SNGs test every aspect of your poker game

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Webster’s dictionary describes a sit-n-go tournament as … well, actually there’s no definition in Webster’s. So I went to Wikipedia, where I got the following brilliant explanation: A poker tournament with no scheduled starting time that starts whenever the necessary players have put up their money. SNGs, with nine or 10 players, are the norm, but multitable games are common as well.

Wow, that’s quite helpful, too. One of the most enjoyable, popular and easily profitable forms of poker today and that’s the best they can do? Let me enlighten those who haven’t tried SNGs as to their allure. And for those with experience I’ll get a little more strategic and talk a bit about how my SNG experience was responsible for my World Series of Poker bracelet win in 2007 in the $1,500 NLHE shootout event.

If you’re interested in more in-depth SNG knowledge, hands-on nonstop SNG tourneys and a generally great time, be sure to join me for my free strategy course on the Ante Up Poker Cruise on Oct. 25.

So what really is a SNG and how does it differ from a shootout? Usually 10 players put up a predetermined amount of money, let’s say $100 each. There’s an additional amount the house collects, about $20, and sometimes there’s an add-on for $5 that goes to the dealer and gives you a substantial number of extra starting chips. After dealing for the button, the mini tournament begins. And that’s exactly how you must assess a SNG.

If you’re lucky enough to last, in a matter of about 90 minutes you’ll be tested in every aspect of tournament poker. You have one goal in this format: MAKE THE MONEY! Most SNGs pay the top three spots, with third place getting twice its buy-in, second getting about 50 percent more and the winner getting the rest. In our example we have $1,000 in prize money and usually third gets $200, second $300 and first $500. This payout structure is significantly different than more traditional low tournaments where making the money after six hours means you’re lucky to get your investment back.

Daniel Negreanu told me at our WSOP final table that the shootout-SNG format is the most challenging there is. The reason is every aspect of your game is tested. You start at a 10-handed table with a relatively short stack. The blinds go up very quickly (every 10 hands or every 10 minutes) so you must play position and play aggressively. If you sit around waiting for aces you’re dead. When you get to four or five players left, there’s usually one big stack and a couple of short stacks and everyone wants to make the money. It’s a great time to strike. It’s also a great time to sit back and let them take each other out. What to do?

Once you’re in the money, it’s essentially a heads-up match, even three-handed. Unlike a traditional tournament, the spread between first- and third-place money isn’t life-changing. So it’s a great opportunity to work on your short-handed play. Play aggressively here, but play smart. It’s also a chance to work on your math and negotiating skills, as players often “chop” the money once they’ve eliminated the bubble. Though a chop often makes mathematical sense, it takes away a great opportunity to work on your short-handed and heads-up play. That practice may prove invaluable when you find yourself in a big tournament that doesn’t allow chopping, such as during my WSOP victory.

The $1,500 shootout was essentially a really big SNG. With 900 players we started with 90 10-handed tables. The biggest difference was that only the winner moved on to the next table; second place was no better than 10th. This, of course, changes your strategy. But I really kept my plan about the same; I stayed focused on being in the final three, and then hoped my shorthanded experience would overcome any significant chip disparities. I guess it worked.

Every table I played had at least three professionals. Negreanu and Erick Lindgren being the big names at the final table. Their biggest mistake (especially Negreanu) was underestimating my experience at SNGs. At the time, the Hard Rock in Tampa was running $250 and $500 tables 24/7 (I miss those days). I was playing several days a week, for many hours. I probably had more live SNG experience than anyone at the WSOP final table.

But I kept my head down, my mouth shut and I stuck to my plan. I played position perfectly, and I didn’t try to win the tournament in the first 30 minutes. Instead I slowly gathered chips; I folded when I was behind or out of position; I bluffed when I knew no one could call, and I got myself to the final three with enough chips for a fair fight. Not much different than a $250 SNG at the Hard Rock, except for the six-figure check and the pretty gold bracelet.

— Don Baruch lives in Tampa, Fla., and was the 2007 World Series of Poker bracelet-winner in the $1,500 Shootout event. Contact him via email at editor@anteupmagazine.com.