Sports & Games

Learn Daniel Negreanu’s Poker Tournament Strategy

Written by MasterClass

Mar 6, 2019 • 6 min read

Professional poker player Daniel Negreanu has always found tournament poker to be more exciting than cash games, because in tournaments you can actually win a trophy or a big prize while still playing your chosen style of poker, like hold’em. He has amassed nearly $40 million in prize money, making him the biggest live tournament winner of all time.

One of the biggest differences between cash and tournament poker games is the diversity of stack sizes, and it is essential to account for this when determining the best strategy for a tournament. Daniel says: “The number one mistake I see tournament players make…is you see a player who has a chip lead or a very big stack and then just blows it off, bluffing, trying to win the tournament too early.”

Another important concept in tournament poker is ICM, or Independent Chip Model.

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What Is ICM (Poker)?

Simply put, ICM—Independent Chip Model—tells you the profitability of a decision in money value rather than in chip value. Its purpose is to distinguish the difference in value of a chip as the tournament progresses, and this function is most important as the money bubble approaches. ICM is critical to your success at this stage of an event if your goal is maximum long-term profit. It is also important when you’re at the final table and large jumps in prize money are significantly affecting your decisions. If your goal is only to win the tournament, then you take maximum value at every opportunity—but this is not the most profitable path.

Read on for Daniel’s poker tournament strategy guide.

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Daniel Negreanu’s 9 Winning Tournament Poker Strategy Tips

  1. Start slow. Daniel advises you to play conservatively early on in a tournament, before the antes kick in, because the early stage of a tournament is more about survival than about getting value. You can’t win the tournament in the early stage, but you can lose all your chips. Daniel explains how doubling up your chip stack is not as valuable early on due to ICM, which affects the value of each chip as the tournament progresses.* If, however, your opponents are all playing extremely tight as well, then it makes sense to open up your game as a counter-strategy and steal their chips. Just remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. Consider the potential of your hand. The hand types that are best with the deeper stacks early on are those with the most postflop potential. Suited connectors and pocket pairs—hands such as 7h 6h and 3s 3c—are great hands that carry minimal risk for a big reward. A hand like Ah 9s, by contrast, has more equity but much less potential. Later on, when your only realistic options preflop are all in or fold, offsuit aces can play great as shoves from late position with shallow stacks, but during the early stage they can get you into some trouble.
  3. Be patient. The speed at which the size of the blinds increases should inform how aggressive you are in the early stages. In a turbo tournament, where the blinds increase quickly, it is more important to focus on value than survival. One of the biggest mistakes beginner players make is to build a large chip stack and then blow it off needlessly when trying to win the tournament too early. Patience and discipline are key if you want to win in large field events. The middle stages are where the fun really starts. The players at your table will have varying chips stacks, which handcuffs you in some ways concerning your strategy. For example, with many short-stacked opponents still to act, you must tighten up your opening range as it is likely they will be three-betting a wide range in the hopes of doubling up. You’ll now have to fold many hands that you’d usually open from each position, otherwise you will be forced to fold too frequently when you face a shove. A speculative hand type such as 8s 6s, which before would have been a fine open from middle position, is now a clear fold when you have short-stacked opponents to your left, as you cannot call a shove. High-card hands, such as AT, go up in value because they are more suitable for calling a three-bet all in from a short-stack.
  4. Protect your stack. If you have a big stack at the middle stage, you should be looking to protect it rather than act as the table bully. Once you get to the bubble stage this big stack will increase in value, as you can apply a lot of pressure to short-stacked opponents. If there is another big stack at your table, you need to play smarter when up against them.
  5. Ride out the “danger zone.” The middle stages are when the “danger zone” comes into play. If you find yourself with less than 20 big blinds in the middle stages, you need to adjust your strategy significantly. You no longer have the benefit of playing speculative hands to see how the flop comes out. Instead,you should tighten your range to stronger hands and look to go all in to steal pots and build your stack.
  6. Manage expectations in the bubble stage. The bubble stage is one of the most exciting parts of a tournament. When most of the remaining players will get a prize, those with short stacks feel maximum pressure to stay alive long enough to get in the money. Once this bubble finally bursts, you will see a huge flurry of action unlike any other period in the tournament, as everybody will now at least get paid back their entry fee.
  7. Understand your own position. You must learn to understand when you are in an advantageous or weak position, and adjust your play accordingly. If you’re extremely short-stacked then conservative play is a must. If you have a big stack, however, you’re in a great position to leverage this against your opponents, knowing that they can’t fight back without making critical mathematical errors. During this period, it is important not to tangle unnecessarily with other big stacks, as this can lead to catastrophe in tournament poker.
  8. Avoid making loose calls. At this stage, short stacks are only going to go all in against big stacks when they have very strong hands—so, beware of making loose calls unnecessarily. How short you are in relation to other stacks dictates the ideal strategy around the bubble. For example, if you have seven big blinds under the gun and hold AQ, this is a clear shove at a table where the other players have 15–20 big blinds. You must attack here to try and get back in the game. If, however, you see three other players with three or less big blinds at your table, then the same shove becomes a huge mistake because of how much ICM pressure there is on the shortest stacks. You can take this attitude to extremes where, for example, you might fold pocket aces to ensure you win a prize. This “nitty” attitude will hurt your pocket just as much as overly loose play.
  9. “Tight is right”...but only to an extent. If you have a middle stack at the bubble stage you will usually have to play extremely tight. You don’t want to clash with big stacks, but you are safe enough that you don’t want to risk the chips you already have. It’s also a factor that you could soon have a short stack yourself if you don’t accumulate some chips. Middle stacks are difficult to play but, as with short stacks, it is important not to take your adjustments to extremes. You also need to make sure you’re not committing ICM suicide. Daniel has seen players fold pocket aces in a bubble situation just to guarantee that they cash in. While the “tight is right” maxim is certainly true, it’s important not to take it too far. The same applies with shoving too liberally. Remember: ICM is a factor you use to adjust your decisions around the bubble and final table. It does not mean you stop looking for value when you have a good hand.