Poker strategy has come a long way over the past 20 years. Computers have even figured out how to beat people heads-up in No-Limit Hold’em. But that was heads-up, and that was cash poker. It could be a while before poker tournaments are “solved.” Although this form of poker is considered easier than playing at the cash tables, tournaments feature multiple opponents and varying stack sizes, forcing you to make different decisions than most cash players are used to.

One of the most important differences with your tournament poker strategy comes with bet-sizing. In general, tournaments reward more passive play than cash games do, putting the emphasis on survival rather than accumulating chips. How should this affect the size of your bets in poker tournaments? We’ll show you how to adjust the next time you play poker online at Bodog.

Sizing Your Bets in Poker – Like a Pro

Bet sizing might be the one aspect of poker that separates the best players from the rest of the pack. It’s a bit like learning how to drive a car; you can learn all the rules of the road, and what function each part of your car performs, but there’s a certain art when it comes to putting your foot on the gas. The right amount will get you from Point A to Point B with maximum efficiency. Too much, and you’ll eventually crash your car.

When thinking about bet sizing in poker, it’s important to take both preflop and post-flop play into consideration. Each phase has its own rules of the road, so let’s start at the beginning with the most important decision you’ll make in any hand: your opening bet.

Poker Tournaments: Preflop

In a cash game, good-to-great players tend to use one bet size when they open – and it’s usually an open-raise, rather than limping in. This is generally a good idea in tournaments, as well, but the emphasis on survival does encourage more open-limping from the small blind, and maybe even the button. Old-school players often choose limping rather than open-raising when their stacks are down to around 40 big blinds deep.

It was also fashionable not long ago for players to open-raise for the 2X minimum, rather than the 2.2-2.5X we typically see in today’s games. And before that, the 3X open-raise was considered standard. Let’s take a moment to consider all three sizes, from largest to smallest, keeping in mind that there’s no one theoretically correct bet size to choose.

The 3X Bet

With a 3X open-raise, you’ll make it a bit more likely that your opponents will fold – which they already have more incentive to do, given that this is a tournament. However, you’ll also be putting yourself at more risk. Consider using the 3X open when you’re in late position, especially on the button, and make sure you open a slightly narrower range of hands when you do. King-Seven offsuit might be a fold, for example, along with hands like Jack-Five suited and Ten-Six suited.

The 2.2x-2.5X Bet

This is the sweet spot for most regular tournament players. It’s often the size used with solvers to figure out preflop betting ranges in cash games, but when you bring these ranges to the tournament table, don’t forget to tighten up as required, depending on stack size and other factors – and of course, don’t forget to account for the antes if any are in play.

The 2X Bet

This is the best open-raise size for when you’re in early position at a tournament. It exposes you to the least amount of risk, and it also gives the blinds incentive to call with very weak ranges, which you should have a considerable edge against. The 2X open also makes it safer to attempt the occasional “steal from UTG” play with a quality connector like Eight-Seven suited.

Poker Tournaments: Post-Flop

Now that we’ve looked at preflop bet sizing at poker tournaments, what about post-flop? Again, the tendency is to bet smaller than at the cash tables. In a cash game, a basic continuation bet on the flop might be somewhere around two-thirds pot – maybe smaller if the board is dry/static or the c-bettor is out of position. In a tournament, that same c-bet might be half-pot, or even a third of the pot.

Let’s take a closer look at this dynamic by considering three different possible bet sizes, each with its own impact on the hand in progress:

Small Bets

Anything less than half-pot falls under this category. Again, by committing fewer chips to the pot, you assume less risk, which is more important in tournaments than cash games. This gives your opponents the right price to continue with a wider range of hands, but since this is a tournament, they’re likely to be more risk-averse, and will fold hands that they would have continued with at the cash tables.

For example, let’s say you open-raise on the button at a No-Limit Hold’em tournament, and you fire out a small continuation bet on the flop. Your opponent, who called in the big blind, has a gutshot draw. That might be a good spot to raise in a cash game, but would your opponent be willing to put in that same raise during a tournament, and fire two more barrels on the turn and river? Maybe not if their tournament life is at risk.

Medium Bets

Now we move to bets that are between half-pot and full-pot. Most players will be very familiar with these bet sizes, whether or not they play cash games as well as tournaments. As you move from the flop to the turn, you’ll have more reason to size up your bets in most spots. Take our example from above; if your opponent calls your small bet on the flop, that suggests they have a capped range of marginal made hands and draws. A larger bet on the turn should encourage them to give up those hands rather than call your second barrel.

How large is the question. If the turn card is a bit scary, something that hits your opponent’s range better than yours, risking anything more than a medium-sized barrel doesn’t make much sense. Even if you have a big hand and you want to get those chips in the middle, you don’t want to scare off your opponent at this point with a large bet – maybe save that one for the river.

Overbets

Anything larger than a pot-size bet can be called an overbet in poker. The classic spot to use this play in a cash game is when you’ve bet the flop with a semi-strong hand like an overpair, you get called, and the turn card is a blank. A bet of 1.2X the pot or thereabouts will make it very difficult for your opponent to continue; if they call, you can jam the river, and if they raise, you can get away from your hand if the price isn’t right. But again, is all that worth the risk in a tournament? Perhaps, in some situations against some opponents.

Keep in mind that the stack sizes in tournaments can “force” you to make overbets in the form of shoves. If you’re down to around 40bb, you’ll often find yourself betting small on the flop, then going all-in on the turn, since you don’t have enough chips left to maintain leverage on all three streets. You’ll also be doing this with more marginal made hands like Top Pair-Weak Kicker, since the risk of getting outdrawn isn’t the same as it would be with 100bb in your stack.

Final Tables

Note that bet sizing becomes even more important at the final table of a tournament, when ICM (Independent Chip Model) considerations start coming into play. The pay jumps at a final table can be very large indeed; if you have an opportunity to win a giant pile of money just by playing conservatively, you’re much more likely to put in very small bets, and then fold if you meet any resistance.

Once you get heads-up, you can throw off your ICM chains and play more aggressive poker – if you so choose. Many expert players prefer to limp in preflop, using their superior poker skills to take advantage of their opponents postflop in smaller pots over a larger number of hands. If you’re a newer player and you make it this far in a tournament, consider doing the opposite and making larger open-raises and post-flop bets, in order to negate your opponent’s edge.

Bet sizing may be one of the most difficult aspects of poker to pin down, but if you take the time to learn and practice these concepts, you’ll have more success at the tournament tables – and Bodog has some of the best online poker tournaments for people who want to make real money playing this beautiful game. We’ll see you on the felt.