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Rising Blinds in Tournament Poker

New players consistently make it into the middle stages of poker tournaments by playing tight, but as the blinds rise, their stacks are quickly eaten. Not acting at the right time in a tourney can be fatal. It's true that if the blinds are high, it's time to turn up the heat and play for the win. But you also must keep in mind the fact that the prizes are stacked at the top end of the pool, and you're not going to get there by dwindling your stack away.

Tournament poker, popularized largely by Chris Moneymaker's WSOP victory in 2003, is very different from cash games, and one of the main differences is the rising blind levels. In cash games, the blind level is generally set at a small percentage of the stacks, making for slow and steady play with plenty of deep-stack, post-flop encounters.

In tournament poker, the blinds generally start off low and then gradually rise. When the blinds are low, the play is like in cash games, with players generally starting with tight hand ranges and waiting for spots where they can gain value post flop. When the blinds rise, it creates entirely different dynamics.

To fully understand this, it’s important to look at your stack size relative to the value of the blinds. You may have “2000 chips,” but if the blinds are at 100/200, then you only have 10 big blinds (bb). If you did nothing at this stage in the game, your entire stack would be gone in less than 3-4 rounds simply because the blinds cost so much compared to your stack.

Now, let’s say the blinds double on the next level to 200/400. You now have around 5bb in your “2000-chip” stack. Looking at it in chips, you may deceive yourself into thinking you have a good stack to play with, but once converted into “bb,” you can see the reality of the situation. You must always think in terms of bb so that you know your actual situation in the game.

By now, you might be beginning to understand why so many professional and semi-pro poker players start to play aggressively when the blinds are high. They are not just “bullying” the table in an attempt to inflate their own ego, but are responding to factors that are built into the game. By keeping their cool as the pressure increases, they are able to exploit other players who don’t react.

There are two reasons to play aggressively when the blinds are high in tournament poker (and by high, I mean relative to the stack sizes - so when most players have 15-20bb stacks, you are looking at a “high blind situation:). The first reason is to stay ahead of the blinds and prevent your own stack from being destroyed. You are trying to survive.

The second reason is to win uncontested pots. With a large amount of money already in the pot in the form of the small and big blinds, it is often worth taking down the pot without a fight (if possible) by raising or shoving while in position. Let’s say the blinds are 200/400 and you have a 2600-chip stack for a total of 6.5bb. You are in a position with a mediocre hand like 8-9 suited. You shove, the blinds fold and you gain 1.5bb. Your stack goes up to 8bb. You can take blinds like this even when your stack is big by “picking” on the smaller stacks. The second reason for stealing blinds, therefore, is to accumulate.

If the poker tournament also has “antes,” then the value of stealing blinds improves. Antes are small wagers that every player must put into the pot every hand. So, with an ante of 40 and blinds of 200/400, a nine-person table would have 200+400+360 (40 x 9) for a total of 960 obligatory chips in the pot pre-flop. The stealing becomes more lucrative.

Keep in mind that just as you will have to steal blinds to survive and accumulate, you will also have to defend yourself against people who are doing the same to you. Decent players will be targeting opponent's blinds with aggressive raises or shoves, and you have to assert yourself as someone who isn't going to be easy to steal from. Most opponents can be shut down by making a well-timed, three-bet re-steal.

The rising blinds in tournament poker are one of the key factors that influence the gameplay. If the blinds never went up, as in cash games, the play would be steady and the strategy similar throughout the game. But the rising blinds force action by putting players under more pressure, and it is this pressure, as well as the value of the pre-flop pots, that causes good players to pick up their game and get more aggressive. Will you be a victim of rising blinds or will you use them to make a profit?