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Back in the Winner’s Circle

by Matthew Hilger |  Published: Dec 24, 2014

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Matthew HilgerWhen you live in Atlanta and the nearest live poker tournament is a good five to six hours away and online poker has been banned, it makes it tough to find a game and keep sharp. I had always used online poker to prepare for live tournaments, and when that went away, it was difficult to justify long poker trips when my game was quite rusty. Essentially, for three years I played very little poker and not a single live tournament.

This past April, I moved to the Isle of Man to accept a job at PokerStars as Head of VIP and Poker Promotions. For over 10 years, I was a vendor, affiliate, and player of PokerStars and now had an opportunity to work for the best online poker site in the world. Being in the Isle of Man also gave me the opportunity to get back to my passion of playing poker. Obviously, we aren’t allowed to play for real money at PokerStars or FullTiltPoker, but we are allowed to play at competitors’ sites. We also are able to play some live poker events.

Recently, the United Kingdom and Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT) had a visit to the Isle of Man and employees were allowed to participate. To kick off the event, there was a Staff-only tournament where over 100 employees participate for company bragging rights. Wouldn’t it be fun for the new guy to take this down?!

It was a turbo event with blinds increasing every 15 minutes so you had to be prepared to mix it up, and quite quickly. There were some bounties on a few PokerStars Team Pros who were participating including the likes of Chris Moneymaker and Adrienne ‘Talonchick’ Rowsome. Given the difficulty in surviving a turbo event like this and the fact that there was a side event about to start, there was incentive to go for the bounties early. Sure enough, I found myself seated with Rowsome and my luckbox strategy was about to get going. I was in middle position, had Rowsome, who was sitting in the big blind, covered, and I pushed with 9-2 (it was suited). She called with 8-8 and a beautiful nine hit the board.

The blinds kept increasing. I pushed with 5-2 (it was suited) and I got called by some poor guy with 7-7. The flop was 6-4-3 and the drama ended quickly. Before I knew it, I was at the final table and it was five-handed. Three of us ended up getting all-in, and again, luck was on my side, as my opponents both turned over A-Q while I had A-K.

Let’s take a quick look at turbo tournaments. Yes, I got extremely lucky in this tournament in my all-in hands. You essentially have to get lucky with a structure like this. One of the keys to any tournament is the little things you do to build up your stack. This includes simply making the correct decisions post-flop to earn or save an extra bet here and there or in a turbo event, taking down the blinds. These little things add up over the course of a tournament, whether you play a short turbo event or a long event that spans several days.

Let’s look at two simplified scenarios. Let’s say you start off with 1,000 in chips and, in the course of a tournament, you make a few good decisions that increase you stack 20 percent each time, and each of these come before a hand where you get all-in. So you start with 1,000 and make your way up to 1,200 with some good decisions. You now double-up to 2,400. You now build up your stack to approximately 2,900 with a few more good decisions and then double-up to 5,800. Again, a few more decisions get you to 7,000 chips followed by a double-up to 14,000 in chips. Now, compare this to a player who makes a few mistakes, so he is never building his stack. He starts with 1,000, doubles to 2,000, doubles again to 4,000, and doubles one last time to 8,000.

In a turbo event (or any tournament), the difference between 8,000 and 14,000 in chips is significant. I essentially won this tournament by stealing blinds more than my opponents and then by getting lucky when the chips got all-in.

I found myself heads-up with Jennifer Shahade, a mind sports ambassador for PokerStars and the last bounty left in the field. Shahade is a world-class chess player, and when I say world-class—she is a two-time American Women’s Chess Champion. Sure enough, she trapped me with A-A on the button while I was sitting there with 8-2 (it was suited). I flopped a pair of deuces, turned a flush draw, we got all-in, and I hit trips on the river.

This wasn’t a lot of money and it wasn’t a structure to allow for a lot of post-flop play, but it sure was a lot of fun. More importantly, I now have bragging rights with my PokerStars colleagues for the next year. ♠

Matthew is the author of Internet Texas Hold’em, The Poker Mindset, Texas Hold’em Odds and Probabilities, and Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time Volume III. He currently is the Head of VIP and Poker Promotions at PokerStars.