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Head Games: Knowing Your Strengths And Identifying Weakness At The Table

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jul 28, 2021

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The Pros: Vanessa Kade, Jaime Staples, and Andrew Moreno

Craig Tapscott: What are the three biggest strengths a tournament poker player should possess to be successful and why?

Vanessa Kade: 1. Patience and Emotional Control — In tournament poker the biggest challenge is dealing with variance and managing your expectations. Unlike cash games where you get to win most days, tournament players regularly can experience days, or weeks without seeing a profit. Emotionally, this can be very difficult, especially as most of us are very competitive and feel strongly about losing. It’s important to be able to calmly deal with lulls in tournament results, bad beats, and all the factors outside of our control, otherwise we will end up compounding our losses.

2. Honesty and Humility — There’s a lot of ego in poker, and often an inclination to lie to ourselves about our mistakes in order to protect that ego. Nothing holds people back more than the inability to be objective about their play and honest with themselves about their mistakes. When you’re able to openly discuss optimal plays with players you respect, without feeling defensive or digging in if you’re wrong, then you can really start improving.

3. Determination and Effort — You can be profitable without much work, but even if you are extremely smart, naturally very talented, and things generally come easy for you, if you want to be among the best, it requires a lot of effort. A large amount of studying board textures and learning what is considered optimal play with various holdings is unavoidable and understanding a lot of deeper concepts will help you win more, lose less, more accurately estimate your opponent’s hand, construct better bluffs, and find good exploits that you never would on talent alone.

Study can feel slow and tedious, especially if you’re not accustomed to it, but it can also be very rewarding in a relatively short amount of time. A good place to start is to find a coach whose game you respect and book a couple hours for a leak-finding session. Depending on your coach, this could run anywhere from $200 to $1,000, but you can find a lot of leaks that are low-hanging fruit and will enable you to improve a lot, immediately.

Jamie Staples Credit: partypokerJaime Staples: 1. Patience — I mean this in a career and bankroll sense. Poker is extremely volatile. You can’t depend on things to go well over the course of days, weeks, or even months. It doesn’t matter how good you are, chance plays a large role in short-term results. You must be patient with bad outcomes. That’s really important for longevity.

2. Determination — Poker is a hard way to make an easy living. It is a game, but the mental swings you go through along the way are brutal. Continuing to work hard in the face of adversity after regular failure is hard. Continuing to move forward in your career after you have positive variance is also hard. Keeping your head down and getting after it day after day is not a normal thing to do. Tournament players have to be determined. 

3. Extrapolate From One Data Point To Others — An example would be learning the all-in shoving ranges for 10 blinds deep on the button. That’s great. But what about at 15 big blinds? What about from the cutoff instead of the button? It’s impossible for a human to memorize all of the strategies, for all of the positions, all of the time. Getting to know a few fairly well and being able to visualize how they change from position to position, stack size to stack size, without being able to see them is essential. High-level poker players do that very well. It comes with practice, and natural ability. Practice can mostly make up for lack of born talent. But it’s an important skill no matter what.

Andrew Moreno: 1. A Strong Mental Game — I believe that is the single most valuable strength a tournament player can possess. It is the key to advance through each phase of a tournament. Anyone can run good for a stretch and build a stack, but inevitably, adversity will come. The question is when you get unlucky, can you make decisions to preserve your stack and continue to advance?

The best players in the world, not surprisingly, have the strongest mental games. They don’t vary their play based on how things are going in the moment. This may sound obvious, but humans are emotional beings. When your stack oscillates up or down, emotions will follow. Only a trained mind can feel those emotions and not let them affect their play, which is a skill trained off the table.

I always suggest starting a meditation practice to improve your mental game. Meditation will help you bring a quicker awareness of when your emotions are taking over your decision-making processes. Once you are aware, you can take over the logic center of your brain. If meditation isn’t for you, simply get in the habit of taking long slow deep breaths. Intentional breathing has two main benefits. It will help pull you into the present moment and help you calm strong emotions.

2. Courage — Fear is the most common emotion present in tournament poker. As you progress further along in the tournament, the pressure builds, and fear mounts. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is acknowledging fear’s presence and moving forward with what you think is right in the face of that fear. Making courageous plays becomes increasingly difficult as the pressure mounts and the dollar amounts increase exponentially.

3. Knowing When To Gamble, And When Not To — The best tournament players know when to gamble and when to play it safe. Tournament poker is a yin and yang of risk and safety. Play it too safe, and you won’t give yourself a chance to win. Gamble too much, and the odds are that you’ll bust your stack. Finding the correct balance is an art form. Only study, work, and experience will help you here.

Craig Tapscott: What are the biggest weaknesses that you come across most often when evaluating opponents at the table?

Vanessa KadeVanessa Kade: Some common weaknesses include any of the phone-based distractions like watching videos, playing other games, text conversations, and online shopping that prevent you from paying attention to the game. Poor bankroll management, not eating well or getting enough sleep, not bluffing enough, and playing incorrect opening ranges are some other big ones.

That said, ego and entitlement have got to be the single biggest, most consistent weaknesses for poker players, both from a practical or technical standpoint, and a social one. Whether it prevents you from evaluating your mistakes and improving, stops you from folding good hands you know are losing, causes you to play stakes higher than you should, or sometimes act condescending to others and treat them badly – it’s virtually all bad and practicing humility will serve you well. As you improve your game, it’s easy to feel entitled to be winning more, which can lead to more intense frustration surrounding downswings. It’s very important to keep things in perspective and remember that short-term results are not a reflection of recent improvement, and nobody is immune to variance.

Occasionally, some suffer from almost the opposite problem to ego, which is a lack of confidence. And while this doesn’t impede players from improving in the same way an excess of ego does, it can negatively affect them in other ways. Players who lack confidence might struggle with mentally recovering after making a mistake in a tournament. They can tend to be too hard on themselves for hours and sometimes days afterward, and can start to feel as if they don’t deserve to win if they got lucky in a hand. An important thing to remember is that even the best in the world makes mistakes every day. Literally no one plays perfectly.

Jaime Staples: I think the biggest thing is just a knowledge gap. There are a lot of things in poker that aren’t intuitive. For example, going all in from the small blind with K-2 offsuit for 10 blinds, feels wrong. It’s not natural, seems very risky, and is just not an enjoyable experience to an amateur.

Let’s pretend you could give that hand, and that stack depth, to a non-poker player that understood the rules. We poll 100 of them on what action they would like to take. Almost all of them would either call or fold. Shoving all in there, is an unnatural urge. It’s a learned behavior. 

We get to shove all in because… 1. It’s fairly unlikely our opponent has a good enough hand to call. 2. There are blinds and antes in the middle incentivizing us to win the pot. 3. Most of the time our opponent will fold, and we will take that money without having to show our hand. 4. When we do get caught with a not so great hand, we still win sometimes. Combine that with the times they fold preflop, and we make a profit in the long run. 

That’s a very simple example of a learned strategy. A further example that’s more complex would be… What sort of hands should I call a raise with from the big blind at a final table where there is payout pressure? Should it be different than it is with 100 left in the tournament? The answer is yes. Not because we are afraid of the money at stake, but because the risk/reward equation has become more defined, and we get to adjust. Sometimes drastically.

People aren’t born knowing that, or intuitively grasping that. It doesn’t just come to people after they play their 200th tournament. Poker players must study if they wish to go beyond the average. Thankfully in 2021, there are so many great resources to learn these things from players that have had to do the math without help. It’s the golden age of poker knowledge. 

Andrew MorenoAndrew Moreno: The number one biggest weakness I see from the population in tournament poker is lack of preparation. Just learning correct opening ranges will move you above the vast majority of amateur players. Weak players playing solid preflop ranges are infinitely more difficult to exploit than their counterparts playing weak ranges.

Once you’ve committed opening ranges to memory, your understanding of post-flop play will also open up. It is impossible to formulate a sensible post-flop strategy if you don’t know what hands you’ll have in a given spot. How can you analyze your play without knowing your own range?

The use of donk betting is a huge leak I see from many weaker players in tournament poker. Players donk-bet, most often with medium-strength hands, because they are afraid to check and not know what to do when their opponent bets. Or, they are betting to get more information. The problem is that donk betting is particularly dangerous versus good players because we can use that information more precisely against you.

Let’s think about donk betting versus checking to the raiser. When you always check to the raiser, you have all your weak/medium/strong hands grouped together. Your opponent has no additional information on your range. When you now donk bet instead of check, you are essentially saying to your opponent that you don’t have any of the strongest hands or any of the weakest hands, so if you continue, you can knowingly play against medium-strength hands. Your opponent can play well in position, both value betting and bluffing that range appropriately.

Also, when you donk-bet with medium-strength hands, in a future hand, when you do check to the raiser, you are saying, “I don’t have any medium-strength hands because I would have bet those. Instead, you can play against all my weakest hands and all my strongest hands.” This makes continuation betting very profitable against a donk-better when he does check.

Another mistake I see from amateurs and pros alike is telegraphing your hand strength with bet sizing. Simply put, weak hands bet small, strong hands bet big. This is an easy strategy to catch onto and even easier to exploit. Learning how and when to vary your bet sizes will go a long way in making you more difficult to exploit. It will also help your bluffs get through, and get you paid bigger on your value bets. ♠

Vanessa Kade joined the Americas Cardroom Pro Team this spring. In March, the Canadian poker player crushed the PokerStars Sunday Million 15th Anniversary tournament to win more than $1.5 million, and recently she made two final tables at the US Poker Open. Vanessa is a strong advocate for women in a game largely dominated by men. With powerful voices like Vanessa’s, poker is changing for the better. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @VanessaKade.

Jaime Staples has been a professional poker player for 11 years and is a member of PartyPoker team online. The Canadian is one of the most popular poker streamers on Twitch and YouTube. You can find him on all media platforms @pokerstaples, and on Twitter and Instagram @JaimeStaples. 

Andrew Moreno has been playing poker for the better part of the last two decades. He has more than $2.5 million in career tournament earnings, including a deep run in the 2015 WSOP main event and a final table in the 2016 WSOP Monster Stack. The Las Vegas-based pro won an event at the Venetian in June for $127,000 and followed it up by taking down the Wynn Millions main event for a massive $1.4 million. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @Amo4sho.