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Turbo Boost

Vicky Coren puts philosophy into cold, hard facts to give you the courage to redline it deep into tournaments.

If you’re going out to Vegas this year, planning to have a spin in a $1,500 NLHE WSOP bracelet event and want to practise, make sure you play any online event you can find with a large opening field, like the Sunday Million on PokerStars. Even turbo MTTs. In fact, maybe especially turbo MTTs.

Because here’s the funny thing. $1,500 may be enough to pay the rent for a couple of months, it may be serious money in the real world, and there may be a bracelet at stake, but these events play exactly like a fast MTT on the internet. Part of that is the structure, but most of it is the players. You would think they just don’t care about getting knocked out. Actually, it’s because they all play a lot of these online MTTs and they carry the strategy over.

The whole thing begins with a strangely hurried feel. People want to jostle ahead of the big crowd so they play aggressively, pushing marginal hands and even moving all-in from the earliest levels. Online, they don’t want to tie up the whole night unnecessarily so they try to build a stack early or move on to the next game. At the WSOP, they play the style they’re used to. (This doesn’t apply in the Main Event, where many players set great store by surviving the day, making day 2, day 3 and so on. But it applies in the smaller side events).

So bet when you want action. Pre-flop raises won’t clear opponents away. Bluffs will fail far more often than they succeed. Value bets, however, should pay off nicely. As I might have mentioned before, don’t trap with sets, straights or flushes: push them hard. Even a top pair, too. The clock is ticking so you can’t wait for aces—you must see a few cheap flops in late position with a wider range of hands—but play on only if you hit, because that’s when you’ll get paid.

Let’s say you raise before the flop with K-Q suited and the flop comes queen high. If someone bets into you, just move all in. You’d be amazed how often they call you with Q-J or Q-10, the sort of hands people love to call with pre-flop. The early levels of these events play, just as they do in the online MTTs, like the late levels of a bigger-money live tournament: people reraise all in with half hands, or a semi bluff for their entire tournament on a drawing flop.

Of course, if you push back hard with top pair and a good kicker, your opponent may have flopped a set and you get knocked out. But that is a risk you have to take. You mustn’t get pushed around, and it’s not worth playing trappily to give your opponents free cards, because they will play hard themselves and force you to make tough decisions.

In online turbo MTTs and $1,500 bracelet events, there is a lot of money to be collected in these early levels and you don’t want to miss out. There are people who seem desperate to get their chips in with anything, to gamble for the big stack. So the art lies in mopping up this free money with your strong hands while resisting the temptation to join in the betting frenzy with your own marginal hands.

Once half the field is knocked out, that is when tournaments start to settle down. It almost feels like a rebuy event after the rebuys have finished, when people realise they now have to work for their chips rather than purchase them. These middle stages now play like the earlier stages of a bigger tournament: players looking to see flops, make decisions after cards, think seriously about a path to the finish line.

Of course, the difference between a World Series side event and the Sunday Million is that it costs $1,500 not $200. And it happens (or they happen) once a year, not every week. Of course there is something galling in the idea of putting your whole $1,500 tournament on the line with one pair in the early stages. But the truth is, if $1,500 means a lot to you, you must not play these tournaments anyway. They are fast and gambly. You are far more likely to go out early than to cash, whatever your strategy. You must try to care about it enough to avoid being one of those people who stick it in with anything—but not care so much to be frightened to defend top pair, or an overpair, for the whole tournament if necessary. You must be patient yet fearless. Wait for the opportunities, but recognise them and milk them.

If being knocked out in level 1, 2 or 3 would break your heart or break the bank, then you will not be able to exploit the rashness of your opponents and you must stick to playing cheap online satellites for the big live tournaments. There will be plenty of WSOP satellites next year.
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