Tournament poker: Conservative vs Aggressive play

ONE of the questions about online poker tournaments that is very hard to answer is whether you are better off playing conservatively or aggressively throughout. While different situations almost always call for different strategy, it’s fair to say that a mixture of aggressive and conservative play is key to winning more than losing.

Hundreds of players enter a poker tournament, but only one can win! This is how big tournaments work, no matter which game, structure or stakes you choose to play, so I would like to briefly discuss two basic approaches to Poker Tournaments.

Conservative tournament poker strategy

The first approach I present is the more conservative of the two; it’s essentially based on the premise of survival. Lots of players will play very tight at the onset of a poker tournament, with the objective being to survive and hopefully catch some cards once the masses have been eliminated.

This strategy depends on playing a very tight game at the outset, and requires restraint, because it will come apart at the seams if a player starts calling marginal hands. This is an effective strategy if you want to ensure you don’t go out early, but certainly does have its drawbacks.

If you don’t get involved in the action early on, even in online poker, you face the very real possibility of advancing, but being incredibly short-stacked once you come to compete with opponents, who have been playing more aggressively. To effectively implement this approach, you must be very confident in your play when short-stacked, because it’s almost inevitable at a final table you will have a relatively low chip count.

Aggressive tournament poker strategy

The other, more aggressive poker strategy is to enter the tournament with an attack mentality. This involves playing more hands than average, and pushing hard for the pot. The objective here is long term success, because if you can survive the first few rounds of play and accumulate some chips, you will be in an advantageous position in later rounds when players working on the passive strategy advance with a low chip count.

The real downside of the aggressive approach to tournament poker is that there is the very real risk of being knocked out early, especially when playing aggressively against a full table. Without a premium hand, there is always the possibility of one or more players having your hand dominated, which can translate to an early exit.

The most difficult time to play the aggression poker strategy is the first few hands of the tournament, as these can make or break the rest of the game for an aggressive player.

Is conservative or aggressive tournament poker play better?

The operative concept here is playing to your strength; clearly these are two quite different approaches to the same game, and as a player you need to identify your strengths. If you are conservative, and play well short-stacked, perhaps survival will prove to be the best tactic. If you don’t want to go up against strong players with a relatively small chip count, and feel good about your pure instincts, aggression may do you well. But let’s face it, poker is all about timing and reading the play, a 100% conservative player is never going to be successful, and while a gung-ho aggressive poker player might have a big win one night, over the long path this is fraught with danger. Our advice when playing tournament poker, either online or off, is to pick your moments and use both conservative and aggressive tactics when the time is right.