. These range from the slower deep-stacked events, to turbo and even super / hyper turbo structures. There are rebuy games, 2nd chance games and knockout games… and that is before we even get to the table size variations and poker type variations.

If you are just learning the games, then I recommend you stick to the ‘regular’ blind structures. These will go up every 10 or 15 minutes depending on the site. Turbo games force you to make moves, and increase the variance – which increases the chance you’ll be that pro who never found out they were good enough! Deep stack games add to the post-flop skills required, for example hand-reading. These games are better later on when you have won your first poker tournament and developed your skills. While rebuys, knockouts and other formats are fun, they do involve strategy changes too.

One more thing to keep in mind. Even at the softer sites, if you go above the $30 buy-in level, you are likely to find a lot of experienced opponents lining up against you.

To Summarize the Site / Game Selection

#1 – Find a site with a recreational player base is ideal outside of the US. If you are US based then are the number one pick.

#2 – Find a tournament which does not have signs / icons next to it in the lobby saying Turbo, Deep Stack, Short-Handed or Knockout…

#3 – When shooting for your first win, pick games with buy-ins under $30. Your opponents will be a lot less experienced here.

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How to Win Your First Poker Tournaments – Strategy

Poker tournament strategy is a huge topic. Many books have been written on this (not to mention videos and articles). I have already gone into depth with 50+ articles over at my other site Sit and Go Planet. A good starting point for anyone looking to get into the details of strategy for tournaments is the Online Poker Tournaments main page.

For now, here is an overview of the key factors to think about at the different stages of a game.

#1 – Early Stages

There are two complimentary factors affecting your strategy when the your tournament first starts.

First the chip stacks are many times the big blind / small blind. This means you have plenty of room to raise, call and play after the flop – poker skills are involved!

Second, the number of terrible (inexperienced) opponents is at its peak. These ‘fish’ will be giving away chips. Calling bets when they do not have the right odds, calling with 1 pair when an experienced player would know that this is ‘suicide’ (in the long run at least) and so on.

Your task is to get chips from bad players before the other decent players get them. Think of it this way, it will be a lot harder to get those same chips later in the game when they belong in the stack of a reasonable player!

Hands that work well in the early stages are small pairs (when you flop a set and find a fish who can’t fold an overpair is the classic double-up situation), and suited connectors – for example 7-8 of spades, which can flop a straight or a flush, or more frequently a strong draw.

During the early stages you should bet for value (when you believe you have the best hand) relentlessly, bluff less often when your continuation bets fail, and be more cautious with unsuited broadway type hands that you might get aggressive with later on in the game. Pick your spots and raise to isolate the very worst players… and with some luck you’ll have a decent chip stack to go into the mid-stages with.

#2 – Middle Stages

Bankroll Management for Sports BettorsWith the blinds climbing relative to the average chip-stacks, you’ll eventually find yourself losing the ability to play post-flop over multiple streets. There is no hard and fast rule as to when the middle stages begin – though this is often marked by the smallest stacks having 10 to 15 big blinds and the average stacks between 40 and 60.

Stack sizes make a big difference to whether you play hands. You will not be able to call a raise with a small pair hoping to hit a set if you do not have enough chips in your stack to make up for all the times that you miss.

You will also find that the smallest stacks are starting to get desperate. For example, you might raise a hand and find yourself re-raised all-in by a small stack. Pot odds alone can mean you must call with whatever mid-strength hand you opened with… though you would prefer not to. Look out for these spots, if you have short stacks behind you then why not shove all-in to give them the tricky decision instead?

The bubble occurs when just a few players need to bust before the prizes. Here players with mid size and small stacks will tighten up. Players with big stacks (if they know what they are doing) will now relentlessly steal pots. Remember that you might find spots to get your chips in good against a big stack here. Even if you sometimes bust before the money, those extra chips could see you go on a deep run.

#3 – Later Stages

Expect things to go crazy in many tournaments after the bubble bursts. The small and mid-stacks who were staying out of trouble before the prize money will now desperately try to double up. You can take advantage of their weaker starting hands if you keep an eye for who is the most desperate.

Before the final table starts, you’ll find another bubble-like situation – where the mid-stacks in particular tighten up so as not to blow their chances. Take advantage of this by stealing their chips!

Once the final table begins, some advanced concepts come into play. For your first poker tournament the biggest factor will be to spot which players are trying to climb the money places and those which are going for the win. You can steal from the cautious players. You can then find profitable spots against the ‘going for the win’ types who will often be putting pressure on you with weaker holdings.

Again, I can only scratch the surface here – check out Sit and Go Planet for many more poker strategy articles covering each stage in depth, as well as a dedicated strategy guide for the final table.

Summing it up / Next Steps to Winning Your First Poker Tournament

Once you start to play, the different stages and adjusting your strategy will become second nature. The key from there is to find profitable games which suit your style and your schedule.

For me 888 Poker has the softest games of any large site – and their fish-themed tournament schedule is perfect for beginning and recreational players. If you are brand new to this site, you will get up to $88 free (no deposit or credit card info required) to try the games. Get ready to win your first poker tournament and check out for yourself now.

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US Readers: I strongly recommend the #1 offshore tournament site, ACR poker, you can read my detailed review here, or check out the schedule for yourself over at

More on Finding Easy Poker Tournaments - and Beating Them!

- America's Cardroom Detailed Review

- 888 Poker Detailed Review

- Poker Bonuses the Complete Guide (no need to play without one kind of bonus or another!)

- Guide to Online Poker Tournaments

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