Applying a Final Table Mentality to Early Levels in Poker

We’ve all sat down in a poker tournament, whether in a casino or online and managed to leave our seat quicker than we wanted to. Full of good intentions to run deep and maybe even win. We can be out while the starting stack is almost the same as the average chip count.

It hurts to leave a poker tournament early. It can be incredibly frustrating to know that you’re no part of almost the entire event. And that essentially, you’ve not only ‘made up the numbers’, but also just made up a small percentage of profits someone else will win.

Tablet showing Texas Hold'em Poker sitting on a poker table with cards and chips.

Many strategy articles will coach you on the best ways to negotiate periods of poker tournaments. Such as the money bubble, the final table bubble or the crucial end game of closing out the victory. These are all pivotal to being profitable at poker, but unless you survive the early stages, you’ll never get to experience those more financially rewarding periods of the tournament.

Merely ‘surviving’ to the middle and late stages of the tournament shouldn’t be the aim at all.

Here are five tips to help you maximise your early potential in poker tournaments.

Build a Stack

When you get to the final table, one of the first things you’ll want to have is a big stack. After all, with spare chips, you can choose your moments, rather than being blinded into action by the blinds increasing.

This, of course, isn’t a concern when the tournament kicks off as blinds are relatively cheap. What is important, however, is a building a stack. Doing so at an early stage has many advantages.

Hand revealing ace and king of hearts playing cards on poker chips.

Play is much deeper, so it can’t evaporate so quickly. You’ll also have the chance to skew your tablemates’ collective opinion of your range. If you’re playing a vast percentage of pots, then it’s very hard for other players to put you on any sort of qualifiable range when you’re in normal play.

Building a stack isn’t easy, but it requires quick appraisals of your opponents’ styles. You want to be aggressive against players with a weak range and who are too loose. If you get ahead, start putting people’s stacks at risk, especially if it’s a freezeout.

Take Notes

Taking notes on other players is something that at the final table can almost come naturally. You want to know everything about your enemies when it’s all on the line.

The thing is, it’s all still on the way back in the tournament when the first hands are going on. If you can take some notes on the players you start playing the tournament against, it can enable you to build that early stack and start taking control of events around you.

Make sure that your notes include showdown hands that your opponents play. The quicker you can compile a reasonably balanced list of these for each player, the more you’ll be able to get a handle on the weaker players you can pick up on.

Check Your Mentality

At the final table, many players will then refocus, thinking, aloud or in their heads ‘Now to play my A-Game’. The thing is, that’s exactly how you play from the very first card hitting the felt. Virtual or otherwise.

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Playing your very best at a time when you are up against the other eight strongest players left in the tournament is sound strategy, so why shouldn’t it apply to the early levels? Plenty of profitable players have previously admitted that one of their worst leaks is not bringing their A-Game until too late in the day. Don’t let this be you.

Working on Instinct

While many of us do this in poker, sometimes we can forget as players what instinct is built upon. We often make decisions at the final table which we then put down to instinct as if it’s some sort of baseless intuition. This isn’t so, because in poker, instinct comes after the study of thousands of hands of poker.

Instinct in poker is often based on the number of times the same decision has been correct. Rather than a deeper, spiritual feel. In that sense, poker players are mathematicians more than thinkers. There’s no reason you can’t apply this logic to the early stages of a poker tournament.

You might think it’s harder to make knowledgeable decisions early in a poker tournament against players you’ve just sat down with, but unless you’re an absolute beginner, you’ve seen each player type before. Use the instinct that you’ve already built up to inform important early decisions and stick by your mental call.

If you’re wrong, you’re improving your instincts down the line. And giving yourself a good chance to analyse why you made that call or fold. If you’re right, you could already be building that big early stack.

Play Aggressive Poker

This is easy advice to give for final table play as it’s very seldom the shrinking violet who ends up winning the top prize. Aggression is also important when the tournament begins, and not only to build a big stack as the cards may prevent that due to variance. Don’t be a loose-aggressive player, but instead play tight-aggressive.

This may seem like a contradiction in terms, but it means playing tight when there’s no advantage to loosening up. When there is an advantage, and you believe that you’re ahead, you’re now playing for value and should step on the gas.

Jacks or Better 100 Play Power Poker

Playing more aggressively early against weaker players when you have the goods is a great way of not only winning chips. But constructing a table image of someone who other players don’t fancy getting into pots with. This gives you table control and tournament momentum.

Approaching the early stages of a poker tournament like you might make a final table should allow you to reach more of the actual final tables you could be playing. Lasting longer in events, and winning more money.

After all that’s said and done, that’s probably the reason you want to play poker in the first place. To win.

Paul Seaton

Paul Seaton

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