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Keys to Tournament Selection: Location, Location, Location

by Bernard Lee |  Published: Feb 08, 2012

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Bernard Lee“So, what events are coming up for you?” we often hear the announcers ask the poker pros. As the New Year begins, many pro players look at the various poker tours’ schedules to choose which tournaments they will play throughout the year. How do the pros decide which tournaments to play in? Players utilize a variety of personal criteria in determining which events to play. Commonly, the pros look for larger field sizes (which mean increased prize pools), prestige of the title (such as World Series of Poker bracelet), television coverage, and cash game side action. Tournaments that match these characteristics often revolve around a poker series with a larger buy-in main event, such as the World Poker Tour, European Poker Tour and, of course, World Series of Poker.

Amateurs often decide to venture into their first poker tournaments by emulating their favorite pros and travel to the same events. These novice players often plan their initial tournament forays to common poker destinations such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City or California. After their introductory trips, they commonly relate disappointing stories of their own play. More importantly, they describe professional or local players playing stellar poker, as they utilized different styles and were able to make multiple adjustments at the table. Upon retuning home, their discouraging experiences often temper these players’ excitement in playing live tournament poker and may limit their future travels. In the end, I would have recommended that these players chose other locales – ones that do not follow the regular pro players’ schedule.

I was prompted to write this column when I recently received the following email:
“Congratulations on your 2011, Bernard. I’m a regular listener of your radio show. I enjoy your discussions on tournament poker and your player interviews, especially with the November Nine members, year after year.

I’ve been playing (poker) for three years now and have done pretty well at home (tournaments) and local charity events. I want to take a shot at playing this year in a real pro poker tournament.

I saw from Cardplayer.com that you have played in tournaments all across the country. Where would you think I should start playing? I’m sure one of your answers will be Vegas but where else? I’d appreciate any thoughts that you might have for me.”

In responding to his email, I wrote that Las Vegas would actually not have been the first place I would have chosen for him. For his first “real pro” event, I would choose a tournament that was not located in Las Vegas, Atlantic City or even California for the reasons that follow. First, these specific locations have many professional poker players who live there. Next, there are numerous local players, who may not travel the country playing a full-time tournament schedule, but have tremendous experience. Based on their proximity, these local players have honed their skills in dozens of weekly tournaments against solid competition, including the local pros. Additionally, since the tours have had stops in these locations for many years, numerous local players have already had multiple opportunities to play in “real pro” tournaments previously.

Finally, since the field sizes and prize pools are often higher as compared to other events, more traveling pros will potentially show up and play in these events (including the lower buy-in preliminary events), once again increasing the chances of playing against stiffer competition.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, you may want to challenge yourself and play against the very best players in the world. However, unless this tournament is an once-in-a-lifetime event, wouldn’t you first want to have some previous experience before you step into the ring with the best players in the world?

Let’s use another sport, such as golf, as an example. If you were a low single-digit handicap player and regularly won your local country club tournament, you may want to branch out and challenge yourself against stiffer competition. However, it would be impractical for you to try to compete immediately on the PGA tour, where they are all significantly better than scratch golfers. More realistically, you would play initially in some smaller golf tours or regional events. These tournaments would allow you to gain valuable experience and, perhaps more importantly, confidence in order for you to hopefully compete one day against the very best players in the world.

The same analogy should hold true for the game of poker.

Therefore, my suggestion for your first “real pro” event would be a World Series of Poker Circuit event (not in Las Vegas, Atlantic City or California), a Heartland Poker Tour event, or a regional deep stack event. The buy-ins will be smaller, but the field sizes will be solid enough for you to experience “real pro” tournament poker. Additionally, your odds of performing better should increase and you may be able to build your confidence as well.

Please note that my recommendation is not meant to offend the players who play at these venues. There are numerous solid poker players at each of these tour stops.

Nevertheless, I do not think it is inaccurate to state that the average caliber of this field is relatively lower than at a similar field at a World Poker Tour event at the Bellagio.

In addition to amateurs, I would also recommend this strategy to aspiring full-time tournament pros players. Instead of only playing in the typical pro schedule, add some of these regional events to your schedule. If you truly believe in your abilities, you could attend these tournaments to gain some additional experience, confidence and possibly cash to build up your bankroll before you head to the bigger tour venues, especially the World Series of Poker this summer.

And, in case you were wondering, I do practice what I preach.

Although I do play in many of the big poker events throughout the year, I still regularly attend World Series of Poker Circuit events (in 2011, I played at Chester, Pennsylvania; Bossier City, Louisiana; and Elizabeth, Indiana) and Heartland Poker Tour events (Quapaw, Oklahoma; Gary, Indiana; Verona, New York; Black Hawk, Colorado; and Mt. Pleasant, Michigan). In 2011 alone, I cashed in four of these events for almost $70,000.

These tournaments may not fit the initial “pro” criteria that we discussed at the beginning of this column. However, I truly feel that I have gained invaluable experience and confidence at these locations, which I have taken with me to regular tour stops.
So, the next time you are looking for a place to play, don’t focus on the usual suspects. Think about playing in places like Bossier City, Louisiana or Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Bernard Lee is the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal, weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald, ESPN.com, author of “The Final Table, Volume I and II” and radio host of “The Bernard Lee Poker Show,” which can be found on RoundersRadio.com or via podcast on iTunes. Follow Bernard Lee on Twitter: @BernardLeePoker or visit him at www.BernardLeePoker.com.