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Head Games: The Keys to Success and the Pitfalls to Avoid as a Tournament Poker Professional

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: May 15, 2013


The Pros: Paul Volpe, Erika Sands, David “The Maven” Chicotsky, and Blair Rodman

Craig Tapscott: What do you believe are the most important keys to being a successful tournament professional?

Paul Volpe: The two main things would be practice and bankroll management. In order to play big buy-in events you should have played tons of hands. Lots of online play is usually the answer to getting your fundamentals and skills where they need to be. Another important thing is playing these tourneys with enough money or getting backing if you don’t have the bankroll. I see too many tourney pros playing $10,000 buy-ins with $80,000 to their name. I’m not sure what the exact amount is, but you should probably have about 100 buy-ins for the tourneys you decide to play in. Another thing I would add is work ethic. You have to play a lot to keep your game sharp to beat the big buy-ins. You can’t just show up after not playing for two months and expect to win. You have to stay sharp. If you are playing smaller stakes part-time you might be able to get away with it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Erika Moutinho Sands: Being a successful tournament professional can be extremely difficult. I believe the most important keys to doing so are maintaining life balance and being a healthy individual, practicing a strong work ethic, and having good bankroll management. To be successful at almost anything, you need to have balance. Tournament poker can be extremely grueling and taxing on both the mind and body. Living a healthy lifestyle and taking time away from the game to cultivate relationships, spend time with family, have fun, workout and rest your mind is a huge part of becoming successful in tournament poker. I strongly believe another crucial component of being a successful tournament player is your desire to improve and learn. Poker is a game that is always changing and your game needs to actively change with it. Like anything else, practice is an extremely important component in becoming a better poker player and you need to be willingly to put in the time.

David “The Maven” Chicotsky: Without a doubt I believe understanding the ins and outs of chip stacks to be the main key to success in tournaments. Knowing when to reraise all-in or open-push all-in (as well as when not to) can’t be overstated. I look at it as if I’m a chip-stack manager, of both my chips as well as the chip stacks of the other players at the table. Many times the chip stacks will help dictate the correct play at hand; taking away a lot of the grey area where we don’t know what to do. Chip stacks will also influence our sizing when making bets or reraises. It’s important to understand there is a relationship between your stack and the pot, alongside the other stacks at the table.

Blair Rodman: When I played my first tournament, the entire tournament schedule consisted of the 2-3 weeks of the WSOP. Period. There was no such thing as a tournament professional, and tournament strategy was unrefined, to say the least. Fast forward to today, where poker’s an international game and there’s a live tournament somewhere every day of the year, not to mention on the Internet. The modern tournament tour is a grueling undertaking, with extensive travel, long schedules and multi-day events. The full-time tournament pro must be in top shape, both physically and mentally. Proper nutrition, exercise, meditation and sufficient sleep are vital to long-term success. The scope and depth of knowledge about tournament play has advanced greatly since the early days, especially after the poker explosion of 2003. The successful pro must stay on top of cutting-edge knowledge and strategies by immersing himself in books, forums, teaching sites, and discussions with fellow pros, while endeavoring to develop a playing style and approach that suits him and will give him an edge over the competition. With all the great minds in the modern poker world, the successful pro must be dedicated to his craft. 

Craig Tapscott: What pitfalls to a successful career in tournament poker have you personally experienced (or witnessed) as major setbacks and how have you overcome them? 

Paul Volpe: As we talked about in the first part, one of the biggest downfalls of any pro is bankroll management. Not only am I talking about poker but other components of money management are also important. When traveling from city to city or country to country you should try and save as much as possible. Look for the cheapest flights and book as far in advance if possible. When booking places to stay in each city try and find someone to room with. Another huge part of this would be never gamble in the pits. This is a huge leak for so many poker pros and really crushes a lot of people’s bankrolls. The second thing is to continue to play well on downswings. People tend to play different and play bad when losing a lot. Tournament poker can be brutal and you have to learn to deal with the swings. Keep practicing and play the way you play best.

Erika Moutinho Sands: I have both witnessed and experienced setbacks in having a successful tournament poker career. When I first started playing poker, I was too emotionally attached and I had a hard time controlling my emotions. It was extremely difficult for me to become emotionally detached from the results and often times I let it affect the way I played. Overcoming this pitfall took a while but with the help of my husband, David Sands, I was able to separate my emotions from the outcome of particular hands and tournaments and recognize that much of what happened at the table was out of my control. Once I was able to become more emotionally detached from the final outcome of a given tournament, I found it easier to focus on individual decisions I was faced with at the table. Consequently my play improved. When I was struggling to maintain emotional stability after busting tournaments, David reminded me that the payout structure of tourneys simply dictates that you are going to lose far more often than you are going to win in a given event. Keeping this in mind has enabled me to better deal with losing. Poker can be extremely disappointing at times and you have to be prepared to set those disappointments aside and play your best knowing that. It is nearly impossible to be successful in tournament poker if you let your emotions get in the way of your game. Another setback that affects a great deal of tournament players is overwork and wearing yourself thin. It’s very easy to burn yourself out with the fast paced lifestyle of a poker player. I have seen players who are constantly traveling and playing tournaments who never take any time away from the game. I find, most of the time, these players are exhausted, not as sharp as they could be and aren’t enjoying themselves as much. It’s important to remember there will always be another tournament, if you are not feeling sharp and at your best, listen to your mind and body and take a break.

David “The Maven” Chicotsky: Playing too loose or too tight deep in tournaments. There are several instances when I played too loose or too tight deep in a tournament, costing myself a ton of money in the process. Just like with most things in life – too much of one thing is usually bad. In tournament poker, that same axiom holds true for the most part. If you have a tendency to freak out and play too loose or get overly scared and crawl into your shell – it’s going to cost you big time. I’m not a huge believer in playing balanced per se (because if the table is tight you really should play looser and vice versa), but when you step over the line for the most part you are going to get punished.

Blair Rodman: The major pitfall in all gambling is failing to understand the extreme nature of variance. In tournaments, a very high-variance endeavor, the effects can be exacerbated. A player who’s running really good might start to feel bulletproof and act accordingly, perhaps forgoing sleep for eating badly, drinking and partying late. Or maybe he starts to seek more variance in his play, feeling that he has a better chance of winning all-important races than is the reality. This can extend to the way a player on a good run handles the money that seemed to come so easily. Staking numerous players, excess spending, bad investments, playing tournaments and cash games that are too high for his bankroll can eat up cash in a hurry, perhaps leaving him scrambling for buy-ins. On the other hand, a player running bad might start to question himself and begin to change things in his play that shouldn’t be changed. It’s like a golf swing; change the wrong thing and it sets off a chain-reaction and all of a sudden you’re lost. If temper or tilt’s an issue, a good player might allow a natural run of variance to drive him from the game. Understanding and learning how to handle variance is a key to every player’s long term success. A good place to start is an excellent book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called Fooled by Randomness, in which he puts a lot of things in perspective.  ♠