Never stop adjusting your poker game

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One of the biggest challenges for me as a professional poker player these days is constantly changing my strategies depending on the field I’m playing against. I play in such a wide variety of tournaments, from $24 online tournaments to $10,000 live main events, that I have to always be aware of my competition and usually need contradicting game plans for different players at the same table.

I often play multiple tournaments online at the same time where I must use different strategies in the different tournaments, and I think this really helps me adjust my live game when I must do this for the various players at my table. For example, I often can be found playing a $24 freezeout, $30 rebuy and a $100 one rebuy and one add-on tournament at the same time online. These tournaments have drastic differences in the quality of players and in my strategy. In a $24 freezeout, I’m not at liberty to think on too high of a level and try to represent hands that I don’t have as much as I am in the $100. In the higher-level tournaments, the field is full of strategic thinkers – players paying attention who can lay down hands when you’re telling a betting story that implies they’re beat. You can represent flush draws that hit, put them on hands that probably cannot call you and overall make much higher level plays. Try to do this in a smaller tournament and try not to punch your monitor when you represent the flush draw that hits for you only to get called down by your opponent with third pair when you raise the river. It’s very frustrating and something that has to be kept at the forefront of your mind at all times.

Playing in live tournaments requires the same awareness and discipline. I recently returned from two weeks in Las Vegas playing the Caesars Palace Classic series. I played in tournaments ranging from $500 to $10,000, including a heads-up and a six-max tournament. Each day I had to really think about my overall game plan for the tournament and then was forced to adjust based on my table draw.

There’s a lot of talk these days about small-ball poker and a lot of players now trying to implement the style of play that players such as Daniel Negreanu have perfected and written about. Is that approach the right one for you or should you stick with a long-ball approach? It completely depends on your opponent. I strongly believe most intermediate players should err on the side of long ball as it just simply makes the game easier to play. As you get better with post-flop play, or when you know for certain you’re matched against weaker players, you can take more of a small-ball approach.

As a poker player, you should naturally have a bit of an ego and feel you’re a strong player. But, when you sit at a table, you must keep your ego in check and honestly evaluate how you stack up against the players at the table, then make your adjustments accordingly. In the smaller buy-in tournaments, I typically feel confident I’m one of the best players and will adjust my play. I’ll utilize more small-ball poker and will work on setting traps. I try not to play big pots without the goods, but with the weaker players you just have to accept that sometimes they’re going to fall right into your trap and get lucky.
Here’s a hand from the $1,500 event that I played at Caesars. With the blinds at 300-600 and sitting on an average stack of 27,000, I was dealt 10-10 under the gun. I raised to 1,800. The player to my left quickly called, as did the small blind (who had proved to be an erratic, weak player). The flop came J-10-7 rainbow and the small blind checked to me. I led out, as I typically would after flopping a set, for 3,400. The player to my left raised to 10,000 and, without too much hesitation, the small blind moved all-in for 25,000. At this point, I really thought both players held something like AJ or 77.

Sure, it was possible someone held JJ or 89, but I really felt my middle set was good. So, I went in the tank for a little bit before moving in myself as I want the UTG+1 player to come along. Sure enough, he did, and we flipped the cards to see UTG+1 show 77 for bottom set and the SB showed … KQ?! Wow! This player called an UTG raise with KQ out of position and then check-raised all-in after a bet and a raise with his open-ended draw and absolutely no fold equity. I was baffled. A 9-ball came on the turn and my tournament was over. So, while unlucky, I made the right decision against a weak player and put myself in position to have a commanding chip stack down the stretch of this tournament.
The main event was more of a long-ball tournament for me. My first table was not too terribly strong, but I was moved in the third level to a very strong table: Alex Bolotin, Jared “TheWacoKid” Hamby, Matt Glantz and Chad “lilholdem” Batista of Coral Gables. Batista and Bolotin were eliminated during the next level, but Bolotin’s seat was filled by J.C. Tran. Shortly after sitting down, Tran doubled up after flopping a straight flush with the 5D6D and was paid off by a player with JDJH. He now had a big stack, but got involved in a lot of pots with Glantz, who got the better of him most of the time.

My strategy for this table had to change. I was playing with very experienced pros who have a great deal more live experience than me. I had to use my tight image to put in raises and reraises at opportune times and force these guys to play bigger pots against me. I finished Day 1 with just under an average chip stack, but survived against some of the best players in the game with timely aggression and taking them out of their comfort zone.

Tournament poker is so dynamic and every tournament you play requires you to make the proper adjustments. You are in control of the hands you play and how you play them. Do yourself a favor and take the extra time to really think about your situation at every table and every hand you play. Who are your opponents? What is the best way to play against the ones in this pot? How can you gain an edge or exploit the edge you already have? If you’re honest with yourself about your abilities and your strengths and weaknesses, you can make the proper adjustments for success.

Decide to Win!

— Lee Childs is founder and lead instructor of Acumen Poker. He also is an instructor with the WPT Boot Camp. Check out his site at www.acumenpoker.net.