In a tournament, you need to balance accumulating chips with surviving in the tournament. What are your tournament stack size incentives? At shorter stacks accumulation trumps survival, whilst the opposite is true at larger stacks. In between, you need to balance these two incentives carefully. The BB numbers below assume a tournament with standard antes, but the numbers are certainly not set in stone.
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Accumulation incentivized: 0-20 BB
You are generally looking to accumulate chips and are happy to take on volatility, as you want to try and build a bigger stack to put yourself in a position to do well in the tournament. Future skill edge takes a back seat – you should not be trying to find perfect spots, or passing up reasonable spots in the hope of getting a better spot (such a spot may not come, and you will be blinded down).
However, you must consider if you are at an ICM pressure point. Where there are immediate big pay jumps (such as near the bubble where payouts jump from $0 to maybe double the tournament buy-in, or near or at the final table when there may be steep pay jumps), you need to consider if survival in the tournament at the moment is more important, than accumulating chips at the moment. Sometimes, you will have to allow yourself to get blinded down to secure a minimum cash. UnfairPoker.com has a full explanation of how ICM should affect your strategy.
At less than 12BB you should be looking for opportunities to pushing your entire stack in, otherwise you should be folding. Pushing your entire stack maximizes your fold equity, which if uncontested increases your fold equity the next time you push (as you will have a bigger stack, although of course the more times you push in a short period the less fold equity you may have if your opponents think you must have weak hands). If called, pushing your entire stack in ensures you get to realize all your equity, and should you win you will often get back more than double your previous stack. Putting in some of your stack, and folding, is not advised as you lessen your fold equity the next time you push (as you will have a shorter stack).
When you have more than 12BB, you are freed from push-fold mode. Instead, you can open to a normal size (then 3-bet or fold), and you can reshove.
Balance incentivized: 21BB – 1.5x tournament average chips
You want to balance accumulation with survival. You want to avoid falling back below 20BB, whilst simultaneously trying to build a stack around 1.5x tournament average chips. You have additional tools at this stack size – such as 3-bet shoving.
You will want to consider when to take on volatility, and when not to.
Future skill edge should be considered, and you may want to pass up certain opportunities.
As always, consider if you are at ICM pressure point (e.g. anytime a significant pay jump is looming) – if so, consider who you can put ICM pressure on, and who can put ICM pressure.
Survival incentivized: More than 1.5x tournament average chips
You should have the chips to put tremendous pressure on your opponents in many situations, which is the main reason you took risks with your survival before to accumulate this big chips stack. Chips attract more chips – you have lots of tools to build an even bigger stack, without necessarily crashing out of the tournament.
Where ICM is important – at big pay jumps (especially the bubble), you may be able to accumulate lots of extra chips. Players you cover (which could be everyone at your table) can’t afford to get involved with you, when there are short stacks that might bust on the table.
You want to remain in this category, if possible. You will need to be taking appropriate risks to remain here (as every time the blind level increases your chip stack is effectively cut down). There is absolutely no need to take on unnecessarily volatility, as every extra chip you gain is worth less than any chip you already had. If you do fall back down into a previous category whilst taking appropriate risks, don’t fret – you know exactly what your tournament stack size incentives are to try and do to try and get back here again.