Even Jamie Gold, the 2006 WSOP main event champion, will tell you that to win a poker tournament requires some measure of luck. If your hands don’t hold up, or you get a great hand and someone gets a better hand, you will have difficulty winning. However, given that all players will get the same amount of good and bad hands over the long term, it is the players who implement an effective poker strategy that end up with the money.
In poker tournaments, players often need to consider whether they are just trying to survive and win whatever money they can, or whether they are willing to do what it takes to go all the way to the winner’s circle, even if means ending up with nothing or very little if they fall short.
While you often will have to make this determination long before the final table, the question of super aggressive, risk tolerant play vs. a conservative survival strategy will often still be relevant in the late rounds.

Aggression vs. Survival in Late Round Play: After the Bubble

You will often find that in the last round before players end up in the money, it seems to take forever for anyone to get eliminated. This is because the players see the money is in sight and no one wants to get knocked out “on the bubble,” playing for four hours or more and ending up with nothing. Once the bubble has burst, players bust out with amazing rapidity, being unafraid to shove in their last few chips now that they are guaranteed a piece of the prize pool.
This strategy is usually correct. The large majority of the prize pool goes to the final table finishers, and even among them most of the money is divided among the last three spots. If the tournament pays 45 places, there is often no difference between the amount awarded to the player who finishes 45th and the one who finishes 38th. For this reason, you are much better served picking a few spots to try to double up rather than avoiding confrontations to hold on to move up a few more places.

Aggression vs. Survival in Late Round Play: The Final Table

Once you have reached the final table in a Texas Holdem tournament, it is another matter entirely. Each step brings with it a significant bump in prize money. If you are the short stack, you’re going to have to make a move, since you will be a huge target. However, if you are somewhere in the middle, it may pay to hang back and avoid confrontations. In some cases you can win thousands by doing nothing. Remember that the only person you have to beat to win the tournament is the person who comes in second. If there are 500,000 chips in a tournament and you have only 65,000 of them, waiting around for someone else to aggressively pick up the other 435,000 will not only get you a guarantee of a significant share of the prize pool, but it puts you only three big hands away from winning the tournament. Of course you will have to make a few moves to stay ahead of the blinds and antes, but in this case, a survival strategy can be quite profitable.
If you choose to pursue an aggressive poker strategy instead, going right for the win, you should target players who are just trying to survive. They will usually not offer too much resistance, allowing you to gather chips for confrontations with the players who do wish to challenge you.