A sit n' go (SNG) tournament is typically a single-table tournament with an unscheduled start time. When a predetermined number of people register, the tournament begins. The number of participants is determined by the site and the game. Several sites use 9-person tables, while others use 10-person tables.
Stud variations typically seat 8 players. Stakes range from $1 to several hundred dollars, but the focus of this article is the lower-limit, No Limit Hold ‘Em SNGs, the $5 and $10 buy-in levels. Multi-table SNG tournaments are now available on many sites, but we will focus on the single-table versions for this article. These tournaments provide the player with several things: the ability to play in a tournament setting without committing several hours of time; the ability to hone short-handed and late-tournament tactics; and the thrill of winning a tournament with very little risk due to the low stakes involved.
Typically, SNGs pay out the top three places. First place receives 50% of the prize pool, with second and third receiving proportionately less - finishing lower than third rewards you with experience, but no money. So our goal, first and foremost, is to finish no lower than third. With a third-place finish, we are guaranteed a profit on our tournament buy-in, and we are then free to take more risks while playing for the win.
This strategy for playing SNG tournaments is divided by blind levels. You must be able to adapt your style of play to the escalating blind structure in any tournament. You must be even more adaptable in SNG play, as you are not only adjusting to the escalating blinds, but you must also adopt different playing strategies based on the shrinking number of players at the table. This is not like a massive multi-table tournament, where new players will be sent to your table to replace the players that ‘bust out.’ You will begin with a full table, and usually within one hour the field has dropped to two or three players. So you must stay focused and remain flexible in your playing style.
Level 1-3 (7-9 players) - Usually in the first level of blinds at least one player will go all-in and lose. If you have found a particularly loose table, 2-3 players will be sent to the rail in the first few levels of blinds.
The key to these first levels is to play tight. Maintain aggression when you have solid hands, but play extremely conservatively early on. Be very wary of overvaluing your hands, and be willing to fold almost anything to a raise. Raise pre-flop with A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K and that's all. It’s often wise just to fold most other hands outright. One of the most overvalued hands in these early rounds is A-X, suited or unsuited. Don’t commit too many chips to hands like A-7, A-5, A-J or any other speculative hand.
You can make some ‘late position limps’ into unraised pots with speculative hands like suited connectors or middle pairs, but be prepared to fold them at the first hint of strength in your opponents. Accumulating chips in these early stages makes you a dominating factor, but it also makes you a target, and you don't want to be a target. You want to be the quiet watcher, watching everybody else play, watch their stacks flow up and down, then watch them fade away. Remember that players finishing four through nine get paid the same amount - NOTHING. So stay out of the way unless you have a great hand and a chance to bust an opponent. Your goal here is survival.
Level 4-6 (3-6 Players) - Life on “the bubble”. Patience is important here, because at the lower buy-in SNGs, your opponents are paying very little attention to table image and they will pay you off when you find yourself with a premium hand, no matter how tight you’ve been playing.
Continue to stay out of the way. Dodge the big stacks. Don't get upset when they steal your blinds, and don’t feel pressured to defend your blinds with mediocre hands. The blinds are still relatively low, and if you haven't made many mistakes you've probably still got 8-10xBB, more than enough to play solid poker in a single-table tourney.
These are the levels, though, when you begin to switch gears and steal a few blinds. Steal attempts from the button are strong moves here, as are strong raises out of either blind, as long as you stay away from challenging the big stacks. You should also be wary of challenging stacks that are short, but still big enough to cripple you if you double them up. Yes, take any opportunity to knock an opponent out, but pay attention as to whether or not a short stacked player is going to feel pot-committed if you re-raise them with A-10 pre-flop. You don't need to play many hands. Actually, the fewer you play, the better. I typically play no more than 23% of my hands (including blinds) until I'm in the money. Typically you shouldn’t call a raise or re-raise unless you’re willing to go all-in with your hand, because that is frequently going to be the result of a high-action hand.
When you get down to four players, if you've played solid poker up to this point, you should be 2nd or 3rd in chips, with one really big stack (about 50% of the chips in play) and one really short stack (about 5-8% of the chips in play). You should be able to time things right to pick off this short stack and then make the money. Once you’re one player out of the money, the big stack will typically begin to bully people around, so be very careful about timing your moves. Don’t commit too many chips with medium hands, just wait for your opportunity to steal and force the short stack into a mistake. Usually it only takes a few orbits of four handed play to burst the bubble and send the remaining three players into the money. Your goal is to be one of them.
Late Game - 3 players – You’re in the money. Your goal has been accomplished; you have now entered the profit column for this tourney. Now it’s time for your biggest gear-shift yet - your previous rock-like demeanor goes into hyper-aggressive mode. Your Dan Harrington suddenly morphs into Gus Hansen, taking your opponents by surprise. You were playing to make the money, and you’ve done that. Now play to win.
Aggressive raises pre-flop are the way to go here. Previously unplayable hands are now worth 4xBB raises, because your opponents won’t be expecting them. You will show down very few hands for the first ten hands after the bubble bursts, because if you have junk, you fold pre-flop, but suited connectors; any two face cards, any Ace with a medium kicker (7 or better), or Ace-suited, are raising hands. If you get a re-raise, fold immediately unless you have a premium hand. Don't be afraid to push all-in over the top of a raise, especially against the other middle stack. They won't have made the same shift that you have, and are just trying to climb the money ladder. Your goal is to win – period!
Really, don't show down many hands here. You want folks to think you're raising with junk when you have the nuts, and think you have the nuts when you have garbage. Resist the temptation to flash your cards when your opponent folds, you should keep their information as incomplete as possible.
Exceptions are when you have MASSIVE Implied Tilt Odds - a concept I lifted from Phil Gordon's books. If you have a good chance of throwing a tight opponent on tilt by flashing a stone cold bluff, by all means show the Hammer (7-2 off suit).
I'm not suggesting that you raise every hand, or go all-in every time you have an Ace. Just widen your range of playable hands, and push with your junk as often as you push with premium hands. You will still have to exhibit good decision making, especially when your opponents tire of this tactic and re-raise you all in. That's usually a good time to fold and tighten up for a few hands.
The key to remember is that for the first few levels, you just want to stay out of the way, accumulate a few chips to hold your own, and make the money. But once you’ve cashed, it is ‘full-tilt boogie’ until you drag the last pot; leaving your opponents to wonder where that 6-1 chip lead they had went.
Good luck, I’ll see you across the virtual felt!