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Playing Your First WSOP Event

Evan Jarvis

categories Tournaments

It's easy to get thrown off your game playing in an event like the World Series of Poker for the first time. Even if you've been killing it in home games, live games and online events, none of these is truly going to prepare you for the sense-flooding circus that is the WSOP. 

The WSOP is the biggest poker festival on the planet, after all, which regularly attracts every type of player from newbies who want to test their luck, to intermediate players who have selected a few, ideal games, to big time professionals and celebrity players who plan to tackle the Main Event. It can be hard not to get overwhelmed and intimidated. 

Hard, but not impossible. 

Listen, I've been there. I've walked into the Rio and felt my confidence all but shatter at the sight of a sea of other hopefuls. Sometimes we forget that there are thousands upon thousands of other players who share a similar dream: to play our best, and win big. This is precisely why it's so important to enrich your game with every possible edge you can, like reading this article. 

Today, I'm going to give you some vital tips on how to optimize your game so your first time playing the WSOP isn't your last. Or even if you decide you want it to be your last (some players - some undeniably skilled players - don't play their best in big, loud, busy events), at least it won't be a total bust.

These are the same strategies I have used to cash in several WSOP events over the years, so they're tried, tested and true. 

Considerations for playing your first WSOP Event

Structure

This is how WSOP events differ from your local $100 tournament, local $1,000 tournament or online tournament. Structure is how the WSOP is different from your 180 person or 3000 event. To get a handle on structure, determine how many chips you get in terms of blinds, the starting levels of the blinds, how quickly the blind levels increase, whether the event skips any blind levels, how many players you are up against, what percentage of the field is paid and the steepness of the payout structure. Is the money all at the top? Is a min-cash double your money, is it 1.2 times your money, is it just getting your money back? 

You can see the structure of each WSOP event here.

These things are important to consider because your play from tournament to tournament is never going to be that different, but the structure can be drastically different, so it's really the structure that determines how much you're going to have to adjust your strategy from playing a solid patient game, to an aggressive, chip accumulation based strategy. 

Let's look at an example by considering general strategy for a $1,500 WSOP event.

Anyone who's a serious poker player has probably considered playing a WSOP event, and it's a great experience, both in terms of life experience, and game-building experience. The $1,500 events are a decent spot to step into the waters of the WSOP. In $1,000 events, you really don't get many chips (5000) and players hyper-crap shoot, but in the $1,500 events you get more play and it's definitely worth the extra $500.

In a $1,500, you're going to start with 7500 chips. It's not going to feel like you have a lot of chips, given the denominations you receive them in, but recognize you do have a sweet little stack there. The blinds are usually 25/50, so you have a 150 big blinds. The blind levels increase every hour. 

Next, consider the field size. It's massive, ranging from 3000 to 6000 players, maybe even a little more. The point is you're going to have to accumulate a lot of chips to win these things, but with a final prize of around $600,000, it's worth it. 

So, how do you actually cash in these massive fields?

The answer is painfully (and perhaps annoyingly) simple: Try to play your best and hope to get lucky. It's poker, and by definition, it's a gamble. It doesn't matter how great you are at the game, in this sort of game, your odds are 1000-1. You don't have enough chips or long enough blind levels to exercise a huge skill advantage. You're also up against a lot of people, so recognize it's not a sure thing. It's not like if you're a top tier player and that you're a 50-1 shot. It's still a long shot and odds are you're not going to win, but if you play your best and stay positive the whole time, you'll have a better shot at winning something because you’ll be less stressed, and when you’re less stressed, you’ll make better decisions. 

But something is the operative word here.

When you go to one of these events, you shouldn't be focused on winning. Obviously, that's going to be in the back of your mind, but it shouldn't be dominating your thoughts. Sure, winning can be a goal, but a more important goal is just to play well and enjoy the experience. 

But before you even get there, you're going to want to study the MTT Strategy Guide. All the information in there is applicable to these tournaments and it'll give you an epic edge over the competition and will really drive home strategy for live play.

Another important thing to do to help bolster your likelihood of success is to actually show up on time. In my experience, the early stages of these tournaments only last about four hours. Once you get to the 75/150 blind level, you're already dealing with the 30 blind stacks, and then the antes kick in and you get short, fast. Showing up for early play will ensure you get intel on your opponents before you get into the open, aggressive, 3-betting and 3-shoving part of the tournament. Knowing who's playing tight, and knowing who's giving action is exceptionally important in determining the optimal strategy for playing. 

The next point is tough for conservative players to swallow, but it's gotta be said: be willing to gamble! 

You've got to machete your way through thousands of players, and you've got to build that stack. Don't be afraid to bust out. Short stacking your way through the event, hoping to pick up top pairs at the right time is not a profitable way to go through these tournaments. If you get a decent hand, unless you're up against a super NIT, you're going to want to go for the gamble. Worst case you get knocked out. You've got to win flips in these tourneys. You've got to win 60/40s. You've got to win 70/30s. Hell, you're going to have to suck out sometimes with the worst hand to win. 

No one wants to bust out in the first 15 minutes, especially if this is the only event you're playing, but if it's a good spot, you've got to take it. Remember, the odds aren't in your favour, and good spots aren't going to come around often. The only way you're going to have a chance at final tabling is to build up a big stack and give some action.

It's also imperative to realize these tournaments have a fast structure early, but things slow down as you get deeper in the tournament. So, build a stack when everyone is busting out like crazy in the beginning, and you can capitalize on it later. When you make day two or even day three in these events, the tournament structure is a lot smoother, so don't stress in the beginning. Just pick your spots well, and aim to double up a couple times to give yourself a nice cushion later on. If you can get your stack up to 20K early in the event, giving action and gambling a bit, then you can enjoy the luxury of a slower, more relaxed game as play wears on. You don't have to gamble as much, or give as much play unless you're up against a player who you've established a relationship with or are pitted against some sicko gambler and you know you can snag a big pot. 

You're also going to want to focus on playing pots against weak players. If you have pros at your table, or really strong players, you don't want to go out of your way to play pots with them unless a situation arises where you know you have to engage. Instead, focus on playing against the three or four weak players at the table who you can get chips from and who will bust out sooner rather than later. Again, this is why it's important to show up in the early stages so you can get these reads. 

Also, open up when the antes kick in. I talk about this in the MTT Strategy Guide, but it's even more important to mention in a live tournament since the antes are pretty significant. The players who are willing to raise more pots and play more pots will be rewarded. As long are you are confident in your abilities, and you're not attacking when there's a tough player in the blind who's going to defend a lot, then you will be rewarded for being there when the antes kick in. Don't shy away from loosening your raising standards a bit.

Finally, abuse the bubbles. Notice I said bubbles, not bubble. We all know about the money bubble, and we all know about the final table bubble, but in these tournaments, because they're such a big deal to many players, people want to make it to the first break. A lot of them one to make it to day two. Many will be happy to make it to dinner break. This creates a whole lot of bubbles. So, if you're chatting someone up and they reveal they're only in town for the weekend, for this event, then you probably have a bubble going into dinner. Also, after dinner, in the late stages of play when officials announce there are only five or six hands left in the night, that’s another bubble you want to take advantage of because blinds are getting bigger and they're the easiest chips to score.

Remember, the most important thing to do is have fun. You're in Sin City! Sure, play your best, but be sure to take it all in. Relax! There is more to life than the WSOP, and while playing in it will probably be on your highlight reel, it's not the whole picture.