Often I am asked “How do I survive in a poker tournament when I am completely card dead?” The short and most honest answer is “You don’t.” When you have no playable hands for an extended period of time, especially when the blinds are large compared to your stack, you are going to have a tough time winning. That being said, in this blog post I will offer a few tips you can use that will give you the best chance of surviving when you are card dead. Used intelligently, these plays will occasionally sustain you until you pick up some playable hands.
Abuse your image
Your primary weapon when you are card dead is your tight image. Assuming you have entered very few pots because you know how to fold when you have terrible cards, your opponents will view you as a tight, conservative player. If your opponents expect you to only put money in the pot when you have a premium hand, you can get away with bluffing almost at will.
The most obvious spot to enter the pot with junky hands is from middle and late position when the action folds around to you. Do not be afraid to make a standard raise to between 2 and 3 big blinds (smaller if the effective stack size is small, bigger if it is big). If one player calls, you can profitably continuation bet most flops. If multiple players call, you should probably play somewhat straightforwardly after the flop.
It is worth pointing out that most players who frequently find they blind out for long periods of time don’t actually realize how loose they should be playing, especially from late position. If you have a tight image, when everyone who acts before you folds, you should frequently raise from the cutoff and button with perhaps the top 75% of hands. Most players who complain about being card dead only play the top 20% of hands. Clearly if you play too tightly, you will always feel like you are card dead. Those premium hands just don’t come around that often.
This is roughly the range most tight players raise from late position when everyone folds to them.
This is roughly the range you should be raising from late position when the action folds to you.
Another simple play you can make to abuse your tight image is to reraise late position preflop raisers. Since most players know to raise from late position with a wide range, almost everyone is an easy target. When facing a raise from early position, you will usually only want to reraise if the initial raiser is somewhat loose.
For example, assume you have folded the last 25 hands in a row, with 50 big blind stacks. If someone raises to 3 big blinds from middle position and you pick up a normally unplayable hand such as A-2, K-4, or Q-7, feel free to reraise to 9 big blinds. You will frequently steal the pot preflop and when you get called, you will usually win it after the flop with an 8 big blind continuation bet.
As you get more comfortable reraising as a bluff, you will eventually learn that you can even cold 4-bet as a bluff. Even if you have been somewhat active, cold 4-betting will apply a huge amount of pressure and usually put your opponents’ entire stacks at risk while only risking a modest portion of yours. Very few players will be willing to risk their stack without a premium holding, especially if you have been tight.
For example, with 60 big blind effective stacks, if someone raises to 2 big blinds and a loose, aggressive player reraises to 6 big blinds, you should feel free to 4-bet to 14 big blinds with a wide range of hands. While the ideal bluffing hands to make this play with are those containing blockers, primarily an A or K, you can make this play with any two cards if you are confident that your opponents will either go all-in or fold before the flop. If you expect your 4-bet to get called some percentage of the time, you should tend to either have a blocker or a hand that has some postflop potential, such as J-T or 6s-5s. If the reraiser calls your 4-bet, you can usually win the pot after the flop with a 12 big blind continuation bet. Obviously losing 26 big blinds out of your 60 big blind stack is never fun, but most of the time, you will win the pot.
Another spot where you can abuse your tight image is when you call a preflop raise and face a continuation bet on the flop. Especially if you know your opponent continuation bets the flop almost 100% of the time in heads-up pots, you should strongly consider raising on almost any flop. If the flop comes A-6-2 or 8h-7h-6s, you should happily raise your opponent’s continuation bet. On A-6-2, you will make your opponent fold if he doesn’t have an A and on 8h-7h-6s, you will win when he doesn’t have a premium made hand or draw. Do not be afraid to get out of line.
As you can see, when you have been card dead you should abuse your tight image by applying pressure. You have to realize that most of the time, your hole cards do not matter. Almost all poker hands are won without a showdown. If you can figure out a way to win pots without a showdown, you will slowly grind up your stack with minimal risk of going broke.
Don’t get too crazy
While you should certainly ratchet up the aggression, if you get too active, your opponents will quickly figure out that you are stealing pots that do not belong to you. If you develop an aggressive image, you should expect your opponents to fold less often. This will force you to tighten back up and wait for reasonably strong holdings.
It is worth pointing out that some players have an image such that no matter how they actually play at the table, their opponents will view them as aggressive. I personally have this issue because I look young and most of my opponents know for a fact that I am fully capable of getting out of line at any point. Even though I generally play a tight, aggressive strategy, I get paid off as if I am a blatantly loose, aggressive player. This often results in me folding a bit more than most players before the flop because I understand that when I actually pick up a strong hand, I am more likely to get paid off than most people. There is nothing wrong with playing somewhat tight if you do not need to cultivate an aggressive image to get action.
If you are like the majority of players, your opponents will, by default, assume you are tight. If you play in an aggressive manner, either because you were dealt lots of strong hands or if you have been bluffing recently, you must realize that your opponents’ perception of you will change. Do not fall into the habit of thinking something along the lines of “I am a 60-year old so my opponents will always think I am tight.” If you use this logic and proceed to play like a maniac, even the most unobservant players will stop folding to you.
I hope this blog post gives you a better understanding of how to stay in the game even when you are card dead. I actually did an in-depth webinar discussing how to increase your levels of aggression at the poker table in order to drastically increase your profits. If you want to learn how to intelligently run over your opponents and also get a free instructional pdf, check out: Increasing Aggression.