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Maria Konnikova | Preparing for a Live Poker Tournament

Preparing for a Long Tournament Day – Your Body

This sounds really stupid and the first time I heard it, I didn't think it could possibly be helpful, but this has been some of the most useful advice I've ever received, eat well and to exercise. If you talk to the top high stakes pros who regularly make final tables and win these tournaments, you'll see that they have quite intense fitness regimes. Every single day while playing at these tournaments, they find time to exercise and fit that into their routine. You're going to be sitting at a table for long hours, and it's incredibly difficult to concentrate and to play well if you're in bad physical condition.

I make sure that every single day, no matter what, no matter how tired I am, that I do yoga. At the PCA National, the tournament that I won, I played for 3 days straight and was really high on adrenaline. I needed to maximize my sleep, so I found ways to modify my yoga routine, which usually takes an hour, to 15 minutes. This enabled me to get as much as sleep as possible while still having a form of exercise.



Eat well: it has been said hundreds of times, but the truth is, if you can eat well, that really helps your brain. There's been a lot of physiological and psychological research on the connection between your body and your brain. It's not just exercising your body that matters; it's also what you put into to it.
 

Mind & Emotional State

I try to mediate for at least 10 minutes each day. If you're new to meditation, there are lots of apps available to help you, like Head Space. Fedor Holz also has an app called Primed Mind that was developed with poker players in mind. There are lots of things out there geared specifically towards poker players, to help with mindset, and all it takes is around 10 minutes a day.

If you've not mediated before, try to start practicing before you get to the event. Try to have your full routine ready before you get to the event.

Bonus Tip: Green Tea has a substance in it called L-theanine which is really good for your mental state.

Sleep is equally important; it's so tempting at the end of Day 1 when your adrenaline is pumping to go out and "unwind". But this will not do you any favours. Get a nice, healthy dinner, go back to your room, and get some sleep. Try to get as much sleep as you can, because that's what's going to keep you sharp.

By taking care of your body, you'll gain an edge on players who are not sleeping well, partying too late, eating poorly. You will be shocked at how much of an edge that gives you.

Dealing with Tilt

Step 1:

Firstly, you need to figure out when and why you tilt, it could be:
  • When you receive a bad beat?
  • When you misplay a hand?
  • When someone tries to talk to you or when they are ignoring you? Is it one specific person?
  • When you win a big pot and start playing irrationally?
It's important to realise that tilt doesn't necessarily mean negative emotions. It just means you're using emotions in your decision making. For some people, the worst tilt comes when they are winning and then they make huge mistakes because they have all these chips to play with.
#HappyTilt

Step 2:

Then, you must figure out what to do when you start feeling this way, and what it does to your decision making:
  • Do you start becoming risk adverse?
  • Do you start becoming more risk seeking?
If you feel like you're acting emotionally and no longer able to think through your decisions at the table, step away from the table take a break. If you are feeling angry, frustrated, tired, anything that's going to affect your game in a bad way, just take a short 5-minute break, go outside get some air.

Yeah, you're going to miss a few hands, but statistically it's not going to be Aces, and if it is, let's hope it was one of those 20% times where statistically they would have been cracked. So those 5 minutes may have saved you from not only yourself but also a bad beat.
 

Learn to Identify when other players are on Tilt

When an opponent goes on tilt, they react in different ways.
  1. Some players will start playing lots of hands, they want to win back their chips right away.
  2. Other players will become protective and stop playing any hands.
This is where strategy comes in. You're going to adjust the way you play and play incredibly differently against these two types of opponents.

If an opponent on tilt is playing too many hands, you can start to play around with them, 3bet them lighter, making bigger raises when you hit your hand. If they become more protective and tighten up (e.g. they have not played a hand in an hour), now may not be the time to 3bet them.

Adding adjusting to tilt to your strategy will really open you up to a new part of your game. It's also worth remembering that your opponents are also going to see how you handle tilt and adjust to any changes in your game.

Playing against Pros

Some people fear a professional poker player joining their table in tournament. But you should consider yourself lucky. It's actually a great opportunity, especially at the start of a tournament when the blinds are deep and you can easily avoid playing against them, to learn from the best.

Observe them, see what they are doing:
  • See what they do that makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • How are they putting other people in tough spots?
  • Why are those tough spots?
  • What are those people doing wrong to get in those tough spots?
  • How do they accumulate chips?
  • How do they avoid going broke?
Analyse their behaviour and see what you can learn from it, to take your game to the next level. See what you can incorporate into your own game. This type of attitude will help you get over any nerves, too.
 
"Patience and observation are two of the most undervalued skills in poker."

If you find yourself bored at a poker table, you're not taking in enough information. If you are truly observing your opponents and taking notes in your mind, there will be no time to be bored. So, my challenge to you is to observe more and never get bored.  
 

Live Tells

Personally, I do not advise wearing sunglasses, I think you actually miss out on more information than you "hide". Here it from a psychologist's point of view about deception: your eyes are actually the least important thing to hide.

People are very good at controlling their faces, because that's what we are used to controlling the most. We are much worse at controlling other parts of our body. You'll be giving off much more information other ways, such as:
  • How you're sitting
  • Your posture
  • Your Hands
  • Your Feet
  • The way you handle your chips
  • The way you breathe
So, when you're covering your eyes with sunglasses, it impedes your vision to spot some of the tells above, but doesn't really help cover up any tells.

Be Aware of your Table Image (AND ADJUST)

One time, I sat down at table and within the first hour I was dealt pocket Aces three times and Kings twice. I was just being dealt big hands (i.e., hit in the face with the deck). But because I was not going to showdown and players couldn't see my hands, everyone thought I was a maniac. I was literally 3betting, 4betting, even 5 betting most pots, so my image was totally crazy. Now that they think I'm crazy, I can totally exploit that.

On the other side, I can sit down at a table and be totally card dead, and everyone at the table thinks I'm really tight, when in actual fact I'm just having to fold 72o, J3o, etc. I can exploit this by 3betting with a wider range of hands.
 
 
"see yourself from the other players point of view"

The point is to notice your table image, and use this to your advantage. If people think you're loose, you can over bet your monster hands. If people think you're tight, you can loosen up your 3bet range.

Every 30 minutes I'll do a mental inventory on myself:
  • How many hands have I played?
  • How many hands have gone to showdown?
  • What have people been able to see about me?
  • How are they likely viewing me, based on that information?  
 

Engage with other Players

Talking with other players at the table not only makes the day more fun and makes the day go faster, but also helps you pick up a ton of information on them. You may find out that they are really stressed or happy about something away from the table, which will affect their game.

It can also help you avoid tilt, because if someone is being a jerk to you and you know the reason is not about you, it helps because you won't take it personally.

Dynamics can change when players start talking at the table. I sat down at a miserable table once, then a new player joined, and within an hour the whole table was laughing and having fun. Some of the players said that's the most fun they've had a table, and that's what poker's about, in the end, having fun.
 
   

Other Live Poker Tournament Tips

Bluffing - If you're never caught bluffing, then you're not bluffing enough. I used to be embarrassed when I was caught bluffing, turning over 4 high. Now when I'm caught bluffing I'll smile and proudly turn over my 4 high, because it means I'm bluffing enough. I'm likely to get paid on my big hands when players see this move.

Hand Breakdowns – When I'm playing, I write down hands every single level. I'll talk through these hands after the event with my coach. In your case, you could post them in forums or hire a coach or talk with friends. Early on, my coach would tell me when I hadn't provided all the correct information for a hand, so I had to get good at breaking down hands quickly and noting a lot of details, like these:
  • The Cards you have.
  • Who's at the table.
  • Your position, villains' position.
  • Who's in the hand.
  • Everyone's chip stack.
  • The blind level.
  • How many hands villain has played in past hour.

On my phone, I'll have a document open, where I'll have everyone's seat and I'll take notes on every player as well, so when I'm writing down hands, I can reference these notes. You could also take pictures of players to remember who's who.



Don't label players too quickly – Earlier I talked about a situation where all the players at the table thought I was a maniac, while in reality I hand a run of really strong hands. If you label an opponent too quickly as a maniac, you could wind up in trouble. You need a big sample size to correctly label opponents.

Don't go Broke whilst Deep Stacked – In turbo tournaments with shorter levels and starting stacks, you'll end up shallow quickly, so you need to make things happens. In deep stacks with 300 Big Blinds and 1-hour levels, you really shouldn't be going broke, unless you're all-in with Aces preflop. A spot that's perfect when you have 50 Big Blinds may be terrible when you have 300 Big Blinds.

Never Just Act – Always take at least 10 seconds before you make a decision, even if that decision is folding. This trains you to never act on reflexes. Always ask yourself, what can I do? And why am I doing it? Otherwise you'll say to yourself, I always raise nut flush draws here, but that 10 seconds can save you from making mistakes. It's easier said than done, but those 10 seconds have stopped me busting many tournaments.

Playing for first time/Dealing with Nerves – The first time I played live I was incredibly nervous. The best thing to do is play some smaller buy-in live tournaments just to get used to the flow of the game. I like to focus on the action and pay attention to the players. Being in the moment and focussing on everything that's going on forces you to get over your nerves.

When you Make a Big Mistake Move on – At the PCA National Final table I started the table as 2nd or 3rd in chips. I made a really big mistake overplaying pockets Aces and ended up as the short stack with 9 players left. My coach was watching and texted me saying something along these lines:
 
"Yes, you made a really big mistake, we can talk about that hand later, but for now forget about it and move on. Focus on what you have, and what your ideal strategy is with this particular chip stack".

If I had focussed on the horrible mistake I made, I would have not been focussing on the game and probably would have busted out in 8th or 9th. So, I adjusted: now, I'm no longer playing deep stacked poker. I'm playing as the short stack. I went on to win the tournament.

Hope I get the chance to sit and play with you at the tables.

Maria Konnikova
PokerStars Team Pro  

 
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