I’ve seen some excellent sng guides out on the boards. Now it’s my turn to put my own personal spin on it…. This is not intended to be a step-by-step sng guide. It is an attempt to answer the big picture question: What are the main strategic areas that I need to work on to succeed at SnGs?

Yes, there are other, more obscure skills that are useful. And there are many many details and many examples that could have been filled in within this post that you won’t find. That’s what the rest of the sng forum posts are for. Nevertheless, the high-level information is here and is valuable in its own way, especially for any newer folks who are willing to think about it and put it into practice. I would love to flesh this out with better details in the future. Many of you will already know what I’m talking about but it helps to write it out anyway, and who knows maybe we’ll generate some discussion.

So I sat down and thought about it, came up with 3 major areas of strategy, and ranked in order of importance. I couldn’t think of a 4th one that even comes close to rivaling the importance of #3, so I thought it best to limit it to 3 essential concepts to master. There is significant overlap amongst them, yet I feel compelled to separate them as they are still somewhat distinct.

Skill #1. Above all else, know how to use your stack

and know how it relates to how other players are using their stacks.

At first I went back and forth with this one, trying to decide if it is more important than #2 or not. But ultimately it is. It actually encompasses a lot of #2, so learning #2 might be the easier one to tackle first. So bear with me, this is probably the most general and most abstract one of them all.

When you are a big stack, know how and when to make solid aggressive moves against the short and mid stacks. Be aware that if you are making a LP steal attempt with rags from a shorter stacked guy in the big blind, that he may be inclined to push all in. Foresee this before you steal attempt and try to calculate if the risk is worth the reward. Is the short stack playing on the bubble and more likely to fold? Steal away! If not, don’t bother. The same thought process holds true for the typically more tight mid stack, although you must be aware that while you can reraise them preflop more frequently you still must be selective about it.

When you are average stacked, watch like an eagle to determine weaknesses in the other players that you can exploit, but always beware of picking dangerous fights with push-prone small stacks and uberlagg big stacks. Is anyone calling EP raises with weaker hands? Are people overplaying AK or underpairs on a missed flop? These are the kinds of players who will bust out early, so hopefully you will be fortunate enough to run up against these fish with your QQ in early position when they called your raise on the button with A9.

When you are short stacked, learn how to best manage your pushes based on a variety of factors: Are the players left to act behind you loose callers? How many of them are there that could potentially call? How frequently have you been pushing in the past? How have other small stacks been playing? How close are you to the money? Are the blinds coming around or going up soon? Do you want players to call or fold to you? If fold, you should probably be stealing from mid-stacked limpers. If call, you should be pushing from EP or against one of the big stacks, if those situations are not possible, you should not push but only raise a smaller amount and hope a mid stack calls or raises you.

Being keenly aware of all players’ stack “mode” and how each player interacts preflop because of their stacks is one of the most difficult things to keep straight mentally while in the heat of battle. Using this information effectively is also the skill that takes the longest to learn, and is heavily dependent on concepts learned from #2 and #3 below. So while this is the most important one, it will be easier to put into practice once #2 and #3 are mastered. You can not be a successful SnG (or even MTT) lagg without mastering this first skill (and therefore #2 and #3) and deeply understanding solid tagg play that abides by principles learned from #1. I personally don’t feel I have this skill ingrained enough yet, nor am I playing at levels high enough to make playing laggy worth it.

Skill #2. Play tight throughout, but especially early

When I say “play tight,” I’m not talking about having high standards for preflop hand selection necessarily. What I mean is that you need to pick your battles carefully and selectively. Your decision to enter into battle is influenced not only by the power of your preflop hand, but by position, reads, stack sizes, and host of other factors as well. Figuring out how tight to play based on all of these factors is difficult.

That said, I do have a guideline that can be generally followed. I have a working definition of “early” that is pretty easy to understand: The higher the average table M value, the more selective you should be with picking your battles. To help explain, here’s a chart of average M values for a single table 9 player Stars game. The table’s average M is calculated based purely on two things: the blind level and number of players left.

In my opinion any avg M value higher than 15 is almost certainly too early to really loosen up much with your aggression. There are exceptions to when this definition of too early should be used (for bubble play, heads up, or if your personal M is drastically different than the table average M (#1 above), or if you’ve got some monster reads on loose calling fish), but it is a working definition that applies in most cases.
If you take skill #1 seriously and become perceptive with it, you will be able to learn how to be appropriately flexible with this definition in deciding when it is too early to start making looser aggressive moves. But for now, stick to the guideline that M should not be higher than somewhere in the lower teens before you should feel compelled to start letting aggression take the reigns over from tightness.

I find it interesting when people that are newer to SnG’s argue strongly about what the “right” move was to do because it would gain them more chips in the long run, and disregard the fact that it is early in the SnG. Despite popular notions, early SnG strategy is not the equivalent of a ring game. It’s close, but should be tighter. You bust out, and you’re down a buy-in. You double up, and all you’ve done is double your current prize pool equity in terms of chips, but this is not even close in dollar value to doubling your buy-in. Sure you might double early, but you’ve got a long way to go in the game before any of those early risks that you took show any real potential for paying off with an actual bankroll increase.

In my mind, the absolute key separator between long run winning and losing SnG players is the frequency of busting out in the bottom two positions. Simply, most of the players who are the first or second to bust out when the average table M is still greater than 10 or 15 are probably not long-run winning players. I don’t care if they suffered some bad beats. Even if they chopped their stack in half in the first hand when their AA got river sucked by a baby flush, they should be selective and smart enough to still last until the average table M is 10. The majority of losing players don’t blind out due to tightness – they bust out because of loose moves early on. Busting out in last place happens to everyone every now and then, just make sure that when it does, the blinds are high enough to justify making that particular looser move that busted you.

Skill #3. Your preflop game

If you posses skill #2 above and are selectively tight about the hands you play and do not get into unnecessary battles early on, chances are you will make it to the point in a sng when the average table M hovers around 10 (plus or minus 3 or 4 as people bust out and blinds go up). When the M is around this, somewhere between 85-90% of your decisions should be made preflop. In whatever hands you decide to play, you should be the opener; rarely should you be a limp-in-behinder, and even more rarely a raise caller. If there’s already one in front of you and you are not willing to get all your chips in with ace ten, lay it down rather than calling the raise. Here’s what a couple orbit’s worth of your preflop action should probably look like when 5 or 6 handed and table M is around 10: Fold, fold, fold, fold, raise, fold, raise, fold, fold, fold, fold, REraise. Note these raises and reraises will not likely see a flop since you’re not in there raising every hand. Players will fold their blinds, limps and sometimes even their raises to you.

If you are seeing higher than 15% of flops during this mid game period, there is usually one of two explanations. 1. You are being a loose caller, aka HEEHAWW!!! 2. You are raising too frequently and people are starting to call your raises preflop rather than folding to you. Both of these are SnG leaks that will kill your ITM% in the long run.

Notably missing from my list of essential skills: post flop, tilt control, pot odds. Think about why they are not here. They are not here for the same reason that I get pwned by ring game players yet still am a consistent sng winner: they are not absolutely important skills to have in SnGs.

Well there you go. I hope you enjoyed as much as I did…


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