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Tournament Trail Q & A: Sean McCabe

McCabe Talks About Mental Preparation and Why He Plays the Game


Sean McCabeYou may not know Sean McCabe yet, but each and every one of his opponents on the tournament trail are definitely aware of his talent. He is a consistent threat to finish deep in tournaments, and he has made $750,000 playing tournament poker. A major title has eluded McCabe until this point, but as you will earn below, he is one of the most introspective players in the game, and he won’t rest until he claims that first major win. McCabe also has an outstanding bet offer to stay in the ocean for 48 hours to anyone willing to bet against him. Keep reading below to find out more ...

Ryan Lucchesi: You’ve drawn a seat at Doyle Brunson’s table in tournaments numerous times in the last couple months. What has been your strategy against him?

Sean McCabe: With Doyle, I try not to get out of line too much, because if he plays back at you, odds are he has a hand. I’ve been fortunate to be seated on his left every time, so he can’t put me to too many tough decisions, and I think he has enough respect for my game to where he doesn’t push me around too much. Doyle and I are friends; I’ve got a pretty good idea of how he plays, and he’s got a pretty good idea how I play. In a no-limit format, I don’t really feel like there’s any edge either way.

RL: Have you adjusted your strategy in the last couple of months as a result of all of the table time you have spent next to Doyle?

SM: I wouldn’t say I’ve adjusted my strategy. I have more information on how he plays, which I don’t necessarily want to share with the planet. I have a pretty good idea where he is in hands when he is involved, and I give him a lot of respect. He’s the Godfather; he’s forgotten more about poker than I’m ever going to know. I try and keep that in mind and stay humble, and play the best poker that I can when I’m at the table with him.

RL: You told me previously that you don’t play any cash games the night before a major tournament. Why is that?

SM: Let’s say I go play cash games or I go into the pits and I come out a big winner. I’m going to come into day one, where I need to be paying attention and focusing on table dynamic, and adjusting to the game today, which will be very different than the game yesterday. I need to come in with a clear and open mind and without any emotional bias either way. I don’t want to come in on posi-tilt or nega-tilt; I want to come in neutral. And, there is tilt both ways; when you start running over a table, you get too confident, and that’s a form of tilt too. People don’t understand that. Let’s say I won a lot of money last night in the cash games — say 50 grand — I might come into today thinking I won 50 grand and I want to get back in there. Whereas if I spent the day before relaxing and decompressing and thinking about my game and mistakes that I made in other tournaments, then I will be prepped for the tournament. If I lost a bunch of money I will come in all pissed off. I’m going to come in thinking I can’t believe I did that yesterday, and I’m going to have a bad attitude. That’s what I mean, it’s a lose-lose, I can’t win.

RL: How important do you think mental preparation is before a major poker tournament?

SM: I think it is crucial. Ask Mario Andretti how important it is to focus before he gets out on the race track. Ask Terrell Owens, who is a good friend of mine, how important focus is before you get out on the field. We’ve had discussions about that at length, about focus and preparation. I take it just like any professional athlete. I have to come out here and ride the razor’s edge for seven and a half hours today. To be on edge and not make any mistakes for that long, you really have to be dialed in.

RL: During your discussions with Terrell Owens, have you found many similarities between the way that both of you prepare for competition?

SM: Yeah, keep your head in the game; keep your eye on the next play and not the finish line. That’s something I’ve told a lot of people I work with in tournament poker. They say, “Well, tournament poker’s a marathon.” I disagree, I think it’s a 600-meter hurdles. In a marathon you go on auto-pilot and you’re thinking about the finish line. In the hurdles, you have to worry about the next hurdle, because if you’re looking at the finish line you’re going to trip over the next hurdle in front of you. When T.O. and I were talking, we talked about just thinking about the next play; don’t think about what had happened. Don’t think about that you should have caught that ball, don’t think about that you should have made that call because you would have flopped a set. Don’t think about it, it’s history, and just worry about what’s in front of you. Take the hit, dust yourself off, and keep going, and that’s one of the things that’s really tough for players to do. Especially because here ego is such a major factor for so many players, myself included. I’m not pointing the finger at anybody else, but tournament poker is really tough because you don’t get the notoriety, and you don’t get the rewards unless you fade a bunch of bad beats, and you get there, and it’s really, really hard. If you look at my results for the last year, I’ve gotten really deep in almost every major tournament, but I’ve taken a lot of gross beats, and, as a result, I’m not as known as a lot of players are, but the players who are in the game know that I’m a threat. But it still doesn’t help when it comes to marketing and that sort of thing, whereas in a football game or golf, they see the whole thing.

RL: What are the new terms of the ocean prop bet? I have heard that you will stay out in the ocean for 48 hours for half a million dollars? Are there any interested takers?

SM: [Nothing] other than a bunch of people saying “Don’t do it, there is no way you can do it,” and me saying “Then why don’t you take a piece of the action against me?” Mostly, I’m raising the stakes because I’m that confident I can do it. In that range of degree of water, 79-82 degrees Fahrenheit, with minimal surf, I believe I can spend 48 hours in there.

RL: Do you think you’ll get any takers against you?

SM: I think I’ll get a group of takers against. I’ve got one person behind me confident enough to do it, and we can probably take as much action as a million. For me, it’s really not about the money, because, to be honest, it’s not going to be my million on the floor; this is a matter of can I do it? It’s a personal challenge, just like a lot of things in my life that I have learned how to do that have absolutely no practicality, that I just want to do just because. And this is one of them, because some people said there’s no way you can do it, and this is my way of rubbing thier noses in it. That’s what tournament poker is about, too, is the challenge. If I were just grinding this out for the money, I would be sitting in there grinding it out in the $100-$200 game, because, in the long run, it’s a more profitable endeavor. The tournaments present a huge personal challenge in overcoming emotional obstacles and being able to figure things out about yourself and really working on yourself, and if you can’t do that, you’re not going to succeed. The reason I continue to play them, while I might not enjoy them that much anymore, to be honest, is that I continue to learn about myself, and I continue to analyze my mistakes and apply them to life, because flaws in my game in a tournament are also flaws in my personality in life. Hopefully, I can address them and fix them. It’s not about the money. When I get to the final table, I don’t even look at a structure sheet. When I get into the money, I don’t look at the structure sheet. I don’t want to know, because nothing good can come from me knowing what the next spot pays. All I want to do is play the best poker I can, and if I’m worried about edging up in the money, I’m not going to play good poker. Some people agree with me, some disagree, but in my experience it has served me well, because other people are worried about moving up the next spot in the money, and I’m just worried about fold equity, and implied odds, and how can I squeeze this guy, and how can I make this guy fold, and I’m looking for weaknesses in his psychology. If he’s worried about that next spot, that’s a big one.

RL: I’ve noticed that a lot of players have been saying that they are burnt out on the tournament trail these days. Do you feel you’re more focused and effective when you play fewer tournaments?

SM: I find if I’m playing too many tournaments, I don’t want to be there; I don’t want to be at the table. And if I don’t want to be there, I’m going to psychologically and subconsciously look for ways to not be there. A big win or a big loss the night before is something that can affect that. If I want to be there, I’m going to play well. I just want to focus on positive equity, big tournaments, and deep-stack tournaments, which I play much better than short-stack tournaments.

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