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Game selection in poker: how to decide which tournaments to play

Game selection in poker: how to decide which tournaments to play

Opening up the online poker lobbies is one of the most exciting parts of the tournament grind, whether you’re a professional player grinding daily or a weekend warrior playing their one weekly session.

The possibilities are endless. You feel like anything could happen. Your confidence is high. And with so many amazing tournaments on the schedule, you know there’s going to be lots of action.

But how should you decide which tournaments to play? Unless you’re an experienced 16-tabler, the sheer volume of online poker tournaments across all the sites on a Sunday, for example, can be a bit daunting.

Should you choose based on the field size? The guarantee? The buy-in?

Here, we’re going to look at game selection in poker with help from BBZ coaches Jordan “bigbluffzinc” Drummond and Jonathan “apestyles” Van Fleet, as well as BBZ student Adam22 and members of the BBZ community.

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Here’s a question that BBZ community member “Stevo”–whose average buy-in is $10–recently put to the BBZ Discord:

And it’s a great question.

Is it best to shoot for the stars in huge-field tournaments with big guarantees? Or is it better–particularly when building a bankroll–to focus on small-field events which have lower guarantees but give you a greater shot at making money?

“On one hand, I’m thinking bigger fields and guarantees bring a lot more [recreational players] so we can really focus on maximising profitability using exploits playing against a much weaker field in general,” says Stevo. “On the other, smaller fields with lower guarantees mean we can focus on improving vs regulars and really hit home our GTO game while gaining experience on the money and final table bubble more often along with our end game.”

He’s absolutely right. And the answer is: you should mix the two. Ultimately, it’s all about variance.

BBZ student ‘drk’, who plays as “drkamikaze1” on PokerStars, answered: “If you don’t want to have extended downswings, keep your average field size down. For example, if I play a 2,000-runner WCOOP event, I also register several 200-500-runner MTTs to balance it out and reduce variance.”

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This is an excellent strategy. If you’re only playing tournaments with huge fields and guarantees–the Bigs and Hots on PokerStars, for example–then you risk “endless bricking”, as ‘drk’ puts it. This isn’t good for your bankroll or your mental state.

“Don’t have blinders on only for the very large guarantees,” ‘drk’ says. “That’s not how you consistently make money in MTTs.”

Tournaments with smaller fields and smaller guarantees might not seem as exciting, but you have a better shot at cashing them, navigating pay jumps, and making the final table, which gives you valuable experience should you ever reach the late stages of a bigger event.

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It’s always very tempting to play as many tournaments as possible, particularly on days when there are so many events you don’t want to miss.

But unless you’re very experienced in multi-tabling, firing up table after table isn’t going to be a great idea. You’re almost certainly not going to be playing your A-game when you have so many decisions to make every minute.

Even elite poker players like Jonathan “apestyles” Van Fleet learned this the hard way. In order to reach Supernova Elite on PokerStars back in 2009, apestyles was grinding 16 tables of sit & go’s at a time–while on a downswing. “I was getting my ass kicked,” he says.

He then went to stay with his friend and fellow online poker legend Steve “gboro780” Gross in Las Vegas and noticed that Gross–who was the biggest winner online at the time–was only playing four tables on a dirty, old laptop.

“I was like, is this really where the magic happens?” says apestyles. “But what I saw was that he was super slow and he thought about everything. He would write shit down and was always super even.”

Apestyles decided to try what Gross was doing: slow down and think through every decision, and stop auto-piloting. “I started having fun again,” he says. “Playing a more focused style, I went on a huge upswing.”

So by all means mix big field/big guarantee tournaments with smaller field/low guarantee events, but make sure you’re only playing as many tables as you can handle.

Check out our article: ‘4 lessons from apestyles’

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One of the most important aspects of game selection is bankroll management. You should only be registering for tournaments with buy-ins that your bankroll can withstand.

“Most people don’t have any clue about the swings they should anticipate in poker, even professional players,” says Jordan “bigbluffzinc” Drummond, a.k.a. BBZ. “They massively underestimate variance and don’t know what’s possible.”

You can easily lose 75 buy-ins if you’re grinding poker tournaments. According to BBZ, that’s standard. And a downswing like that can lead you to chase your losses by playing in games that your bankroll can’t afford. You’re trying to get even, but really you’re just on the road to going broke.

Make sure you avoid any psychological warfare by understanding tournament variance before you start to play. “You’ll also put yourself through emotional swings that you shouldn’t be on,” says BBZ. “Even the biggest winners go on downswings.”

Check out our article: ‘5 biggest mistakes poker players make’

At some point in your poker journey, you’re going to go on a downswing. That doesn’t necessarily mean your game selection has been bad, though. You might just be running bad temporarily.

Go into the downswing, analyse it, and find out where you lose money.

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“If I lose $100K playing four $25Ks, what significance does that have on me as a player? Basically nothing,” says BBZ. “They’re really tough games and losing in four of them doesn’t mean anything. It just means I lost $100K.

Jordan “bigbluffzinc” Drummond (a.k.a. BBZ)

“However, if there are economic consequences to those losses which I can’t live with, I may have made a mistake in terms of managing my exposure to $25Ks. Maybe I had too much of myself.”

Four games isn’t a useful sample size. But on the flip side, if BBZ had lost $100K in $320 tournaments, that’s a large enough sample where he can see he has a serious problem.

“Now I need to start looking at why,” he says. “Do I need to do more database analysis? Do I need to analyse my win rate? Am I actually beating these games?”

You simply must analyse your game selection. Dropping down in stakes sucks, but going broke is a far worse outcome.

“Not all downswings are created equally,” BBZ continues. “Sometimes you’re only losing at the top of your buy-in curve and you need to stop playing that high.

“But don’t overreact to monetary loss if it’s over a trivial amount of games. Just analyse and get perspective on where you lost the money. If you have a $10K bankroll and you’re playing $1K tournaments, it doesn’t matter how good you are,” says BBZ. “Unless you sun-run, you’re going to lose all your money.

Check out our article: ‘5 ways to deal with poker downswings’

At the end of the day, you should play tournament poker because you enjoy tournament poker. Even if you have the poker bankroll or life bankroll (i.e. money made outside of poker) to play huge buy-ins, it doesn’t mean you should.

“My poker bankroll is very, very different from my life bankroll,” ‘Adam22’ told us. “It’s very important for me to be able to prove myself and document a steady win rate on PokerTracker. I’m not really interested in playing $1,000 tournaments just because I can afford to, y’know? I play the $200 tournaments on ACR and I’m in no rush to climb up past them. I can tell the $600s are fucking beastly and I don’t necessarily have a lot of business trying to tango with the people who play those all the time.”

Check out our full interview with Adam22 here.

So, what have we learned about game selection in poker?

  • For the best chance of big scores while maintaining a steady win rate, mix between big field/big guarantee events and small field/low guarantee events.
  • Only play as many tables as you’re comfortable with.
  • Maintain smart bankroll management throughout your sessions, whether you’re winning or on a downswing.
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