Certainly, if you play NLHE, you understand what a powerful play that shoving all-in can be. For one, it’s intimidating: anyone willing to gamble with all their chips means serious business, and will force opponents to seriously think before making a call. Second, it eliminates any further decision making on your part. Once you shove, that’s it – there’s nothing more you can do. Most people don’t bother to think this way, but it can be important. This is especially true if you are playing against a player you know to be more skilled than yourself. Strong play can turn weak hands into winners, especially when the villain lacks experience and skill.
But in a tournament, shoving all-in is an extremely potent weapon because in most cases, there is no option to buy back in. Even in tournaments which allow rebuys, the rebuy period only lasts for a set time, and after that the tournament becomes like all others. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you don’t make shoving a regular part of your strategy, you’re doing something wrong.
In the beginning of the tournament, I admit it’s more often than not the case that it’s a bad idea to shove. But in particular, later on in tournaments when the blinds are high and nobody has more than 20xBB in their stack, shoving becomes an optimal play in many cases.
To get an idea of this,let’s analyze the role of chips in tournament poker. One of the fundamental things which separates tournaments from cash poker games is the fact that after a certain time, the size of the total number of chips in circulation becomes finite. It is impossible to add any more into circulation. This is in opposition to cash poker, where a new player can always replaces an old one, and players are always welcome to bring more money into the table.
The inherent finiteness of chips in a tournament leads to a fundamental difference between tournaments and cash games. The fixed supply of chips in circulation gives each individual unit of money in a tournament what economists call Diminishing Marginal Utility. In laymans terms, each additional chip you acquire in a tournament poker game loses value as the size of your chip stack increases. To explain in yet another way, someone with a stack of 100,000 chips will benefit a lot less from winning 1,000 chips than a player who has 10k chips in their stack.
There are a few reasons for this. One, as I mentioned above, is that the total money supply of a tournament is finite. Once you control a certain percentage of the overall pot, winning more chips doesn’t offer many benefits. Recall that in a tournament, the goal is to be the last player standing – not to amass the most chips. Unlike cash, you can’t walk away.
The other important factor, however, is the blind structure. In tournaments, blinds are constantly increasing in size. At first, they start out small, but as the tournament progresses they increase both in absolute size and in size relative to the total sum of chips in circulation. The relative size of blinds is what matters. It’s what makes shoving so potent.
To understand why this is, consider the following: You’re at the final table. Blinds are at 50k/100k and nobody has more than 15 big blinds in their stack. In general, what’s the best way to play?
I’d say 9 times out of 10, you should shove! Even if you have absolutely nothing!
Recall that the purpose of a tournament isn’t to have the largest stack – it’s to be the last person standing. It doesn’t matter if you have 1BB or 100BB in your stack – as long as you have chips, you’re still in. From that, it follows that if you lose all your chips, you’re out of the game and walk away with nothing. Naturally most tournament players will therefore be apprehensive about sacrificing all – or even a significant portion of – their stack. Of course this comes down to each players individual style, but on the whole, most folks are more conservative when they play in tournaments. (Good players will know this and thus be more aggressive. But most players aren’t good players).
This leads to what poker professional David Sklansky calls the “Gap Concept”. In a nutshell, the Gap Concept states that as the blind levels increase, it will always be more difficult to justify calling a raise pre-flop than it is to actively make the raise. The reason being is precisely because people are more apprehensive about losing their whole stacks. (See Sklansky’s book “Tournament Poker for Advanced Players” for more information on this idea)
This is where shoving comes into play. Shoving your stack into the middle is extremely aggressive and therefore intimidating. This is doubly true if you have a deep stack compared to everyone else. People will be more hesitant to call. Therefore, it becomes easier to shove all-in, even with marginal hands. In many cases, it can even be correct to shove with a 2-7 off suit!
Granted, there are some conditions. Position plays a big roll – it’s much harder to shove UTG than it is to shove on the button simply because you don’t know how other players will react. The number of callers before you also affects your decision: more money in the pot = people are more likely to call. Finally, you always have to be conscious of other players’ habits, as well as your own table image. If you’re perceived to be a loose cannon, you’re more likely to get called. If you’re perceived to be tight as a rock, you’ll be more likely to get away with shoving on some jank like 2-10.
There are a lot of factor that come into making the decision of whether to shove in a tournament. At the end of the day, you have to rely on your own experience and your gust instinct to make the correct decision. But hopefully this information helps reinforce and enhance your experience, and ultimately gives you a new way of looking at tournament poker.