Texas Hold ‘em Strategy: Cash Games vs. Tournament Style


There are so many aspects to Texas Hold ‘Em strategy that it can sometimes make chess seem like a kid’s game. Yet, of all the complex poker strategies to master, the differences between cash game play and tournament play may be at the top of the list. Strategies for the two formats vary so widely, it’s almost as if they’re completely different games. As such, succeeding at both will require that you use contrasting tactics, styles and mindsets.

The Difference Between Cash Games and Tournaments

One of the most successful Hold ‘em players in recent years, Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi, CardPlayer Magazine’s 2006 Player of the Year, and winner of more than $14 million in tournament earnings in his career, is a perfect example of how different the two formats can be.

He earned his nickname, “The Grinder,” from years of playing in cash games. With his rent money on the table, Mizrachi was known as a relatively tight player, grinding out a living. But in tournaments, he was one of the wildest players at the table, gaining a reputation for non-stop raising.

He described the two strategies by saying, in effect, that at a cash game you had to consider every decision carefully not just from a poker standpoint but from a practical one as well. However, in a tournament, the goal is to collect all of the chips in play, meaning you have to be involved in more pots, making more bets and gambling more often. And since you’ve already put your entry fee down, there isn’t the worry of having to reach back into your pocket to continue playing. You’re either in or you’re out.

4-3-Poker-ChipsTournament Strategy

As with any other type of poker strategy, there are many nuances to tournament play. But for the sake of simplicity, there are two primary schools of thought for Hold ‘em tournament strategy.

The first is the one used by Mizrachi. The goal in any poker tournament is to end up with all of the chips, so aggressively pursuing them from the outset makes sense. However, that often leads to wild swings in chip stacks, a harrowing experience for even the most seasoned professionals. It’s also a very hard strategy to employ, one that requires a great deal of experience, knowledge, intuition and guts, and it can often lead to an early exit from the tournament.

The second of these strategies is the more traditional, stay-alive-as-long-as-possible method, then hope things break right for you at the end. The most famous practitioner of that strategy may be “Action” Dan Harrington, who won the main event at the World Series of Poker in 1995, and reached the final table back-to-back years in 2003 and 2004.

In this traditional strategy, the tournament turns into a minefield. You have to look at each and every decision as if it is for your tournament life, and avoid every pitfall. In order to employ it successfully, you have to play far fewer starting hands – usually only premium ones like pocket pairs and two face cards – and almost always err on the side of caution. This is also the recommended style of play for tournament novices and inexperienced players.

Cash Game Strategy

Many veteran players feel so strongly about cash games being a superior test of skill that they won’t even play in tournaments. With money more tangibly on the line, and the ability to reach into your pocket and reload at any time (unless, of course, your bankroll runs out), cash games present myriad strategies, decisions, styles and bets for player to choose from. While some of the strategies are similar to those previously discussed for tournament play, the way they are employed is often completely different.

The are four main categories of cash game strategy: Tight, tight-aggressive, aggressive and maniacal.

Tight Play

This style is the one most beginners use, and rightfully so. It requires playing only premium starting hands, rarely raising – allowing the cards to almost play themselves – and waiting for only the most optimum opportunities to put your money in the pot.

The benefits of this strategy are that you are less likely to lose money and will rarely experience large downswings in fortune. On the downside, because you are giving less action you will get less action. That means it will be very difficult to win a lot of money.
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Tight-Aggressive Play

This would be the cash game equivalent of the Harrington tournament strategy. You will still only play premium starting hands for the most part. Though, the list will expand beyond that of a tight player’s to include hands like Jack-ten suited.

The main difference between tight and tight-aggressive is that once you enter a pot you will be much more willing to bet and raise. The idea is that by playing few hands, but playing them more powerfully, will allow you to take control of a table without putting yourself at too much risk. It also puts you in a better position to bluff when the mood strikes.

Aggressive Play

This is where you play far more starting hands and put in far more bets, whether you have good cards or not. The line of thought behind this strategy is that by keeping your opponents off balance they won’t be able to read your hand, and will be less likely to put you to tough decisions since the pressure will regularly be on them. It’s sort of ‘the best defense is a good offense’ tactic.

Also, by putting a lot of money in the pot, there will be more to win, meaning bigger profits. On the other hand, it’s much easier to lose when playing this way.

Maniacal

We’ve all seen them – the maniac who can’t help but throw money into nearly every pot. Sometimes his chips are stacked to the ceiling, other times he can’t stay in the game more than a half-hour. Aggressive play, especially if it’s tempered by experience, can be a highly effective strategy. Maniacal play is more likely a desperate call for help by the player who uses it.

Ultimately, you want to become proficient at most of these strategies, and be able to continually vary your playing style depending on your opponents. That’s why it’s highly recommended that you find somewhere to work on these different tactics, like an online game where you can see a large number of hands per hour, until you come up with the strategy that works for you.