Vivek Rajkumar is one of the brightest young stars in the game today. After numerous live cashes, Rajkumar broke out to win the 2008 Borgata Poker Open main event for a whopping $1.4 million. In February, Rajkumar won the heads-up tournament at the LA Poker Classic. We caught up with Rajkumar, and he was kind enough to let us into his head and share some tournament secrets.
BLUFF: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. I'd like to chat a bit about tournament strategy. Walk us through the different stages of a tournament -- how do you go about the beginning stages of a live, major buy-in tournament?
Rajkumar: Well, in the beginning stages of a big buy-in event -- and I classify big buy-in events as $5,000 and up -- I usually tend to play super-solid, tight, good poker. I basically nit it up and figure out how my opponents are playing first before I make any big read-based plays. If I have previous history or have established dynamics already with some portion of my starting table, I might start trying to exploit how they perceive me early on. Usually I'm just playing a fairly basic, tight, solid strategy. Plus, the fact is that in the early stages of a tournament, there really is not much in the way of antes and blinds to win, so theoretically you should be playing a tighter strategy than usual.
BLUFF: Do you ever limp, or are you usually the aggressor?
Rajkumar: It depends a lot on my position, who's behind me, who I feel like I can isolate, who I think might isolate my limps, how my postflop strategy works into my preflop strategy. … But like most Internet kids, I am usually maintaining preflop initiative. I basically don't open-limp middle position onward, but I do over-limp behind other players' limps a fair amount.
BLUFF: When do you change gears? Is there a spot that you look for when you begin to open up your game, or is a lot of it stack dependent?
Rajkumar: Yeah, I think I change gears when I feel like I've established a good table image. If I have been playing snug and people are giving me more respect than usual, I might loosen up and use my image to my benefit to pick up a couple good spots. If I have been blasting and blasting and blasting, I tend to start tightening up, going for much thinner value bets than usual, and I stop continuation betting and bluffing.
BLUFF: Can you explain to our readers what a "thin value" bet is?
Rajkumar: Basically, when your hand is marginal, but most of your opponent's range is even more marginal than yours. You feel like you've established a very loose-aggressive image, so your opponent is quite likely to call down one or more streets with much of his range. In that case, if you are better at hand reading and situation reading than your opponent, you will make thin value bets to exploit how he perceives you.
BLUFF: How do you differ your play as a large stack versus an average stack, and then, the polar opposite, a short stack?
Rajkumar: I basically think large stacks and medium stacks and short stacks aren't that important. It's effective stacks and how people play against specific stacks that is the important thing to know. There are a lot of people who will never, ever give a big stack respect, so if I have a big stack against them, I am just playing good, solid poker and waiting for them to do something stupid against me. Against other people who irrationally fear a big stack, I'm going to punish them a lot more. I myself am fairly indifferent to how I approach other people who have a big/middle stack. I try to figure out if they're being more of a bully than not, and in that case, I'll adjust my play to counteract that.
BLUFF: A lot of conventional wisdom says to open up and become very aggressive on the bubble. Is this accurate?
Rajkumar: It depends on how your opponents are playing, but overall, if you have a big stack and people are fearing for their tournament life, you should become more aggressive than average. If all of your opponents are thinking the same way, then obviously you should play tighter than average. I think this is very table dependent.
BLUFF: OK, so you have made it into the money -- what's your play now, any major changes?
Rajkumar: Well, since I open up so much on the bubble, people might think I'm a maniac now, so for the next two to five orbits following the bubble bursting, I play much tighter than average. Because people at this point are never going to give me respect, I try to adjust to how people are planning to play against me before they even fully consciously decide to adapt to me. So I'm one step ahead of them, and their adjustments are wrong.
BLUFF: What is the biggest mistake you see amateurs making on the bubble or even after the bubble?
Rajkumar: Some people are way too aggressive on the bubble, but more often than not, a lot of people who want to make it past the bubble play way too weak and tight. Immediately after the bubble, they probably play too loose because they see themselves as free-rolling since they made the cash.
BLUFF: Are the same rules in effect for the final table bubble?
Rajkumar: Absolutely, the effects are actually more pronounced for final table play. I've even had it affect me when it's a major final table. But really, a final table means nothing. It's just going from 10 people to nine people. If you're not thinking about sponsorship money and fame and just thinking about it from a money-expectation standpoint -- which I think you should be -- you are playing good poker.
BLUFF: Were there any hands you can recall from your final table bubble you felt were key that you want to share?
Rajkumar: Not really. People thought I was abusing them as a big stack and gave me no credit. I realized this and waited for hands. John Myung four-bet me with no fold equity on the exact cusp of the final table bubble with K-Q off-suit versus my Q-Q, and he ended up seventh. People see me as a young Internet kid blasting and blasting and give me no credit ever; so I just call them down later or only do things for value against them and basically take pure resteals and bluffs out of my range.
BLUFF: Did that help you at the final table in your opinion?
Rajkumar: The final table went very fast, and because of how short everyone was, the play was much more dependent on cards more so than image. I mean, it ended in fewer than 50 hands.
BLUFF: Yeah, it was nuts how fast that final table was. What was the first thing you thought of when the final card peeled off?
Rajkumar: I was pretty ecstatic and more relieved than anything, because if I had gone out like fifth or fourth after coming in with the chip lead, it would have haunted me for years to come. I've gone through many a chip lead over the last year playing live tournaments. So many of them, it's kind of surreal.
BLUFF: Well, congratulations on the win, Vivek, it was well deserved! And thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Rajkumar: Absolutely, it was fun!
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