Passive vs. Aggresive Play in Tourney Play
While there are certainly infinite ways to play a tournament, there are two basic approaches that tend to apply to the majority of players. If you take an unbiased look at your play, you should be able to aptly determine whether you would be considered a passive or an aggressive player. For example, do you like to flat call raises with AK, or will you make every attempt to get it all in pre-flop? There's nothing that's inherently wrong with either style of play, but it's instead a matter of combining the two strategies to form one optimal, winning combination.
The stages of a tournament will always be the biggest factor in how you should be playing. It makes little sense to be wildly aggressive just as a tournament begins, just as it makes no sense to be passive when there's a significant number of blinds up for grabs. Shifting gears is perhaps the single biggest thing that a poker player can do in a tournament. Get caught speeding in a slow zone and you'll be busted. Slow down in the fast lane and you'll get burned.
Passive play is most ideal when you are in a position to accumulate a lot of chips without putting yourself in a lot of danger. As a general rule of thumb, with turbos and other similar structures being an exception, the early stages of a tournament will call for the most passive play. At this point in an event, you should be working with a large number of big blinds. You'll also be able to see a number of flops and will be afforded with the opportunity to outplay your opponents in post-flop situations. As a tournament progresses, however, these chances to win based on skillful plays will be greatly diminished.
It's important to define exactly what passive play is before you attempt to implement it into your game. To some people, passive play is simply playing a hand in a more laid back way than would normally be advisable. While this is technically correct, it does not always translate into winning passive play. You need to be able to pick your spots exceptionally well if you want to be able to adapt to the passive game plan.
Passive tournament play doesn't mean that you should call off every bet. There's a big difference between seeing lots of flops with playable hands and seeing lots of flops with any hands. A lot of tournament players feel the need to get involved in just about every pot. They will limp in, call raises, check call bets, and so on and so forth. Needless to say, this is a perfect illustration of the type of passive tournament play that will be punished. While you aren't going to typically lose your entire stack in one shot with this type of play, you'll likely be bleeding off chips at a continuous pace. This is passive tournament play, but it's bad passive play.
Winning passive tournament strategy calls for players to get involved in pots cheaply, but to also put themselves in positions where their opponents are prone to paying them off. In other words, look for hands that can allow you to play in position with an aggressive opponent betting into you. If you have hands that have lots of value when they hit the flop, but are useless without improving, you are going to be in a situation where you effectively apply passive play.
Think about a hand like 8s/9s. If someone raises, a re-raise might take down the pot. In later stages of tournament play this may very well be advisable. At most other points, however, calling off a raise is a much better idea. Your losing nothing if you brick, you make the most if you hit, and your opponent has motivation to take the initiative in the hand. Use passive play as a combatant against overly aggressive players.
Just as passive play works wonders against aggressive players, so too does aggressive play work well against passive players. There's no easier way to understand how to instill an aggressive style of tournament play than to consider what would most effectively beat a passive player. This isn't to say that you should relentlessly be attacking a particular player simply because they are passive, however. It will almost always be the case that your style of play is a product of circumstance. Using aggressive play, you should be looking for spots where you can push opponents around without much fear of negative reactions.
Think about the mid and later stages of tournaments. When you are in late position with a small pocket pair, you aren't going to have much leverage when you flat call. Against a passive player, calling off may very well convince them that you are weak (and rightfully so). If you decide to instead raise, however, you have now changed everything. You won't only change that passive player's perception of your strategy, but you'll also be able to better take down post-flop pots with further aggression. Aggressive tournament play doesn't work if you are going to be aggressive one street, passive the next, and aggressive on the river.
The most important thing to remember with an aggressive tournament strategy is that reckless play isn't the same thing as aggressive play. There are almost never ending amounts of tournament players who see some wild play on TV and therefore think that 4-bet shoving K4 off suit is the right play. Poker isn't nearly as much of an abstract game as it might seem. Players who are new to or are unfamiliar with the idea of playing aggressively will often times become wild and reckless. Before you start trying to take down every pot, you need to slow down and think carefully. While passive play can only hurt you so much at a time, there are a few stacks that aggressive play isn't capable of imploding.
Passive and aggressive tournament play aren't so much specific skills as they are learned mind sets. You need to know which hand is going to call for what type of play given the specific circumstances. There's no blind level where your play should change, there's no hand that should later your style of play. Poker tournaments call for constant adaptations, and the shift between passive and aggressive play is just one of the ways that you can capitalize on your opponents' weaknesses.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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