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Head Games: Proper Planning Increases a Top Three Final Table Performance With Blair Rodman, Jason Wheeler, and Chris Hunichen

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Sep 03, 2014


Craig Tapscott: Before you sit down at a final table, what are some of the things you do to be prepared mentally and physically to win an event or finish top three?

Blair Rodman: In the old days (pre-Internet, that is), the bad news was that my ability to gather data on opponents was pretty limited. The good news was that the universe of players was fairly small and I usually knew and had history with most of the players at a final table. If there were players I didn’t know, it was pretty easy to determine their experience level if I asked a few pointed questions before kicking off the final table.
Today, it’s easy to find opponents’ tournament histories online. I want to know their age, where they live, and how far back their cashes go to determine whether they’re old-schoolers or new-schoolers. I also want to see their history of cashes, what size events they have cashed in, where they do most of their playing, and whether they have a lot of wins or just seem to make final tables but don’t go for the kill.

Naturally I want to be as rested as possible, but the way events are scheduled today the final table is usually the final leg of a marathon and I need to count on adrenaline to get through. I try to avoid sugars and simple carbs before I play, focusing on proteins that will give me sustained energy. A meditation session helps too, if I can find the time.

Jason Wheeler: There are several things that I do to give myself the best shot at winning. One of the first things I do is examine the table draw. Examining the table draw consists of many factors. First, I look up any player names that I do not know at the table utilizing online databases. From this information you can usually gather whether they are recreational or professional, tournament or cash, live or online and whether they had a level of success over their career and past 12 months. 

For players whom I recognize play tournament or cash poker professionally, I’ll usually have a few conversations with some of my tournament or cash game friends about the player, what stakes he has been playing, their opinion on the player, and general tendencies, etcetera.

Once I have an idea of who everyone is and generally how they are going to play, I move on to the actual layout of the final table itself. This is where I look at who has position on whom, what the relative stack sizes are, what the Independent Chip Model (ICM) pay jumps are and how the three are going to work together to impact game play and options for each player. 

I also try to get a lot of rest before the final table, but the reality is I am usually too excited to sleep nearly as well as I would like. For the past six months, I have forced myself to wake up a few hours before the tournament instead of last minute and have a fresh green juice and then go to the gym for a good workout. I find that I feel much more alert at the table and my energy levels are stable throughout the day instead of all over the place when I used to drink caffeinated sodas all the time. I’ve seen too many players go out the night before and try to come in and play their A-game on no sleep and it almost never goes well. 

Chris Hunichen: During the night before the final table I always look for the posted table draws to see who is going to be in which seats and with what stack sizes. I usually then Google the players that I have never heard of and look to see if they have any other good past results and which players I feel might be the weakest at the table that I would want to attack the most.

I also try not to eat late or too heavy the night before and usually eat a very light breakfast in the morning. I am a big believer in limiting the amount of food you eat while playing important stages of tournament poker, because the more you eat, the more energy your body uses to break down and digest the food. This can cause you to lose a lot of focus on what is important, and with MTTs, just one mistake can cost you an entire tournament. I feel it’s much better to eat an extremely light breakfast, or no breakfast at all and just randomly snack while playing. When dinner break comes, I try to eat a very small dinner early on in the break or sometimes even eat the level before dinner break. That way during the break I can use the entire break to relax and allow my food to digest so that when the break is complete I am back to a full 100 percent recharge.

Craig Tapscott: Let’s say you come into the table with a top-three stack. What are some of the key things or situations you are looking to take advantage of?

Blair Rodman: If I have a top-three stack I use the data I gathered to make a game plan. If my opponents who are not in the top three, or even if they are, have a final table record of few wins and a lot of less than top three cashes, I assume they adhere pretty closely to ICM and are subject to being bullied. If they have primarily wins or top threes and few other final table finishes, the opposite is probably true. If their results include final tables at WSOP events, I can find the hand-by-hand reports and do a deeper investigation. Of course, once play begins I watch closely to see if my original analysis is accurate, and if not, I need to make some on the fly adjustments, as I will against opponents who have little tournament history for me to go on.

My heads-up opponent was unknown to me when I won my bracelet in 2007, for example. He had zero recorded tournament results leading up to this final table and I really didn’t have a feeling for what he was capable of in this situation, which is one of the main questions you must ask yourself about any opponent. I tried to bully him early in the heads-up, thinking I could run over him and beat him down. The problem was he wasn’t as docile as I hoped, often playing back at me or betting when I checked. I didn’t know if he was holding a lot of hands or if he was outplaying me. My lead had evaporated and I needed some time to figure him out, so I started playing small ball, limping in a lot of spots where I would usually raise, hoping to get a better line on his play. He started limping also, so we played more of a postflop game, giving me bit more time to figure him out, and fortunately I prevailed in the end.

Jason Wheeler: As a top three stack, I am definitely one of the leaders at the table instead of one of the followers. To a large degree, the larger chip stacks decide whether most of the action at the table is decided preflop or postflop. This means that I can dictate at least somewhat the way the table is going to play out. 

The way that I will try to direct the game flow will depend highly on the opponents at the table, the positions, the pay jumps, and the stack sizes. In cases where I have position on some of the other good players at the table but stack sizes are awkward for everyone involved, I would probably try to utilize my postflop edge more and would see more flops placing pressure on opponents across streets versus inflating pots preflop. However, in this same spot several eliminations later, stack sizes might have changed to allow for more pressure and with pay jumps being larger, it might make more sense to be inflating pots preflop and going all the way with your good hands as opposed to taking the hand postflop and having to deal with even tougher decisions. 

We are just one of the stacks that influence play and our best efforts to direct game play one direction can always be countered by another stack trying to push it the other way. I just think it is important to note that as a bigger stack, you have some influence on game flow and it is in your best interests to direct it towards your comfort zone.
As a general rule of thumb I am looking for the players who are trying to climb the pay ladder and for the players who could care less. The game plan for the players trying to climb the ladder is simple; push them around. The game plan for the players who care less can range from avoiding them to relentlessly attacking them. Both of them are players that we can and have to exploit if we plan on finishing in the top three. 

Chris Hunichen: I will identify which players are short stacked and which players I think are the weakest at the table. If I have a lot of chips I will usually attack the shorter stacks, because often times they are in an all-in or fold situation. If there are multiple short stacks that are all playing extremely tight hoping to climb up the payouts, I will also sometimes make marginal folds to keep short stacks in play instead of busting them and allowing the others to play a little harder. Sometimes it can be more profitable to keep multiple short stacks in, than it is to eliminate the players from the table and build your chip stack. 

Usually I will try to stay away from the big stacks at the table, unless they are weak players, of course. I will just attack the big stacks when I have big hands. I also like to attack players who have just lost multiple pots in a row. I feel like these players get frustrated and even though most would think they would tilt off quickly, I feel that they tend to be more scared to play big pots right after they just lost multiple decent size pots in a row. This allows you to three-bet them wider and more often or simply just play more hands in position and own them postflop. The most important thing when nursing a big stack at the final table is to simply apply pressure while making no mistakes. ♠

Blair Rodman has been an all-round professional gambler for more than 30 years. He’s in the top 40 on the all-time WSOP cashes list, and won a bracelet in 2007, and has more than $2.5 million in tournament winnings. He co-authored the seminal tournament strategy book – Kill Phil.

Jason Wheeler is a former financial consultant and turned to poker when he was laid off during the banking crisis. He won CardPlayer’s online player of the year for 2011. Wheeler has combined tournament online and live cashes of more than $7.4 million.

Chris Hunichen graduated from East Carolina University and completed a master’s degree in business management. He has more than $6.5 million in combined online and live career tournament cashes.