I’ve written articles for PokerStars School with tips for being proactive in tournaments, tips to put yourself in position to win tournaments, and in this series, comparing and contrasting micro versus high stakes tournaments. To conclude this series I was asked to provide 5 tips for playing high stakes tournaments. Since the aim of this article isn’t for the seasoned high stakes player, but rather the player who is having a shot at a buy in that is normally outside of their regular bankroll element, I’m going to approach this from a bit of a “what to expect” direction with these tips. So let’s get on with it, shall we?
Huh, what is this? Of course I have to breath, it’s sort of vital to life! Yes, of course, but I mean this as a reminder to stay both relaxed, and in the moment. The first time you play in a much larger buy in than you’re accustomed to, it’s natural for the nerves to be on edge, you should expect this. One of the ways you can help to keep yourself relaxed and balanced is with some deep breathing. You can do this very inconspicuously at the table, just take a few slow, deep breaths between hands when you fold. You can even close your eyes if you want. The goal is to help you stay mindful and in the moment, will also helping you to remain relaxed and calm.
No, I don’t mean fold everything waiting for aces or kings. In most high stakes tournaments the structure will be quite deep, slow, and forgiving. Still be playing your ranges… don’t nit it up waiting for premiums, nor loosen up because, hey, we’re so deep stacked… you still shouldn’t be calling that raise with 85o. What I mean is, if things aren’t going your way at any point (and let’s be real here, in a long tournament there’s a very good chance things won’t go “your way” at some point), there’s more room to survive it, to continue doing work. So never panic or lose your cool. If you start to tilt, it’s okay to go take a quick walk to get your head back on straight. So you miss a few hands. Maybe a round of blinds? It’s not as devastating as punting off your remaining stack, that’s for sure.
It’s important to be prepared both mentally and physically for a long grind any time you start a tournament, but especially so in a high roller that will require a long time to play, and usually multiple days, particularly live. No matter the format, try to be well rested and at least get a good night’s sleep the night before playing. Eat healthy the night before. Eat something the morning of. Prepare some light snacks for the day. I like to have some protein bars handy whether playing live or online, so if I’m hungry I have something quick at my fingertips that will satisfy that hunger without slowing me down mentally. If live, eat lighter on dinner break. A chicken Caesar salad for example is much better than a big greasy burger and fries that will send you into a food coma at the tables post dinner. If online, you won’t have a dinner break, you’ll have to make your own. Plan ahead for a fast but not heavy meal that you can grab on a regular 5 minute break. In the morning get some light exercise; even a walk is better than nothing. In short, if you think about these things and take care of business pre-game, then you’ll be set up to fully focus on business during the game.
Stay Mentally Strong
It’s important to remember to stay mentally strong during the event. This encompasses multiple things, many of which your opponent’s won’t even consider in advance of game play. Don’t psych yourself out about the buy in, the money in the prize pool, or the opponents you find across the felt from you. Don’t let your ego get involved in the game. Just because that player in seat 8 has 3-bet your last two opens, doesn’t mean she’s gunning for you. The player who just check-raised your river bet likely isn’t trying to mess with your head… they often just have the goods. It’s not your job to start calling those 3-bets out of position with J9, or re-raise the river as a bluff as though you’re playing some form of chicken with the player that just check-raised you. Those desires, when they come, are your ego whispering in your ear. “Don’t let her push you around with those 3-bets.” “This guy is just making a move with his river check-raise, are we going to take that from him?” It’s actually your job to stay focused and make the best decisions you can in the moment, free from emotion or ego. If the player in seat 8 is actually targeting you for 3-bets rather than 3-betting an appropriate range, more will be coming. The proper adjustment is to modify your opening, 3B calling, and 4-bet ranges to counter her strategy… not get out of line right now this hand to show her who’s boss, which often ends up costing you chips and compromising yourself emotionally in the process. Finally, you’re here and you deserve to be here… don’t let self-doubt sabotage your efforts. If you make a mistake, like defending that J9 out of position vs. a 3-bet and it costs you some chips, it’s critical to shake it off and move on. You can brow beat yourself later if you really want to, but right now there’s work to be done. A new hand is coming. You can’t change the mistake you just made, but you can control your future decisions to try and avoid making additional mistakes. Keep your head in the game and your emotions out of it.
This one is just a reminder. Poker is a game, it’s supposed to be fun! We sometimes lose sight of this when the pressure is on. But it’s as important as ever to remember so we don’t end up making mistakes or altering our game to be too tight, too loose, too risk adverse, too wild, etc simply because of the pressure of the moment. If this is your first high stakes tournament, it may be a shot or a bucket list game, and that’s okay… stay in control of yourself but enjoy the experience! Don’t let the experience control you.
High stakes tournaments are fun, exciting, energizing, stressful, daunting, and a whole host of other experiences and emotions all rolled into one. You’ve done the work away from the tables to prepare yourself to compete to the best of your ability. Spending some time in pre-game preparation and staying focused and in control during play will help give you the best possible chance for a deep run. Enjoy!
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What’s your top tip for playing high stakes tournaments?