If you join Sky Poker and play in any cash game during your first few weeks of membership, then you immediately become eligible for their £10,000 New Player Freeroll, which is held monthly. Each month, all the new players who joined the site in the last month can enter the tournament completely free of charge with a chance to win a part of a £10,000 pot, ranging from £600 for the winner with a variety of scaled prizes down to £25 if you manage to finish inside the top 200.

Playing in a recent event was a real experience and very different to playing on the usual tables and as a novice player, there are some very, very useful things to remember and bear in mind when you start playing.

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1. Registration

If you join Sky Poker and play any cash game, then you are immediately eligible to enter the next £10,000 New Player Freeroll event (which is contested the following month). However, you still have to visit the site when the tournament has been posted in the freeroll section (usually at the start of the month the Freeroll is held in, for example I joined in January, and registered for the freeroll tournament played on the 8th in early February).

It is worth noting at this point that you are not automatically entered into the event and you do have to confirm your participation by clicking on the tournament and confirming you wish to take part. Once you have done that, then you can just sit back and wait until the tournament starts.

2. New Poker Freeroll: Tournament Details

Up to 2,000 players can take part in the New Player Freeroll each month and in February’s event, just over 1,500 players were registered to take part. Entry is completely free (it does not cost you cash, or Sky Poker Points) and is only open to new players on Sky Poker.

At the start of the tournament all players who have registered are allocated at random to a table of up to six other players and each player begins the tournament with 2,000 chips. If you are not online when the tournament starts, then you will still participate in the tournament though your hands will be controlled by the software. If you log into the event after it has started, you can take over from the computer at any time.

The £10,000 prize money is allocated between the top 200 finishers with the smallest prize being £25, and the largest prize for finishing first £600. This money, if you are lucky enough to win, is added to your Sky Poker Balance almost immediately after you are eliminated.

If you are eliminated from the competition before the final 200 players, you win nothing. Players who are eliminated can then log out of the site, or if they like can watch the remainder of the tournament tables in progress.

There are five-minute rest breaks every 55 minutes past the hour, to give players time to grab a drink and have a break away from the PC, before the tournament restarts.
Lastly, the tournament continues for as long as necessary to find the one winner who holds all the chips and thus wins the £600 top prize.

3. Early Tournament Strategy & Gameplay – Computer-controlled players

In any tournament I play, my strategy early on may be slightly different to later in the tournament, but in the New Player Freeroll, there is something that you need to note quickly and immediately. Whether it was an anomaly on my table or not, I don’t know and cannot confirm for sure, but I quickly noticed that of the five other players at my table, four of them were apparently being controlled by software.

This is very important because the software controls a players betting in a very systematic and entirely predictable way. When I realised that me and another player were effectively playing against the software in the four other seats, my strategy altered into simply improving my stack by winning pots easily against the computer opponents.
I achieved this by following this simple rule; if the other human player on the table folded their hands, regardless of the cards I had (or who had put in the small or big blind), when the betting came to me, I would raise.

Almost every time you raise, the software (unless the user has set it up differently to the default settings), will fold the hand. By doing this, you can pick up pot money very cheaply, very often and build a substantial stack quickly. The only time this differed was when a computer-controlled player was likely to go all-in, usually when their stack has gone below the big blind bet. Here you had to exercise a little caution as the community cards may go against you – but even so, it would only cost you relatively few chips and you could continue chipping away at that player over the next few hands to win their chips and get them out of the competition.

When the other player on the table either called or raised, unless I had a strong hand, I would fold. There was no need to take risks with my stack by taking on the only player at the table who’s betting patterns could not be easily predicted. So I built my stack up healthily by targeting the computer controlled players.   You can see how many hands I won using this method on the graphic below.

In the early tournament, I swelled my stack from 2,000 chips to over 12,000 at one point, eliminating several computer-controlled opponents and one human opponent who joined the table relatively short-stacked and at one point, I was 11th in the total chip count out of over 900 players still remaining in the competition and all this was achieved following this simple strategy.
At various points though, tables to reorganise and you may find yourself up against new players and the likelihood is as the tournament progresses, you’ll be playing against real people and this obviously called for a very different strategy.

4. Early Tournament Strategy & Gameplay – Real opponents

After the first hour or so, if you last that long, you’ll find you are playing on tables with real people and as such, you need to adopt a far more cautious strategy.

In my case, because I had so many chips, I could play relatively conservatively initially, folding all my weaker hands and letting those people with fewer chips take the risks and eliminate each other. Obviously, if you start in a position of fewer chips them you may need to take bigger risks, especially when the blinds start to increase.

To me, this was the second-phase of the tournament and where the ‘real’ poker playing began in earnest. However, I did notice that many players, probably because they were new players or perhaps new to tournament play, did tend to bet in a very formulaic way.

Many players folded hands immediately, even if they’d put in the big blind. I picked up several rather lucrative pots by simply making a minimum raise bet after the big blind and watching everyone else fold. Obviously, the later you are in the betting each round, the easier it is to do this.

The number of hands played to the river at this point was relatively few and the standard of play was generally pretty good. I only saw evidence of one complete bluff (I held pocket kings, plus a king in the flop, when an opponent went all in, which I called, and then revealed a seven high hand with not a flush or straight draw, or seven on the board).

This part of the tournament was the grind, where maintaining a healthy stack was important and even against decent players, it was relatively easy to do. I simply bet strongly when the cards were in my favour, or if many players had folded and left just one or two opponents in and I held at least one decent card. I specifically targeted opponents with lower chip stacks as even if they went all-in and I called and lost the hand, the hit to my stack would not be catastrophic.

5. Finishing in the Cash Positions in Sky Pokers NPF

One of the most useful aspects of the tournament was that on the information screen, you can click on the tournament information and it will tell you how many players are left, who they are and how many chips they have.

After two hours of play, the field had been whittled down from 1500 to just over 300 players of which I was one and in the top 200 in terms of chip stack size. At this point, my aim in the next session was simply to make it into one of the cash prize positions of 200th or better. What is notable at this juncture is that when the tables reorganise, you can go from being the chip leader on one table and in a very strong position to take on other players, to being placed on a table where one or more players may have considerably more chips than you.

It is important to stay alert here; if you go all-in against the wrong opponent they may call you anyway if they can absorb the loss in their chips without too much worry.  Another thing to note is that when you do change tables, if you have played more hands than the other players on the table, then you will sit out the required number of hands until you have all played the same number, to ensure fairness.

For this section, I followed very much the same strategy as I had in the previous hour, taking on the players with smaller stacks with success in many cases and I increased my chip stack to over 25,000 at one point and was 24th in chips in the entire competition. By watching how many players remained left in the competition we could see the number dropping down to 201, when the software paused momentarily and we saw that 199 players were now remaining. Meaning all the players left had now won a prize.
This heralded the start of the third phase of the tournament, trying to improve your winning position.

6. Later Strategy – Trying to Improve how much you can win

Like most poker tournaments, at this point the difference in chip stacks between the top players left in the tournament and the bottom was considerable. There was also a palpable sense of relief on the table I was playing at that those now sat there had at least won some of the £10,000 prize! With money guaranteed, there was an immediate change in the betting patterns of players, almost remarkably so. Players who had previously been playing tight, suddenly were calling or raising far more frequently.

I quickly noted that for many players, winning some cash had been their main aim and it was relatively easy to see these players as their betting patterns were now far more risky. We lost two players from the table I was at very shortly after dropping below 200 left in the competition after they went all-in with relatively weak hands against a well-stacked opponent with strong pocket cards.

Shrewder players realised this was happening and realised that there were chips to be picked up if you were brave enough but of course, if the cards don’t fall for you on the flop then it can all come undone and that is what happened to me, when with pocket queens, I called a player who had gone all-in with an amount of chips that was just short of my entire stack.

It is a play I have thought about since and I can honestly say that in the same position, I would do the same again. Especially when every other player folded leaving just us two players in the hand. On turning the cards over, I saw my two queens were up against a six and seven unsuited.

I hit another queen on the flop, but my opponent had the chance of a flush draw, though he needed two more hearts on the turn and river to beat me, but unfortunately my luck was out as he landed two hearts to snatch a huge pot that I was over 90% likely to win at point. This left me in a very difficult position in terms of stack size and though I managed to double up once, paying the big blind (which at this point was 2,000 chips) left me with little option but to go all in when I next had a decent hand, which I did, was called and lost.
I finished 163rd (see below), winning £25 and if I had managed to hang on just a few more minutes, I’d have got into the top 160, earning at least £30.

After I was eliminated, I watched the remainder of the tournament. It took a further two hours to decide the eventual winner and chip stacks slowly increased (as did the blinds).
I am confident that if it wasn’t for the three of hearts on the river, I’d have comfortably qualified for the top 100. But how many poker players have said that over the years?

7. New Player Freeroll: Conclusions

As a competition, the Sky Poker New Player Freeroll is a great way to gain vital experience of tournament play and being free to enter for new players, as it is free to enter, it is also great value too. I found that playing to my strategy saw me qualify relatively comfortably for the prize money and it was only a slice of bad luck for me (or good luck for my opponent) that saw a hugely favourable winning position turn into a losing one; thanks to an unlikely flush draw that saw a run of four hearts come out one after the other to deny me a win with three queens.

I feel the strategies outlined in here would give most players a chance to do well in the tournament and get themselves in with a chance of a top 200 finish. Of course, a large portion of the game is still down to luck, but as I saw on Friday night, that can work for you as well as against you.

The standard of play, especially as the tournament wore on, was generally very good. I saw little evidence of large scale bluffing and by doing this myself at selected times, I was able to pick up several cheap pots and keep my stack increasing.

I’d recommend taking part in the New Player Freeroll unhesitatingly if you qualify, at worst you will leave with some invaluable experience of poker tournament play and your appetite whetted for more and if you finish inside the top 200, as I did, you’ll end up boosting your Sky Poker balance too, at no risk to your own cash.

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