High Stakes Poker Tournaments: Handling the Pressure

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High Stakes Poker Tournaments: Handling the Pressure


The world of elite poker is a complicated balancing act, emotional exertion and mental machinations meaning that players at the highest stakes often have the most to deal with. Just how do the very best players cope with the stress of high stakes tournaments?

  • Planning and Preparation
  • Execution and Experience
  • Analysis and Afterwards

Planning and Preparation

Many top-level professional poker players will tell you that a lot of the good things that happen at the poker table in a tournament or big cash game are down to the work that they put in before ever sitting down. These cover a wide range of areas, but breaking them down into bitesize chunks – much like those poker legends have to – here are four key areas:

1. Physical Fitness

The first may well be the easiest to fix on the face of it but requires a lifetime of work to maintain. Retaining your physical fitness when you’re an elite poker player is vital and the reason that you will see so many top players seeking the advice of nutritionists, fitness coaches and others who help add an edge to their physical forms.

Working out and eating healthy is absolute must at the top of the game, and you’ll frequently see players such as Jason Koon, Daniel Negreanu and Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates eulogising over the benefits of exercise, nutrition and mindfulness.

Making your physical form something of true importance to you throughout your poker career will prepare you not only for the long hours and gruelling yards of travelling around the world playing top-level poker. It’ll stand you in good stead for the mental anguish that inevitably travels round with you. Playing the best of the best is tough – you need your body to be resilient when you mind is ready to falter.

2. Strategic Play

Pressure and strategy can sound like opposites, one coming in terms of a short-term burden on your mind’s natural state and the other a pre-game tactic that is designed to resist pressure. Getting on top of strategy long before you sit down enables the player to theorise on what scenarios are likely to play out. Imagining and running situations you might likely face will put you in the position of being able to set yourself up to deal with a pressurized situation optimally.

Players at the highest level not only strategize about their own play, but precisely how to stop opponents they know. The high rollers who play elite high stakes tournaments and cash games have a strategy to deal with each of their opponents and if they haven’t met them before, then they’ll develop one at the table.

When working on a pre-match strategy at the highest level, it’s crucial that you try to intercept any bad moves. You might think that they don’t happen at the elite level, but they do. They just get closed down quickly. I asked an elite player how they anticipated making the best of these situations and he told me “Spot the error before they do, because they’ll plug that leak real quick.”

Strategy at the highest level is all about adaptation.

3. Mental Wellbeing

Preparing for any poker tournament or elite cash game is mostly about the mind. Preparing yourself for hours of intense focus is hard and there are a number of ways to do this. Mindfulness, yoga, therapy, coaching, prayer, all have their places in the pantheon of practical ways to improve your mental health.

Looking after your mental health is something that everyone should do whether they play poker or not, but the sheer toll on your grey matter if you play poker at the highest level is immense. Calculating odds, observing your opponents, if you’re doing these tasks to the best of your capabilities and they’re at the top of their game too, it’s a huge mental impact.

Make sure that you have a handle on how much stress you’re under at all times if you play poker. The very best in the world won’t even arrive at a tournament unless they’re in the right physicial and mental state to perform at the best of their capabilities. Protecting the mind from fatigue and other factors is a big part of preparation.

Execution and Experience

The best players in the world prepare well for a poker tournament or cash game but money is only won at the felt. From the super high rollers to the nosebleed cash games in Macau and Las Vegas, winning big is about turning up and getting the job done.

1. Early Level Play

Whether it is in tournament play or in cash games, the early levels of play or first few orbits are not a chance to settle into your chair and get comfortable. They’re an opportunity to make money. In early tournament play, making as many chips as possible makes it easier to control the table. Big players want to be table captain, using their chips to dominate the action and put pressure on their opponents. The same is true in a cash game. They want to have the biggest stack, meaning they’ll be able to put any of their opponents to the test.

2. Making the Business End

Just as the top pros ease the pressure of early level eliminations by building up a stack, they can also take a load off the latter stages by building a bullying stack. You often hear about the really big names going into a final table with the chip lead. Why is that possible for them? Often its because they are deliberately targeting the period before the final table as the most important. They know that if they get to the final table with the lead, they’ll be best placed to cope with the demands of late stage play with aplomb… and the most powerful pile of chips.

3. Dominating Deciders

The true greats are able to handle the pressure of seven-figure cash pots or a heads-up clash for a WSOP bracelet with the same calm as they exude at the beginning of level 1. While many players can make their way to the business end of events in time, dominating those crucial last few pay-jumps or mega-rich cash games when they are hours into an escalating battle is difficult. Only the best can apply pressure rather than be impacted by it when it comes to the crunch.

4. Rollercoaster Rides

Riding the rollercoaster of emotions at the highest stakes is absolutely essential if you want to be among the best players in the world. This is often about keeping in emotions until the tournament is over or even later, sometime after the dust has settled. Processing huge mental decisions without letting the emotion of the situation impact those decisions isn’t easy but players such as Daniel Negreanu and Jason Koon have the ability to lock up the win before unlocking those feelings that they’ve kept bottled up when it’s the right time.

Analysis and Afterwards

1. Post-Match Humility

Some of the best poker players in the world simply don’t celebrate like you or I might. Imagine winning a major event for seven figures. I’d be beside myself thinking of all the things in my life I could improve, all the people I could help, all the things that I could do with the money. For Phil Ivey when he won a major title was singularly indicative of his mentality.

Asked if he was happy about winning, the 10-time WSOP bracelet winner Ivey immediately said that he wasn’t, that he got lucky in the heads-up match and detailed how one hand he might have played better could have gone. That’s an elite approach to take and why he’s able to handle the pressure – because he puts himself under the most pressure to always make the right decisions.

2. Strategy and GTO

After winning big, the best players in the world know that the pressure has only subsided. Life at the nosebleed levels of elite poker is all about dealing with the constant mentality of self-improvement. The pressure is constant, so the level of comfort with it has to be very high. Strategy, playing Game Theory Optimal poker and analysing your play post-match is a huge part of this.

It’s a little like studying for a big exam. Put yourself in the mindset of someone who has done a good amount of preparation, some mock tests, revised plenty and put themselves in a good frame of mind. You’ve given yourself a good chance of getting the grade you’re aiming for. For the very best, that’s nowhere near good enough. The best will play out every situation they can, revising to an incredible degree to repeat their ability to deliver on their learnings with complete conviction. They’ll practice mindfulness is some form or another and have probably tested themselves to the nth degree. That’s elite.

3. Taking a Break

Being at the very top of poker means living it 24/7, right? Well, yes, but how does that co-exist with taking a break? Taking a real step back from the action is crucial in poker as it is in any sport or professional practice. Unless you rest the muscle you’re using, you won’t have the energy to train it. The same is true for your brain.

Players such as Daniel Negreanu are a great example here. Give him a Las Vegas World Series of Poker and a video camera and ‘Kid Poker’ will be like a kid in the candy store. He does, however, need time off afterwards where he can watch the Golden Knights, kick back in front of a movie like Rocky Balboa or Rounders and spend quality time with his wife Amanda and their pooches.

Taking a break is just as important as making sure that you continue to train hard when you’re in game mode.

4. Coming Back Stronger

Every time you play poker, you need to be better. In some way, that’s almost impossible to fathom. Each time you step away and come back, by logic you’re going to be out of practice. It’s not really about practice, however. Focus is the keyword.

Whether the elite players who dominate the game have enjoyed a period of time studying, vacationing or enjoying some celebrations with their people, when they return to the action, they don’t need to warm up their poker brain, it clicks into gear. Only experience gives a poker player this ability, which is why it’s the last piece to fall into place.

Put all those pieces together yourself and maybe you’ll be ready to take on the best, deal with the ultimate pressure and become a professional poker player. Then, it’s all about how you climb the ladder.

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