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Poker Strategy: Withstanding The Variance Of Tournaments

Landon Tice, Shannon Shorr, and Niall Farrell Share Their Thoughts


The Pros: Landon Tice, Shannon Shorr, and Niall Farrell

Craig Tapscott: Variance and downswings will hit every poker player at one time or another. Can you please share a few times you have crashed and burned and how you recovered to become a better player? 

Landon Tice: The first time I had a substantial downswing was about three months in, playing $1-$2 online. I was breaking even in dollars, but up around 30 buy-ins in EV (Expected Value). That was a pretty brutal experience, when I didn’t necessarily have anything to show for my work other than a yellow EV line that was increasing, while my bottom line stayed the same.

I’m pretty close with [poker vlogger] Joey Ingram. I called him to talk about it, just because it was such a new feeling. I had realized that someone could actually make some decent money playing those stakes. He just told me not to worry about it too much and just grind through it and everything would work itself out. I trusted his advice wholeheartedly, and just kept playing and learning. This was about 18 months ago now, but I still remember the feelings of despair like it was yesterday. Now, downswings still happen of course, but the dollar amount is much, much different than it was back then. Poker just sort of does that to you when you move up in stakes, where the one below it just gets to a point of being numb, and the stake above becomes the new normal. 

The first time I went through a near six-figure downswing was when I started playing higher stakes live and online. I was playing $20-$40 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and $25-$50 and $50-$100 online. That’s when I first experienced a significant downswing in terms of money. I felt like I was playing better than I ever had been at the time, through studying a lot and working on my game. But sometimes the deck has other ideas, and I just couldn’t win an all-in at those stakes to save my life for about a month straight. That was definitely frustrating.

I just grinded some MTTs and studied every day to give myself the best chance of recovering, and I ended up winning a lot of MTTs online and recovered those dollars in a quick fashion. I remember thinking it was going to take me a year to get out of the hole I was in. But I kept putting one foot in front of the other and continued to learn and improve, and I was out of it in 45 days. Shortly after getting out of that hole, I ended up winning the $1,100 buy-in MSPT main event at Venetian for $201,000.

Shannon ShorrShannon Shorr: There have been multiple periods in my career of playing tournaments where I’ve felt like I couldn’t get any footing and watched in a state of panic as my net worth plummeted. A huge key is making sure one is playing within his or her bankroll and to accept the reality of how much variance is involved in playing MTTs. 

I’ve found that during those downswings in the past, I had a difficult time separating my identity as a person from my poker results, and often found that I beat myself up badly. At times I found myself with tunnel vision and in a mindset that I had to “get out” of a downswing. I’ve had a decade-long meditation practice, regular fitness training, and a healthy eating routine for some time now. And I have found all of that to be super helpful for long-term sustainability in this tough business. 

Niall Farrell: When I’m downswinging, I like to try and take a step back and get another few pairs of eyes on my game. I want to make sure that negative variance isn’t affecting how I play. It’s super easy and very human for a run of bad luck to start to change your play for the worse. For instance, you don’t pull the trigger on a good bluff because you’ve been running into it for weeks, you don’t make a good bluff catch because everyone always has it, etc. The Pokerstars Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) events are a good example of this. I lost during SCOOP for the first five years, but just being calm and reasonable with myself I can step back and say, “These are great value tournaments. I’m a good player, and I just need to control what I can control.” And now I have two SCOOP high titles and am way up in profits on SCOOP overall.

The World Series of Poker is also a great example of this. I lost for the first few years, which is easy to do with big field tournaments. I then had a purple patch in 2013-2018 where I made three final tables, including the $111,111 High Roller For One Drop. I only played because I’d been doing well that summer. In 2017 in Europe, I won my bracelet in the $25,000 event and then made the final table of the main event where I ran kings into aces for the chip lead with five or six left, ending a decent shot at a hilariously unlikely Greg Merson-esque back-to-back win. The last couple of years I’ve been on the other side of variance at the WSOP, but when you look back at my hot run in those other years it’s actually fair enough for me to maybe retroactively pay some dues.

Craig Tapscott: Going on tilt and letting a bad beat or bad decision adversely affect you at the table can ruin your chances of going deep or even cashing. What are some of the ways you deal with the emotional swings of poker? 

Landon Tice Credit: WPTLandon Tice: To start, I’ll admit that I’m definitely an extremely emotional person when it comes to poker. I care about the game a lot. It’s what I gave up college and other conventional jobs for. I really understand having attachment and pain when results don’t go my way, and still do to this day.

I think that at the start of my poker career (which includes now), I still have the same, if not greater drive to reach my best possible self. I still really love clocking in the hours, going through the ups and downs that poker has to offer, and making the most of every day. I have a bunch of very successful friends who’ve been around for decades now. They tell me all the time that as I get older, my relationship with poker is going to change in some ways. It takes being in the game longer and going through the day ins and day outs for a longer period of time. While I think there’s a benefit to having an emotionless attitude towards playing and seeing poker as a game of one hand into the next, there’s also a personal enjoyment I feel through experiencing the game as it goes moment to moment.

I think what’s helped me a great deal is the ability to forgive myself for mistakes I make, and realize that poker is a long game, and I’m never going to be able to play perfectly in every situation possible. The best thing I can do for myself is accept the consequences of my actions, good or bad, and keep moving forward. 

I remember running pretty deep in the $1,600 Venetian event right after my big win, where I had piles of chips on the stone bubble and went for an extremely aggressive all-in bluff after facing a bet. I ended up getting tank-called where I lost a bunch of chips. Rather than feeling sad and upset at myself for losing the pot, I was happy with the fact that I trusted myself and took an action that I thought was winning a good amount of EV. Sometimes, you don’t get the result you want, but the real pain is not taking the chance if you think something is going to net a positive result. 

The way I deal with some tough spots after the fact is just spending time with my friends, talking about the hands after and trying to learn as much as I can. Then I focus on the next opportunity that I have to improve, whether it’s MTTs or cash games. Spending time away from the computer is something that I’ve been doing more now after tough days and having a community that truly supports me is unbelievably amazing. I’m very thankful for it. 

Shannon Shorr: Being mentally tough is everything in terms of staying focused in a game where you are constantly going to experience disappointment or have yourself tested. I’ve found that doing deep breathing at the table from time to time is great for bringing oneself back to the moment. It’s super important not to get caught up in previous hands as mistakes can be very costly, especially when playing no-l
imit hold’em.

I think that making an attempt to take care of yourself in your personal life goes a long way in terms of helping you deal with emotional control issues that will be costly in poker. Something that I cannot recommend more highly is that poker players should force themselves to sit with their emotions., sometimes after poker sessions, rather than trying to always escape them with alcohol, sex, weed, etc. It’s even better if you can journal your thoughts. An individual will experience such a wide range of emotions on any given day. It’s nice to know where you are with things and what you can do differently to improve your game.

Niall FarrellNiall Farrell: For me it’s super important to be comfortable at the stakes you’re playing. If everything is chill with your bankroll, then running bad for a bit isn’t the end of the world. I think this comes with experience, mostly, once you’ve come out the other end of downswings a few times. Mainly because you become a bit more chill knowing that you’ve done it before and will do it again. I might take a bit of time off and go hang out with friends and stuff, and also return hungry and ready to go. 

Making poor decisions is basically the only thing that gets me on tilt nowadays. Sure, I’ll have a 15-minute tantrum if I get two-outed for a lot of equity, but after a little self-pity party (and a few beers) I’m fine again. You can only control what you can control, so getting tilted over stuff like that is pretty pointless. If I bust a big tourney from making a mistake, I usually go straight to the pub and won’t think about it for a bit. The next day I’ll dissect the hand and hopefully become a better player for it. Nothing trains the mind to play better than hungover lab work. ♠

Landon Tice started playing professionally in early 2019, making the jump from the micro-stakes to mid- and high-stakes cash games and tournaments. In November of 2020, the Florida native won the MSPT main event at the Venetian for $201,529. He is also a coach for Matt Berkey’s Solve For Why.

Shannon Shorr broke out on the tournament circuit in 2006, final tabling the Aussie Millions main event and winning the Bellagio Cup main event for another $960,690. The University of Alabama graduate has numerous other final tables, including a runner-up showing at the 2019 WPT Gardens Poker Championship. He now has more than $8.2 million in career earnings.

Niall Farrell was the eighth person to win poker’s Triple Crown, having earned a WSOP bracelet, WPT title, and EPT main event championship. The Scottish poker pro took down the 2015 EPT Malta main event, the 2016 WPT Caribbean Poker Party, and the €25,000 buy-in high roller at the 2017 WSOP Europe. He has just over $6 million in career earnings.