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Keeping Your Eye On The Ball

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Jul 10, 2013


Steve ZolotowAs I write this column, the World Series of Poker is in full swing. About a third of the sixty-plus events have taken place. I have played eight events, and managed to cash twice, but for infinitesimal amounts. I also won a single table sit-n-go, and ground out a few dollars in cash games. After all that, I’m still hooked! Wow, poker is tough. In most WSOP bracelet events, you get three dollars in tournament chips for every dollar of entry fee.

Nearly all of the events I’ve played so far have had buy-ins of either $1,000 or $1,500. So my normal starting stack has ranged from 3,000 to 4,500 in chips. After the early levels come two levels where the blinds are 100-200. The first of these levels has no ante and the second has a 25 ante. Assuming no big changes in your stack during the early levels, you have somewhere in the range of twenty big blinds during these levels. This means that you are pot committed whenever you three-bet preflop. For example, someone raises to 550 in middle position. You are on the button and decide to three-bet to 1,600, you are pretty much committed to calling a shove. In fact, especially during the level with antes, you should probably shove yourself. This type of shove limits your opponents’ options to calling or folding. In general, with 20 or so big blinds, I am happy to get all-in preflop with hands like A-K or 10-10, which rate to be ahead of my opponents’ ranges.

On Sunday June 9, I played a $1,000 no-limit tournament in the afternoon. I got all-in with A-K against my opponents two jacks, and lost the race. I felt mildly unlucky, but didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong. By this time, the 5 p.m. tournament had started. This one was a $5,000 pot-limit hold’em event. I felt I had been playing well, and I was reasonably rested so I decided to go for it and enter. As a late entrant, I didn’t fully adjust to how different this event was from the earlier one. The $1,000 had over 2,000 entrants, many of whom were relatively weak, and a starting stack of 3,000.

The $5,000 event had fewer than 200 entrants, and very few could be considered weak, and a starting stack of 15,000. Shortly after I arrived at the table, we reached the 100-200 level. I picked up A-K suited. Some evil demon in the back of my minds was telling me I wasn’t going to lose with it twice in one day, and I proceeded to three-bet and ended up getting all-in preflop. Even though my suited A-K was better than the unsuited one I’d had in the afternoon, I was now more likely to be against a better player with a better hand. I was getting all-in with 75 big blinds, not with 20. This opponent, not unexpectedly, had aces. I could have saved most of my stack by folding to his four-bet early in the hand. If I had just called the initial raise preflop, I would have gotten in trouble when a king flopped, but again I would have had a good chance to save half of my stack. It is embarrassing to report hands where I make major blunders, but it is really very instructive to examine both the actual mistake I made and the circumstances that caused it. I think the combination of the late entry into an on-going tournament without really taking time to consider my stack size or my opponent’s ability caused me to take my eye off the ball.

The lesson to take home is that you must always stay focused. The effective stack sizes and their relation to antes and blinds are crucial to determining appropriate tactics and strategies. You must be aware of your opponent, and his skill level. It seems like this advice should be both obvious and easy to follow, but after a week of twelve-hour days, it is all too easy to slip up and take your eye off the ball. ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years. With 2 WSOP bracelets and few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at some major tournaments and playing in cash games in Vegas. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A in New York City -The Library near Houston and Doc Holliday’s on 9th St. are his favorites.