Don’t fail to plan!

May 6, 2003 5:09 AM

The World Series of Poker has been ongoing at Binion’s for the past three weeks, and we’ve seen perennial champions such as Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan and Chris Ferguson flex their muscles with early victories.

Their success begs the question, what single factor distinguishes poker tournament professionals from players who have equal knowledge but somehow don’t win?

Is it experience, timing, luck, patience or what that gives these players an edge?

Of course, there are many factors that determine consistent returns, but perhaps the one component that stands out is preparation.

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, rebuys, 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.

The composition of a large tournament like the World Series 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.

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, etc.

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.

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 raise the pot wars but, with a limited amount of chips, I prefer to look for situations where marginal material is getting five or six-way calling action.

Common sense should tell you that you own a bigger share of the pot, 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 professionals win a higher percentage of times? Just keep watching the World Series for proof of the pudding!