What impact do the blinds have on poker tournament strategy?

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Answered by: Gregory, An Expert in the Poker - General Category
In tournaments, blinds are one of the most important considerations to determine how to play a hand you have been dealt. In general, the larger the percentage of an average chip count the blinds and antes are, the more aggressively you must play. If the blinds and antes are proportionately lower, it is safer to play fewer hands.

Poker tournament strategy varies based off the game being played. We'll use no limit Texas Hold'em as an example because it is the most popular game. We will walk through examples assuming that all players start off with 30,000 chips.

At the beginning of tournaments, blinds are "low". In our example, the small blind might be 50, and the big blind 100, with an ante of 0. So, each round (called an "orbit") costs you 150 chips. If you never played a hand, you would be able to play 200 rounds, or 1800 hands! You can play tight because there is a low opportunity cost of folding and losing chips.

When the blinds go up, it becomes more important to be active. The blinds increase at a rate that differs by each tournament. However, how "quickly" they increase is referred to as how "deep" the tournament is. The deeper the tournament, the more room to play because entrants have a large percentage of their chip stack remaining after they have entered the hand.

In our example, when the blinds get to 500/1000 with a chip stack of 30,000, we are entering crunch mode. We have 30 big blinds, which means we are able to maneuver well. However, if we lose a few hands, we are in jeopardy of having too few chips. We might find ourselves with 20,000 chips and the blinds are 500/1000, but there is also an ante of 100 chips per hand. So, playing an orbit now costs us 2400 chips, almost 15% of our chip stack! Therefore, we should play more aggressively because the opportunity cost of folding is higher. The fewer chips we have, the more difficult it is for someone to fold against us. Poker tournament strategy indicates that folding equity, or the value of everyone folding when we bet, raise, or move all in, is critical because we cannot rebuy in a tournament. Therefore, waiting until we have so few chips that no one will fold is considered bad.

The general guideline is around 7-10 big blinds in a live poker tournament when no one has raised before you can act. If someone has raised in front of you, we generally are looking to have around 12-15 big blinds before we can move all in and expect the raiser to fold some amount of the time. It is important to note that we can still go all in with fewer than 12-15 big blinds when we are facing a raise, but we should hold a premier hand because we likely will get called.

One final note is to not get distracted by the blinds. Often, players in the big blind will call because they are getting "good odds". However, justifying playing a bad hand is problematic and will lead to tricky situations after the flop where we hold fundamentally weaker holdings.

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