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The Poker Player’s Manifesto: Tournament Poker Paradigm

by Bryan Devonshire |  Published: Jan 07, 2015


Bryan DevonshireI think whoever invented tournament poker was simply playing a trick on the fish to get them to play higher stakes. It worked, brilliantly. Most people spend way too much than they typically should on a poker tournament because it feels like they are not spending that much. Due to the top heavy nature of poker tournament payouts, investing less into a tournament is optimal. I’m comfortable with five percent of my bankroll on the table in a cash game, but I’m starting to get squeamish when a tournament buy-in is two percent of my bankroll. Today we’ll talk about how we as poker players should go about managing our approach to tournament poker.

At The World Series of Poker, people get a starting stack of chips equal to three times their buy-in. In a $1,500 no-limit hold’em preliminary event, players start with 4,500 in chips, and in the main event, players start with 30,000. In day one, we hit the 150-300 level with an ante of 25, and we’re essentially playing a cash game with blinds of $50-$100 and an ante of eight bucks. When we reach the money in the main event on day four, the average stack will be 300,000, equivalent to about $100,000 in entry fees. At the final three tables, that average stack will be simply a big blind, ten crushed dreams, and a really big big blind when you consider how much money is actually being played for.
At this point you might be thinking, but Devo, what about Independent Chip Model (ICM)? Fine, you got me. When you’re playing $150,000-$300,000 at the WSOP main event, you’re not actually playing $50,000-$100,000 no-limit hold’em, it’s closer to $30,000-$60,000. My bad.

If you’ve never heard of ICM before, it’s an important aspect of tournament poker and seeks to quantify equities in tournament poker, since chips have no cash value. If you double up a tournament poker stack, your odds of winning the tournament do not double linearly, instead chips won are worth less than chips already possessed. That’s another book for another time, but not addressing ICM in an article about tournament poker mindset would be ignorant.

The point is that people play really high stakes poker deep in tournaments and never really think about it that way, they treat it more as a contest than a cash game and kinda forget that the whole goal of poker is to liberate your opponents of their betting discs while screwing your own to the table and not losing them. If you don’t understand cash game fundamentals, then you will not be as good at tournaments, just like not understanding tournament fundamentals makes you worse at tournaments.

So, the most important thing we can do as a tournament poker player to set ourselves up for success is to keep our tournament buy-ins at a reasonable level. I say this is most important because even the best become paralyzed when they are playing with scared money. If you’re just trying to cash, then you are doing it wrong. You should always be seeking to maximize your equity and that means trying to win the tournament from the first hand.
Now, this doesn’t make it optimal to play like a maniac from the first hand under the guise of, “I’m trying to win the tournament.” I’ve made a lot of deep runs thanks to a big bluff, but I’ve made more deep runs thanks to a good fold. It simply means that the wet blanket of scared money restricts poker players from playing their best. It’s really hard to win a poker without playing your best. It’s really hard to win at poker period. It is really easy to lose at poker though, and especially when no-limit hold’em is a game that requires you to have a noose around your neck to sit at the table. I’ve seen players countless times play poker really well for a really long time and then punt their stack on some poor decision. One second-long mistake can completely unravel days of work on a poker table.

It is therefore nearly as important to go into a poker tournament rested and focused as it is to play at a buy-in level you are comfortable with. If you are not focused on the poker tournament, then you will not be winning that poker tournament. I don’t mean that you have to exert maximum energy paying attention to every moment of a poker tournament, but I mean that you need to be able to focus maximum energy at any given time for the duration of the event. If you have distractions at home, then your desire to not bust will be compromised. Furthermore, if there are distractions outside, then you probably will be more willing to bust. The worst tournament performances of my career have come in the Caribbean Sea on tropical islands. Oh you’re all-in? I can fold, call and double up, or call and go outside and explore some island I’ve never been to? I call. Nice hand. I managed to break that streak last month though, winning a tournament on a cruise ship. Turns out that I’m much more focused without distractions!

Now that you’ve set yourself up for success by buying in at a comfortable level and being 100 percent ready for the tournament, you are able to play your best. If your best is terrible, then you’re still going to lose. Therefore, you should probably work on your game, and you’re probably working on your game if you are reading this article. So good job. Online training sites have been and will continue to be the best bang for your buck if you’re spending on a learning method. Reading everything you can is good, even if the information is bad, because you should disagree with other player’s opinions if you want to be good at poker. Nothing can replace the role of friends though, and those friends should be at least as good as you if not better. If you’re hanging out with bad poker players, then you will probably get worse at poker. Discuss the game and the problems you come across while playing and constantly be working to improve.

Then go win a poker tournament! ♠

Bryan Devonshire has been a professional poker player for nearly a decade and has more than $2 million in tournament earnings. Follow him on Twitter @devopoker.