MZone Report - The Five Stages of a Tournament

Marty Smith

Visitors: 183

You may be confused about this title.

After all the likes of Harrington, Gordon, Hellmuth, Duke, and even Vorhaus have reinforced through numerous writings the idea that there are three stages to a tournament. Maybe they believe that, but I really think they may be holding back the goods. I will tell you some of the goods right here and now. Three stages to a tournament is far too simplistic and none of these writers really play by that belief either, whether they believe it or not.

Here are the stages for online poker. See if you can recognize them and judge for yourself if they should be thought of as segments on their own.

Early stage. This is a no-brainer, but with most online poker tournaments it can usually be defined as the first hour of play. In the tournament I enter that’s about four blind levels. In that first hour you are going to get to look at about 70, maybe even 100 hands played. It’s also the level that will see about half the field eliminated. Most of them will be monkeys and the ones who didn’t survive the all-ins against monkeys. So sad. Oh well.

The Middle Stage is called just that, because you have reached and surpassed the middle of the field and the real chip-up or get out stage begins here. How you emerge from this stage into the next will determine a lot about your strategy for the rest of the tournament. Now we get down to about 25% to 40% of the field.

Near The Money Stage or NTM. Oh, Dan and Phil didn’t mention this stage did they? No bother, it didn’t really matter did it? Of course I am poking fun at them. It is actually a critical stage because many players have a lot of things on their mind in this stage - most of them having to do with money. There is quite a shift in thinking when real money is on the line. Many players’ bankrolls are going to be their mind as well, and this creates a different playing environment. Some will tighten, some will loosen, and some will become prone to error and over betting. For a lot of fresh players, this is the most stressful part of the tournament.

In The Money or ITM. Ok now a lot of stress has been alleviated but oddly a new “anxiety” has entered the game as bankroll considerations are less of a burden now. The thing is, just inside the money, really isn’t that great, especially if you paid full pop to get in, rather than a satellite. This anxiety emanates from decisions about advancing deeper into the money. ITM can be a drawn out segment involving many difficult decisions. It is here where bad beats are feared most because a double may assure you of a final table appearance and possibly serious cash. These are often the bad beats that are most talked about too. On the other hand if you are orange or red mzoned in this stage, a go for it attitude against certain players may take a lot of limp-money pots which by this time are substantial.

Final Table. The prize structure is really important here and is one of the main factors in deciding to play a hand or not. In other words, the value of your hole cards becomes stronger here and how you play preflop may win this tournament for you, as many more hands are likely to be determined way before the river. The top three usually get the bulk of the cash so players really have chops set on that, but other short stacks may just be happy to have made the final table and could very well be playing relaxed and win some hands with sub-par holding. There aren’t going to be many (any) weak players at this stage no matter what your buy-in, so the final table often turns into a game of cunning and will.

Next time you play a multi-table tournament online, don’t forget to divide by five.

Marty Smith is webmaster and a regular online poker player. He has a FREE Multi-Table Tournament Video Strategy Series on his website at . He is also editor of and reviewer for


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