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How to Quickly Understand Online Tournament Players – Podcast #318


Sky Matsuhashi

on November 18, 2020

A few weeks ago, listener Sherri Cook sent me this question about understanding tournament players:

I’m loving your podcast, Sky. I just subscribed and now I’m going through your back catalog and learning a ton.

I love playing cash games where I can use my long history with opponents against them. I play with many players online day after day, and this gives me a great understanding of them that I use to exploit them. But, I’ve just started playing online tournaments and it's really tough because I don't know any of my opponents and it takes a long time to really develop HUD stats. Can you help me out?

Absolutely! And thanks for the question and kind words, Sherri.

It sounds like you already know how to exploit your opponents based on what you know about them. So, I’m not going to go into how to exploit tournament players.

I’m going to answer your question with the goal of helping you gain quick clarity on their player type and tendencies so that you can use your existing exploits against them.

Come play with me this Saturday the 21st of November in my $1.10 Rebuy Tournament on Americas Cardroom.

Listen to this podcast episode:

Tournament Players are Like Any Other

The first thing to know is that cash game players are the same as tournament players. They have tendencies and they have weaknesses. They can be loose and play a lot of hands, or tight and wait for stronger hands. They can be passive and love to see flops and catch draws, or they can be aggressive and make loads of bets and raises. So, your reads on players can be exploited exactly the same in tournaments as in cash games.

The only real difference in understanding online tournament players versus cash game players is that you must learn all you can about them as soon as possible.

Pay Attention to EVERY Hand

You must gain as much information as quickly as possible, and the best way to do this is to watch every action, even when you fold your hand.

You MUST NOT allow yourself to be distracted by too many other tournaments or cash games. You must also keep outside distractions turned off: Netflix, Twitch or a podcast (even this one).

Learn the Easy Way

Paying attention to the action also helps you learn things the easy way, not the hard way. If Bob123 makes a min3bet against Susan789, you might read this tiny bet size as Bob being a weak, recreational player. But, if at showdown he shows AA, you know he’s a bit wily and capable of deceptive play. Susan learned this the hard way when she lost her stack. But because you were paying attention, you learned the same thing she did without losing your tournament life.

Revealing Actions

You must be on the lookout for plays that quickly reveal the type of player are. So, which actions quickly help you characterize tournament players?


Limping and Calling – the weakest, most passive players limp and call a lot. They like seeing flops and are likely calling stations. They have a really wide and weak preflop ranges with the goal of striking gold on the flop with straights, flushes and sets.

Raising First In, Iso-raising and 3betting – These are aggressive preflop actions and players who do these often are likely TAG or LAG players. They probably steal a lot and punish other stealers and limpers with their raises.


Frequent Callers – they call a ton and never fold, so they’re stations who give too much value to their opponents. Plus, it’s harder to bluff them off especially on wet boards with lots of draw potential. They chase every draw and they think their TP or 2nd pair can catch your bluff.

Cbettors and Raisers – They use aggression against you if they think you can fold. Sometimes you fight back and they can win all your chips when they happen to have a great hand. They use position and larger stacks against you by threatening your tournament life.


Take Notes and Tag ‘em

As you notice these revealing actions, take notes on a piece of paper or in the PokerTracker 4 Note Editor. I prefer the paper notes for tournaments because it’s quick and easy to write ‘em down and refer to them in future hands.

You must also color code tournament players accordingly as soon as you make a read. Color coding their player box or their HUD helps you to plan for how to play against them a bit quicker. I use these color codes:

  • Loose-passive Fish: Green
  • Super Tight Nits: Red
  • Loose-aggressive and Maniacs: Orange
  • Tight-aggressive, strong and capable: Yellow



There’s nothing better than showdown to totally illuminate the tournament players you’re up against. That’s why you should always muck your losing hand at showdown.

Not many hands in the early and middle stages are gonna reach showdown. But when they do, your eyes must be glued to what they show and you must replay the action of the hand. This means you must have paid attention to every play they made through the streets.

For example, somebody showing down J8s means different things based on prior actions:

  • What if the preflop 3bettor showed J8s? Well, this indicates a very aggressive 3bettor who probably targets his opponents well with his 3bet bluffs. It’s a good idea to think back and make a judgment based on the sizing he used as well.
  • What if the preflop caller in the HJ showed J8s? Calling in the HJ with 4 other players still to act indicates a super loose-passive and weak player. He’s not even thinking about the players left to act, he just wants to see the flop and hit a flush or straight with his suited 2-gapper.
  • What if the BTN open-raiser showed J8s after cbetting with TPWK on the flop then checking the turn and river? She’s probably tight-aggressive. She’s capable of stealing often but pot controls post-flop with a vulnerable TP hand.
  • What if the BB caller showed J8s after check-calling large flop and turn bets with a gut shot draw, then shoving all-in when he rivered his straight? He’s a calling station willing to overpay for weak draws.


Bet Sizing

Bet sizing is a critical piece of information to think about.

If all I told you was that “HubbaHubbaZoe” made a preflop 3bet, what kind of player is Zoe? If that’s all the info you had to go on, you might say she’s probably loose-aggressive.

But, what if told you she made a min-3bet to only 5bb’s after I open-raised to 3bb’s?

Well now, you have more information to work with. So, what kind of player is she?

She’s still probably loose-aggressive, but she doesn’t really know what she’s doing. She’s probably a recreational player. She’s making it too easy for me to call, so she’s missing value with her best hands like AA. And because it’s too easy for me to call, her bluff with J8s is never working. A min-3bet like this is an ineffectual size, and that indicates a weak player.

And post-flop bet sizing? You can get the best reads here earlier in the tournament before there are too many post-flop all-ins.

In general, smaller bets of 1bb up to 1/3 pot indicate weak attempts to bluff or block you from betting bigger. These indicate weaker players most often. As bets get larger in relation to the pot, especially ½ to ¾ pot, these players are hitting your pain threshold with their bluff and value bets, so they more likely know what they’re doing.

If you ever see a “weird” bet size, take note. Combine this “weird” bet sizing with everything else you know about them to gauge what you think they’re trying to do.


HUD Stats and Exploiting at the Extremes

Because you’re an online player, you have the advantage of PokerTracker 4 and HUD stats.

Every HUD stat is potentially useful, but the most useful ones are VPIP and PFR. They accumulate with every hand dealt so continue using them just like you do in cash games. Look for high and low percentages and pay attention to that gap between the two. Even over just 10 hands, VPIP and PFR can clue you in to their player type.

The key to using HUD stats for tournament players is to “exploit at the extremes”. So, over just 10 hands Bob123 might be a 100/0 player. He’s voluntarily put money into the pot in all 10 of his first hands without raising at all. That means he’s called or limped in his first 10 hands >>> Mega Fish!

His stats show an extreme tendency towards calling preflop. You can easily use this extreme tendency against him.

What about somebody who has cbet 4/4 times at 100%? Well, he’s most likely cbetting his 5th opportunity, right? What about another player who has cbet 0/4 times? Yep, totally honest flop cbettor and you can expect him to have a pair or better if he cbets at his 5th opportunity.

Besides VPIP and PFR, the other most useful tournament stats are:

  • Fold to Steal
  • 3bet
  • Call Preflop 2bet
  • Cbet Flop
  • Fold to Flop Cbet

These are the most common plays and situations tournament players face, so these accumulate the quickest. And, don’t forget to exploit at the extremes if the sample size is a bit small.



Here’s my challenge to you for this episode:  Play with me and other SPS listeners this Saturday during my $75 Guaranteed, $1.10 buy-in Rebuy tournament on Americas Cardroom. DETAILS.

Now it’s your turn to take action and play with me in my upcoming tournament!


Sky Matsuhashi

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