Team partypoker’s Kristen Bicknell used to be better-known for her cash game prowess, but now she crushes the biggest online and live tournaments. Here are her tips for making the transition from cash games to tournament poker.
Most of my time at the poker table has been spent playing cash games, until recently. In the past two years I have transitioned to tournament poker. I quickly realised that I had a lot of new concepts to learn and challenges to face that weren’t obvious at first. Here are some of the lessons that I have learnt in the process!
Transitioning from cash games to tournaments: Adjusting to varying stack depths
Typically, in cash games it’s common to be sitting with at least 100 big blinds. For years, I would buy in for 100 big blinds and if I lost a pot I would rebuy to start the next hand 100 big blinds deep again.
Unfortunately you can’t top up your stack in tournaments after losing a hand. So, throughout a tournament, you will be in situations where your stack size and your opponents stack size vary greatly. Playing 15 big blinds is very different than 30, 50, 100 and so on. It is important to be able to adapt to this fluctuation in stack size both strategically and in regards to mental game.
Transitioning from cash games to tournaments: The Importance of Preserving and Accumulating Chips
There is much more pressure in a tournament than in cash games to consistently build a stack and maintain a playable number of big blinds as the stakes rise. Having a big stack in a tournament can be like having multiple lives, as you can afford to lose pots without risking all your chips and busting.
A big element of tournament poker is, of course, tournament life. The pressure to survive will typically be applied by the bigger stacks on the shorter stacks. You can apply this pressure to other players, and most likely your opponents will put this pressure on you.
When you lose all of your chips in a tournament, you are eliminated, so decisions become incredibly important and costly. Sometimes taking a passive line in a tournament is more strategically relevant than in a cash game for this reason. This is an interesting dynamic that is incredibly important to understand when you are playing tournaments. I think this element of tournament poker makes it so that no two decisions are the same.
Transitioning from cash games to tournaments: Managing the Emotional Swings
Going deep in a big tournament is incredibly exciting and can evoke a lot of emotions. Winning and losing pots (even small ones) in this environment can become a challenge to handle emotionally. It is easy, when you have a big stack, to feel overly confident and in control. However, stack size in tournament poker is very susceptible to fluctuation at any moment, so it is important to stay calm and not get too attached to your stack.
This is key throughout a tournament to ensure good decision making and to maintain a positive mindset. It’s just as easy to feel invincible after winning a big pot or being chip leader, as it is to feel angry and tilted after losing a one. Your emotional control is tested to an extreme degree in tournament poker and it is essential to withstand this to be successful. A tournament is not over until it’s over, and you can’t expect to win just because you’re chip leader for a moment, just as you shouldn’t give up and feel like you have no shot at winning when you are short stacked.
Transitioning from cash games to tournaments: Learning “ICM”- Independent Chip Model
ICM stands for independent chip model, and is a crucial concept in tournament poker. This model quantifies the value of chips in terms of dollars by calculating your expected share of the prize pool based on the payout structure, chips in play, and your current stack.
During certain stages of the tournament, the proper strategy will be drastically influenced by these calculations. For example on the bubble of a tournament, it may be correct to fold many hands you would otherwise play because winning chips becomes insignificant compared to the risk of being eliminated.
An extreme example of this ICM pressure occurs in satellites, where situations often occur that that your stack is big enough to essentially guarantee you winning a seat by folding every hand, even aces! As a cash game player, this was a completely foreign concept that I had to learn and adapt to. This concept can be counter-intuitive, but is very important to understand because making ICM mistakes can be very costly!
Transitioning from cash games to tournaments: Timing your bathroom breaks!
Waiting two hours to go to the bathroom isn’t always easy! Okay, sort of a silly concept, but actually something to consider when you cannot leave the poker table at any time. During the WSOP last year, I had to sprint to the bathroom between hands many times. I learned I need to time my coffee and water consumption closer to the breaks. When playing cash games, this never crossed my mind.
I have come to really appreciate different aspects of both tournaments and cash game poker. Since making the transition to tournaments, I have gained a much greater appreciation for the complexity of tournament play. There are so many different concepts and situations that come up in tournaments that make it impossible to be a master of tournament poker without mastering every element of the game. To me, this complexity is what is so interesting about poker and I love the never ending challenge that the game provides.
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