The Black and White MTT Strategy
I think I am finally to the point where I can write down my thoughts on MTTs and the strategy that I employ. I know I am not an MTT expert, as my specialty is cash games. However, I will point out that I am up lifetime in online MTTs as a result of my 50/50 cash (probably very close to break even before that). Something that I would argue most who focus on online MTTs can't say. I am also up lifetime at live tournaments (5k or more), and have bought in directly to a WSOP event, and was still alive after 1000 eliminations. I play cash games because that is where I make the most money, not because I would not be successful playing MTTs.
I am jumping the gun a bit here, and there will be two pieces of the puzzle missing that will be explained in follow up posts. One item is the idea of playing a "modified cash game". A modified cash game is your most profitable cash game with a few tweaks here and there specifically for MTTs. Most of the tweaks involve pushing slim edges much harder than you would in a cash game, but I will leave it there for now. The other piece missing is the concept that tight play gets paid off more in MTTs than in cash games. That is a strange idea isn't it? Everyone thinks that you can play tight (and tight is most correct) in cash games because of the blind structure, but that just can't work in an MTT because of the ever increasing blinds levels. Well I completely disagree. It is much, much easier to get rewarded for squeaky tight play in MTTs than in Cash games. It gets down to the concept of going against the grain of the table. At cash games there are lots of tight people. In MTTs there are lots of loose people. Loose because it is their nature, or loose because they have a stack and are pushing people around, or loose because they are short and desperate, or loose because they are sick and tired of being pushed around by the big stack. It all adds up to much looser play in general than cash games. There is just more preflop raising, stealing, and restealing going on all the time in MTTs that the tight player gets overly rewarded because they are against the grain of the table, especially late in MTTs.
So what is my strategy? Lets call it the black and white strategy. It is like a car that only has two gears. You simply play a "modified cash game" for as long as you possibly can, and make zero MTT adjustments beyond that. You keep this up until your M gets down to around 5. When this happens you switch gears into the complete opposite of how you have been playing. You turn into a complete maniac that will open push almost anything for the first-in vig. If you catch a double up, and get back to a semi-safe level (M above 5), you switch right back to modified cash game mode. There are no shades of gray here. You either play ubertight or psyco-maniac, and you switch back and forth between them on a dime.
Why would this possibly work? This works for several reasons. First off tight play gets paid off in MTTs. You are going to have to wait for a follow up post on this, so just trust me for now. Tight play can keep your stack high enough in many cases (especially the deepstack structures), that you may never need to change gears, or only need to late when you are already ITM. Second off, no matter how much the table is paying attention to your play, they will never know when you switch the gears. It is very scary to call the tightest player at the table's preflop push. If you held out extra long to switch gears (which I highly recommend), your first push will be respected. Your second push probably as well. They will think you are not capable of these types of moves, but you are more than capable. If you get called and double through you might have enough chips to switch back to modified cash game mode.
Imagine a sequence like this. You have folded for about 1/2 an hour straight late in an MTT, and through the point where most players would start pushing. You open push and take the blinds. You open push again three hands later and take the blinds. Then you open push with QTo and get called by AJs and catch a Q for a double up. OK, the table is on to you now. They think you must have been full of it on all three pushes. But now you have enough chips to switch back so you do. You fold for two orbits and then open push KK. A big stack with KJo calls you, because of your plays when you were in maniac mode. You are confusing the crap out of the table by playing this way and this is why it works.
It is important that you leave the shades of gray out. I used to do this because I was simply bad at the gray stuff and good at the black and white stuff. Turns out I was doing the right thing all along by accident. If your game evenly flows from black to white, as many good players are able to pull off, the table starts adjusting to you as you flow from one extreme to the next. Don't let them adjust. Keep them guessing. Switch gears on a dime and they will never be ready.
The top pros who play the ubertight style like me play it this way, I am convinced. They have the patience and discipline to keep it up as the pressure builds to switch gears. They fight off the temptation to make a move. They keep playing their "modified cash game", in the face of immense pressure to stop. The pressure comes form the sheer boredom of playing this way, the fear that they will be blinded out, and the fear that good starting hands will never come. Too many people can't do this, and get into push monkey poker way too early. Of course this is what you want as this is even more loose play to pay off your tight style. So the top pros (the tight ones like me) sit back and pick there spots and get their tight style paid off. If they get too low, they completely switch gears, and are willing to switch completely back. Don't believe for a second that the only way to win an MTT is through aggro play and making moves left and right. That is a way to win MTTs, but not the only way.
All this sounds easy, but it also requires expert cash game play. If you can't beat the low to mid level cash games, and beat them well, just go with the aggro style. Your cash game needs to be solidly +EV so that you can continue to chip-up as the blinds increase. If you read my post on the 50/50, it would appear that all I am playing is big pairs and AK. Whats really happening is I am playing those hands for massive pots, when I can. I left out most of the smaller pots that you absolutely must be winning as well to stay afloat. You don't need to win one hand an orbit, you just need to win a big pot about every three orbits, and some small pots here and there. The biggest flaw to this approach is a long streak with poor starting hands, especially later on in an MTT. You just have to fold away, unless you get to the point where the other gear is required. You may also argue that you can't win an MTT this way if you don't get good cards. Well IMO MTTs are generally won by the people who got a disproportionate amount of good cards no matter what style they are playing. I don't believe for a second that you can win an MTT entirely with air.
By using this approach, you will have your share of MTTs where thing don't go right early, and you will need to dig yourself out with the other gear. But, you will also have your share of MTTs where things go well, and you can cruise pretty deep without ever changing gears. MTTs are a game of numbers. With average play, you will only cash 1/10th of the time, and you will only win 1/1000th of the time (1000 player MTT). If you can put yourself deep a bunch of times, you will have a chance to catch cards late and cash much more often than 1/10 and get the win more often as well.
One more argument that I am sure will be made, is that it is much easier to win an MTT when you take a ton of chips to the Final Table. I don't necessarily disagree here, but you need to realize how rare it is to take a ton of chips to the FT. There is only one chip leader in an MTT. If you are relying on the being the chip leader when the FT forms to get the win, you are relying on a huge longshot to get the win. If, you can learn how to work your way back late, and sneak up on the final table, this is a much more likely scenario. All it takes is outplaying the chipleader at the FT, which is not very difficult if they are leaning on the table with their stack like most tend to do.
The last argument will probably be that you must abuse the blinds during bubble time to make a solid run at the FT. I see this as important, and may be another flaw in this approach. You will be less likely to have the right size stack at bubble time, as someone who was very aggressive the whole way, and somehow survived to this point. Sometimes you will have chips, and you should switch gears briefly at this point even though your M does not require it. If you are short at this point you will already be switching gears. If you are in the middle stack-wise, there is something to be said about taking a stand against the abusers when this happens to give your self a chance to chip-up and become the abuser. Just make sure you have a solid read on the table, and switch back to modified cash game mode after the bubble bursts. This will also do wonders for your image, and confuse the table even more.