Preparation is key

Jun 5, 2005 11:45 PM


It seems like everywhere you turn there’s a growing interest in poker. Of course, most of this new wave of popularity has been spurred by all the coverage television has given to tournament play, or celebrity participation in high-stakes poker.

All of this attention and renewed interest by the public leads to this question: What single factor distinguishes poker tournament professionals from players who have equal knowledge but somehow never place?

Is it experience, timing, luck, patience, genetics?

Of course, there are many factors that determine consistent returns, but perhaps the one component that stands out is preparation. So to play like a pro, take advice from the Boy Scouts: be prepared.

What kind of preparation can overcome bad cards or a tough table? Preparation will not alter events over which a player has no control but it will affect the impact and perception of those events.

Before getting too deep into the psychology of tournament play, perhaps explanations would make more sense with an examination of the planning a tournament player might make.

The first item to check is the total probable cost outlay including expenses, satellites, buy-ins, re-buys and live action

The fixed expenses come directly out of the bankroll and are directly tied to the expected return. A good professional has records of his performance and should be able to anticipate an hourly return from some form of play that will offset these expenses and net a profit.

In the event of reverses, these "sure things" are a fall back position to recoup money. Large tournaments are comprised of different styles and a player may prefer one style over another.

The composition of a large tournament influences the decision to risk money. For example, some players dislike "limit" events, so tournaments which have a heavy load of limit events would not appeal to this player unless he could restrict travel or other expenses.

Another factor that might impinge upon the decision to participate is the history of side action. Many players come strictly for side action but the number of tables, size of limits, even proximity of rooms to the action have some bearing on whether a player will risk money on tournament play.

Most good tournament players rely on satellite wins to limit risk. For instance, at the end of the current World Series of Poker is the $10,000 buy-in, Texas Hold’em championship event. Most poker players, including GT’s own Johnny Hale, traditionally "win their way" into the event without having to shell out $10,000 of their own bankroll. They do it by winning a preliminary satellite tournament, which awards the $10,000 seat, usually for a buy-in game of $200 or less.

The number of tables available to satellites is another factor to consider. How much time must a player spend trying to qualify for an event? If a player busts out of one satellite, how long before the next?

All this may seem petty but good tournament players learn not to waste money on low return tournaments. Also, players who are not prepared for the swings of money often make bad choices to get even instead of staying with what should work.

The structure of each tournament should dictate the type of hands to play and the chip position a player needs to be competitive.

If a good player is in a competitive position, he has a chance to win because he knows he will not get into hands at the wrong time, waste money on speculative bets, go on tilt, lose patience, or do any of the other self-destructive things that often occur.

So, before each tournament, a good player sets his strategy. How many rounds will money last if no hands come? Figure the number of hands per hour for a typical game and subtract about three for tournament procedures.

Next, look at how fast the blinds or antes move up. Just blinding out should give a player an outside time factor to find a hand. Of course waiting until there is nothing left is not usually a good policy, so subtract about 20 percent of the time to allow enough margin for viability and not just survival.

Now that the worst possible outcome is known, what is a good amount to allow movement? Some players think that doubling up each round is necessary but others look to win one hand per round

I prefer to set a chip position for specific places in the tournament. Look for the large blind jumps and try to get into position just before these occur. That does not mean a desperation move on the last hand.

When judging whether you are ahead or behind in the rounds prior to these cuts, calculate how many hands have to be won given the action to put you in the right position. That will set some parameters for the necessity to increase or decrease risk in pot participation

Higher-risk hands should be selected, based upon return in multi-way pots to get you into your target chip position and not just for the risk. Low-risk hands and plays are control positions and quality holdings. The hands are chosen in advance and are based upon frequency of occurrence and a reasonable expectation that, given a proper number of these hands, .a good player will win his share.

In every good plan is a calamity clause. If things go wrong and elimination is immanent, what types of hands with big action pots do you play?

Here, you assume that you will not get a quality hand in time because of the frequency, so look for hands that will occur more often. The reason you choose action pots is the leveraged return in the event of success.

That does not mean that head’s up opportunities are ignored, just that time may not permit waiting for good situations. Unless you are down to your last round, there is still time to make choices.

Some players choose to get into the war-of-raises pots but, with a limited amount of chips, I prefer to look for situations where marginal material is getting five- or six-way calling action. Even one raise in the back situations with you as blind calling will loosen up the subsequent calls.

On the next round there is almost no way of betting out and taking the pot, but a check raise might command more respect. Figure that someone will bet with that much money at stake so a check is virtually mandatory.

If the cards hit, a check-raise will thin the field with sufficient return for all in. Even though most experts tell you to get maximum return for an all-in bet, settle for legitimate competition and try to get rid of players with more chips than brains who are just sight-seeing.

Common sense should tell you that you own a bigger share of the pot when facing fewer players. If your hand has a chance, your return is enough to put you back into the tournament.

Once committed, survival is more important than maximum return. The button play works when you can raise or re-raise in a big pot even with marginal material. The early action has created a highly leveraged pot and you would prefer the, action be reduced to head’s tip with you in the button position but more action is okay. In either case, you have enough incentive to warrant the risk.

If you have to resort to disaster plans, naturally your chances of winning are diminished. It will take more than one hand to get back into the hunt, but by playing every opportunity correctly, you stand the best chance to make money on a regular basis.

There is a saying that fits very well here: Most players don’t plan to fail, they just fail to plan. Live game strategy is not the same as tournament strategy. Good players in live games have developed a style that is profitable for live games.

However, tournaments have factors such as increasing blinds and bets, table movement, forced seating and so forth that create a whole new set of factors. Without adequate preparation, only luck will enable a player to prevail.

Sometimes a bad card can send a player into desperation play long before it is necessary because he does not have a good idea of his expectations.

Also, knowing that there is time allows for relaxation that conserves energy for later rounds and prevents forced errors that waste chips.

Is it any wonder that tournament pros win a higher percentage of times? I don’t think so.