April is my favorite time of year in Las Vegas. That’s when the World Series of Poker used to be held. Though the WSOP now starts at the end of May, the pros have been preparing for it for months. Others have been preparing for years. And that is what makes the WSOP so special – the competition rises to another level.
To play your best on the biggest stage in poker, you have to prepare yourself just like an athlete does for a major competition. When you watch Olympic swimmers, you think it must be grueling to swim that fast in a race against the clock. What you don’t see is how much they prepared for that race. All world-class athletes follow a strict regimen before competing; from eating the right foods to adhering to a rigorous training schedule. If they don’t, they will never be winners.
I have seen many champions in all sports get ready to compete, and the training is very similar. The dedication and the work ethic they exhibit are what all champions have in common, regardless of the sport. Poker is no different. That’s what I am going to write about – training you to become a champion.
How to Maintain Physical & Mental Stamina
Over the years I have seen top poker players eat the right food, jog, and work out in the gym before a tournament; whatever it takes to gain an edge. The majority of players have the same skill sets. What sets champions apart is the edge they can gain by their lifestyle choices.
Because a WSOP bracelet event usually requires 12 to 14 hours of play a day, maintaining both your physical and mental game can be very challenging. Getting ready to play your heart out with so much on the line requires not only physical stamina, but a strong mental state. If there are two players with the same poker playing skills, the one who prepares for the grueling pace of these tournaments with their mind, body, and soul will have a significant edge.
A lot of young players act like the WSOP is a vacation to blow money. You hear them talking about how they were up all night partying. I always think, “What you just said makes you a target. You just put a bull’s eye right on your forehead.”
At 66 my body obviously operates differently than that of a 22-year-old player, so I have additional obstacles that I must overcome when getting ready to play. However, if I’m playing rested and mentally prepared and another player (no matter what the age) gets three hours of rest, that opponent is at a major disadvantage. I cannot stress how important being focused, eating right, exercising, and even doing meditation and yoga can help you beat opponents of equal ability.
Nowhere is this more evident than when you are playing the Main Event; consecutive days at your peak performance against the best players in the world. Your body will naturally provide you with an adrenaline rush when you are close to making the money and feel you are close to achieving your goal. Your mind will also be crystal clear. This is when you are in the zone.
My World Series of Poker Experiences
In the past, I held the record for most consecutive cashes in the Main Event: 10th place in 1991, 36th place in 1992, 13th place in 1993, and 6th place in 1994. So I speak from experience when I say that after the adrenalin wears off, it can drain your energy to the point that you literally feel sick after an event. Getting your mind and body to shut down is nearly impossible before playing the final table. I can never sleep the night before. You think about things like how you might have played some hands differently and how you are just a few spots away from life-changing money.
In 1993 it looked like I could not lose the Main Event. I led wire to wire. When there just 13 of us left, however, I made a mistake by not taking my time to analyze how to play pocket kings in a certain spot. I lost my chance at poker immortality with a single mental lapse.
The opposite happened to me in 2005. I came into Day 3 with only 160,000 in chips. You see this huge list with all the big stacks above you and you ask yourself, “How can I possibly climb that ladder when everyone is playing their A-game?” Then it happened. Around the second hand of that day I flopped a set against a guy’s top pair, and he moved all in. When the hand was over, I had over 500,000 in chips, and I remembered: “that’s how you do it!” You just have to have a hand against a hand. It’s rare for someone to bluff their chips in that spot, but for you to move up, someone has to make a fatal error, and you just have to wait for that spot.
I ended up finishing 97th that year. What might have cost me a chance to finish higher was my inability to get my mind to shut down at night to be fresh for Day 5 or 6. Your ability to play the game is the same, but mentally you hit a wall. Let’s say you are at the 250,000 chip level when the average is 500,000 and others have a million. Getting to the next level may seem daunting, but you must relax and wait for someone to make a mistake and capitalize on it. The key is not to panic.
Pre-Tournament Poker Tips
Now I want to focus on some specific tips to prepare you for playing big tournaments. I suggest playing about an hour before the tournament in a cash game to prepare your thought process. Get your mind thinking things like, “I am the best. I make great reads and great decisions. I will win.” Be sure to play in a game with the smallest amount you can buy in for so that the outcome does not affect you mentally.
Another must is having a game plan for the major tournaments, especially when you’re playing in multiple events in a tournament series that lasts two weeks or more. During the World Series there are many other tournaments running in Vegas at the same time. Events such as the Grand Poker Series at the Golden Nugget, The Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza, and Binion’s Poker Classic are great places to hone your poker skills playing against world-class players without the large buy-ins of the World Series.
If you take nothing else from this article, remember this. The tournament clock levels the playing field every time. Let me explain what I mean by this. In the early days of playing tournaments, I noticed that after the dinner break we would play three levels. We would always be in the money at the same time, night after night. So, I would adjust my play to account for this fact and would think, “When play resumes, all I have to do is last three hours, and I get paid.”
If you have chips, play like it’s a four corners offense in basketball. Before the shot clock was introduced in basketball, teams would pass the ball from corner to corner to stall the clock if they had a lead. The situation got so bad that they created the shot clock. Just think about this when you are close to the money in a tournament. The tournament structure and clock bust more players than people do. Just watch and study the clock and structure and calculate when the event starts paying and pace yourself to make it to the money.
Stay Focused on Your Poker Goals
Remember: you cannot win any poker event without making the money first. Getting close pays nothing. I have blown the chip lead more times than I care to remember. Don’t let this happen to you. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Preparation and proper decision-making are vital to the making of your own luck. You just need the right opportunity.
It’s every poker player’s dream to play the World Series of Poker Main Event. With all the satellites running now in casinos and online, the dream is within every player’s reach. Just remember that you are in charge of your destiny. The WSOP can change a player’s life; legends are made there. I hope to see you at the tables in Las Vegas this summer.