Early Stage MTT Strategy: Playing The Early Levels of a Poker Tournament

You can’t win a poker tournament during the early levels, but you can lose. The Tip Top Fox provides some top tips on how to approach the early levels of a multi-table tournament

The early stage of a multi-table tournament (MTT) are the levels before the antes kick in. In a typical online MTT, you will usually have between 40-100 big blinds throughout this stage. Especially if you manage to avoid taking big coin flips and chip up by winning small pots.

The early stage of a tournament is widely considered to be the least important one. This is because the chips you gain during this period will not increase your whole tournament EV (expected value) by that much, even if you manage to acquire a big stack. Even though this might be the case, you still need to try your best to play in the most optimum way possible. There are a couple of things to be aware of in the early stages of an MTT:

Key Points

  • You should be playing more speculative hands in position, especially against the weaker players at the table. When the stack sizes are relatively deep, position can become more effective than absolute hand strength.
  • You should also avoid getting into marginal spots out of position. This means you should be folding pocket deuces and ace-six suited in the big blind against good players who raise from the button. This is because you won’t be making enough profit to compensate for the loss when you miss the flop.
  • You should be willing to give up small edges because as previously mentioned, the chips you gain during this period will not increase your tournament EV by much.

Find Your Edge

During early-stage MTT play you should be looking to capitalise on easy, safe situations rather than those that are slightly above expectations. Take the 10/20 level in the PokerStars Daily $50 Freeze Out tournament as an example.

Effective stacks are 3,000. The Cut Off opens to 60 and the Button moves all-in for 3,000. You are in the small blind with pocket jacks and have notes on this player, saying that they three-bet all-in with ace-king during the tournament’s early stages. Even though you have around 55% equity against this hand you should fold. This is because you will have position on this opponent and can find a much better spot against them later, usually where you will have more than a 5% edge.

Stack Maintenance

Maintaining a stack is always better than losing it. The poker adage: ‘you cannot win a tournament at the early stages but you can easily lose it’ is particularly relevent.

So often players lose a big pot and go crazy shortly afterward trying to win all their chips back. They start to get desperate and make marginal plays when they can really afford to wait for better spots.

Play smart – chip retention keeps you in the tournament, spewy tilt-induced play will usually result in you watching the remainder of the action from the rail.

No Equity

Fold equity during early-stage MTT play is not that important when compared to the late stages, especially when it comes to pre-flop play. You should be opening or three-betting pre-flop for value and for balancing purposes only. It does not make sense to steal blinds because they are not big enough to make a pure steal worth it.

You can apply the same rationale to some of your post-flop play and play some draws less aggressively to reduce variance. This is because if you were to get your money in on the flop with a big draw, you will never be more than a 60% favourite at best, and in some cases, you could have as low as 35% equity against a strong made hand like a set or top two pair.


It basically boils down to avoiding marginal spots both pre and post-flop during the early stages. You can give up a little edge along the way. However, you must be prepared to capitalise on similar spots in the later stages. When the stakes are higher you should increase your aggression to maximize your fold equity, as it becomes more profitable to do so.

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