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Evaluating NLHE MTT Structure

The structure of no-limit hold’em (NLHE) multi-table tournaments (MTTs) is an often overlooked factor that should affect the way you play at all stages of a tournament. There are many forms of tournaments, ranging from “ultra-turbo” pushfest satellites that start each player with 100 chips, to major live tournaments that last for days. Knowing your tournament’s structure and how to adjust your play accordingly can help you play more profitably.

There are several factors that make up a tournament’s structure:

  • Starting stack size
  • Starting blind levels
  • Size of blind increases
  • Time between blind increases
  • Antes, if present, and when they kick in
  • Size of antes relative to blinds
  • Payout structure

The first two factors, starting stack size and blind levels, are the first thing you should look at to determine your strategy. Most NLHE freezeouts have between 1500 and 3000 starting chips. Blinds can start as low as 5/10 on Ultimate Bet, but PokerStars and Full Tilt tourneys typically start at 15/30 blinds, although some start at 10/20. The first question to ask yourself is, “How deep am I?” In a Full Tilt tournament with a 3000 starting stack and 10/20 blinds, you start off 150 big blinds deep. Your play should be a little different than a Stars tourney with 1500 starting stack and 15/30 blinds, only 50 big blinds deep.

Having deep starting stacks relative to the blinds opens up many options that aren’t available in shorter stacked tournaments. You have the opportunity to observe your table and take advantage of other players’ impatience and mistakes. Position and pot control become more important. You can play your good (but not great) hands for smaller pots, and play speculative hands in position, giving you the chance to hit a monster hand and then play for a huge pot. Limping behind limpers is often a better play because the larger stacks provide greater implied odds. Raising to isolate works less often given many players’ proclivity to call raises with anything they deem worthy of playing.

If you are playing a tournament with shorter starting stacks, your options become more limited. You need to play tighter, and more aggressively post flop. Your top pair hands are more valuable, since it is more likely that all the chips will end up in the middle when everyone is short relative to the blinds. Preflop speculation becomes less profitable, due to decreased implied odds. Isolation raising is a better play than limping behind, as limp/calling commits a greater percentage of a player’s stack. Preflop all-in reraises become more common, and big hands should be played faster.

The next two factors also play a role in determining early play. The size of the blind increases and how often they increase greatly impact the pace of play. It would seem obvious that faster blind increases will result in more pressure on the players’ stacks. However, some structures have more “gentle” increases in the blinds as they go up. PokerStars has a fairly consistent blind structure, mostly starting at 15/30 and increasing every 15 minutes to 50/100 by the end of the first hour. Contrast that to a higher buy-in Full Tilt tournament, starting at 10/20 with blinds going up every 12 minutes and ending the hour at 30/60. In the “slower” tournament, you have the luxury of being more selective, picking your spots and are able to stay out of trouble early, while also capitalizing on more opportunities to win big pots. In the “faster” tournament, you often are faced with finding a spot and making a decision to get all your chips in play.

Antes are a major game-changer in MTTs, yet many players overlook them and don’t adjust their game accordingly. Simply said, when the antes kick in, there is more money in the preflop pot to be won, postflop pots are larger, and good players know this and are going to go after pots more aggressively. Always be aware of when the antes are going to kick in and also how big they are compared to the blinds. Also be aware of how they are going to affect your stack to preflop pot ratio. The level where the antes kick in has the most impact on your preflop stack to pot ratio, widely known as Harrington’s “M.” Different sites have different ante sizes in relation to the blinds. In some of the higher buy-in Stars tournaments, the antes can be as little as 1/10th the BB. Other sites have higher antes in relation to the BB, meaning bigger preflop pots. On Stars, you can tone down the aggression a little bit, since the smaller antes mean preflop pots are smaller and the impact to your stack is less urgent. On other sites with larger antes, your game needs to become more aggressive, since the affect on your stack each orbit is greater.

Another under appreciated aspect of antes is their changing relation to the blinds. On Full Tilt, the antes start at blinds 120/240 with an ante of 25. With a full table of 9 players, this means that the antes total 225, and the blinds 360 giving a total starting pot of 585. The total of the antes at 225 comprise 38.5% of the total pot. The next blind level, 150/300, the antes stay the same at 25. Now the preflop pot is 675 and the antes make up only 32.8% of the pot. The next level is key – the blinds go up to 200/400, and the antes jump to 50 per player. Thus the antes now comprise 450 of the total pot of 1050, a huge 42.8% of the preflop pot. What does this mean? It means you should be more inclined to lay back at the 150/300 level, but open up and try to take down pots at the 200/400 level, since there is more “dead money” in the pot. Be aware of when the antes are a bigger part of the preflop pot, and you can gain an advantage in going after more pots when your opponents don’t realize this.

The last thing to look at when evaluating MTT structure is the payout schedule. Some sites pay the top 10% of finishers, with a good bit of money toward the final table and especially the top 3 spots. Other sites have adopted a top 20% payout structure, which results in more people making the money, but for less money, especially nearing the the top. A final table in a 10% structure will make you more money than in a 20% payout structure, so playing for the big stack and a win is more important in the 20% structure.

Hopefully this article has changed the way you look at MTTs. If you understand the structure of the event you are playing, you can adjust your play accordingly. Different structures call for different play. Be aware of the structure of the tournament you are playing and your game will become more profitable.

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