Many poker players' first exposure to poker comes from watching World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour tournaments. It's entertaining and you'll see some interesting poker plays, but viewers have to understand that they shouldn't model their poker games based on the action they see on TV.
The answer is simple – the poker you're seeing is unrealistic and edited for television. Poker players in these televised poker tournaments often start with very deep stacks (sometimes 30,000 chips or more) and, most of the time, all you'll see on the broadcast is action from the final table where the blinds are high and play is fast. In contrast, the majority of the low buy-in ($1 to $20) US online Poker tournaments you'll encounter online usually start with stacks of 1,500 and blinds of 10/20.
Because your approach to the early stages of these tournaments is key to whether you'll make the final table, the question is, what should your strategy be?
I suggest adopting a simple approach to poker, especially if you're not a very experienced tournament poker player. Try not to play too many hands and aim to see a few cheap flops with small/medium pairs if possible because these can provide some the best chances for you to double or even triple up during the first couple of levels. There are many times when you may be able to put in 5% of your poker stack or less to see a flop and try and hit your set. You're 7-to-1 to flop a set, but you may be getting 20-to-1 implied odds early on since a flopped set will often be the best hand, and you'll have a good chance to double up against weaker players who may overplay top pair.
If you are expecting a few callers, you might want to limp with these poker hands pre-flop. You may also just want to flat call with these hands if there are already a couple of people in for a small raise when the action gets to you. But, if the action is folded to you in late position, you definitely want to raise and take down the blinds. If you want to play conservatively, you can safely throw away small pairs in early position. As I said previously, you don't want to commit more than about 5% of your stack pre-flop with small and medium pairs (maybe 6% or 7% max), and when you play from early position there's no guarantee that's going to happen.
Of course you also want to be playing your monsters like AA and KK, and other hands like QQ, JJ, AK and AQ. Remember early on when stacks are deep, you're not going to get a lot of action for all of your chips unless you're up against a pretty strong hand.
There are no concrete rules as to how fast you should try to build your poker stack in the early going, but the main thing you don't want to do is go broke by playing poker too loose. In smaller online poker tourneys you will either be in the money or close to the money without having to win too many pots if you can just play tight and hang around for a couple of hours. If you speculate too much or take too many coin-flips when you don't need to early on, chances are that you'll end up on the rail and miss that opportunity.
Even if you make it to the fourth or fifth level with just a little above starting stack, you'll usually be in good enough shape to take a run at the money. Remember, in poker getting into the money and beyond is what counts – so learn how to start your tournaments the right way and give yourself the best chance to be the last player standing at the end.
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