The Truth About Poker Tournaments (Part 2)

Tournaments can be one of the most harrowing experiences of your life - especially when you don't fully understand what you've signed up for. Spare yourself time, stress, and a whole lot of money. I'm going to tell you what tournaments are really like. 

Read part 1 here

Tournaments will test you. Physically, emotionally and financially.

Physically, you’ve got the long hours and short breaks. 

Emotionally, your brain secretes neurochemicals and hormones in reaction to high intensity events (at either end of the spectrum). Major wins and losses trigger this (the more meaningful you interpret an event to be, the larger the secretion). 

Financially, the expectation for a successful tournament player is to only cash 10-20% of the time. That means you are expected to lose way more often than you win, and that’s not something that’s easy to wrap your mind around.

The fact still remains that there is money to be made in tournaments, but it comes with a price, and it typically requires a lot of patience to get the pot of gold.

Many players are naive to the realities I have shared and will continue to share with you, or they choose to ignore them or deny them. This delusion is a character trait that typically comes with someone who is deluded about their skill level as a player. If you are honest with yourself, and choose to enter events where you are qualified or overqualified, your expectation in these events can be quite positive.

In my experiences of both being a cash game and tournament player and observing both cash game and tournament players, I can tell you the this: cash game players are typically much more stable, disciplined and self-aware. Tournament players are more inclined to be wild, fast living, and tend to take risks.

Now obviously these are general statements. They don’t apply to everyone and there will be exceptions to the rule, but we are a product of our environment, and the nature of MTTs is that they are insanely volatile, unpredictable, unstable and hard to control - hence the character traits associated with those who immerse themselves in this environment on a regular basis.

Some Emotional and Financial Truths

#1. The luck factor in tournaments is BIG.

Major situations don’t come up often, so how you run in the big spots will often determine your income. It’s not like cash games where the same scenarios will come up repeatedly and luck sort of balances itself out. Tournament dynamics and situations are so unique, it’s very rare you’ll find yourself in the same chip position, looking at the same payouts and dealing with the same lineup of players both at your table and in the field. So luck is more pronounced and the end results are much harder to realize.

#2. You only see the wins and leaderboards in tournaments.

You don’t hear about all the losses; all the tournaments that a player busted out of before they got that big stack. Having played full Sunday schedules, I can tell you that on the days where I had my breakthrough scores, I typically had another 10 events where absolutely nothing materialized - but when you aren’t seeing behind the scenes, you aren’t privy to all those other events and you only see ‘the highlight reel’.

While it may seem like certain players are winning events all the time (which they are), they are also experiencing many losses and shortfalls in between which require strong emotional control to withstand and still stay on one’s A-game

#3. For every winner there are nine losers.

For every phenom, there are at least 99 failures - maybe 999. Due to the top heavy payout nature of tournaments, it leads to an extremely unbalanced economy where a few players have all the money, and the rest have none.

And the sad reality is that often strong tournament players have a strong gambling urge (due to the brain chemistry that results from that environment) which leads to a lot of that money evaporating and not making it’s way back into the poker economy.

#4. Even when you see players get huge scores, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won that much.

In most major events, players have sold action and only get a percentage of what the media says they win. There’s also a lot of action swapping happening, which again leads to diluted earnings.

Now, both of these strategies are a great idea if not a near must for survival in the volatile world of tournament poker. But what I want to communicate is that the big numbers you see on the TV and on the internet are far from the reality of what’s landing in the player’s pockets.

#5. Can you feel and appreciate when you hit your big wins?

This was a big struggle for me, because as the brain chemistry changes as a result of the constant action, the constant exposure to luck and chance, it shapes a brain that just wants more and more and more (similar to that of a drug addict).

An example of this was when I had made day three of the Fallsview Poker Classic. I was looking to assign meaning to the pay jumps so that I could be more motivated about surviving and moving up the payout structure. In my experience, I find money itself to be a pretty limiting motivator because it doesn’t really represent anything tangible, but if I know I’m playing so that I can take my best friends on a dream vacation and have a life changing experience, that’s something I can get excited about.

But here’s the sad part: when I was at this stage in my poker career and four years into my tournament experiment, all I could find for motivators were buyins for future events. So if I could make the final table, that was my bankroll for the WSOP. If I could reach the top five, I’d have enough money to play the WPT Championship Series as well. If I could reach top four, I would now have enough for the SHRPO Championship in Florida in October. Making the top three would net me enough to go play WSOP Europe as well, and top two would vault me into position to add an EPT Barcelona trip. Winning it would allow me to add the Caribbean Poker Tour to my schedule in November.

These milestones worked, because as I’ve mentioned before, one of the main things that drew me to tournaments was the idea of travelling to exotic locations and being with my friends. The results of setting these milestones helped me keep my focus all the way through to three handed where we made a deal. But, after I scored the cash and took a week off, I realized that I didn’t have any need to play more poker, and I didn’t have all that much interest in proving my abilities to myself anymore. Why do I need to do that again, after I just did it?

And here’s the reality.

When you’re playing poker tournaments and your mind is consumed with cards and the emotional swings that you went through, it’s a lot harder to enjoy the company of friends and family, to enjoy nature, to enjoy the life experience - and that’s if you even get outside the casino on your poker vacations. So what I really wanted - what I desired on the deepest level, the soul level - I wasn’t going to get from playing more poker tournaments, and that’s why I opted to go to Bahamas to learn something new, to train in a healing art I’d always been curious about. After pushing myself to the limits over and over, I needed healing, and given how popular tournaments are, and the pursuit of the dream, I knew I wasn’t the only one who would be in need of such healing.

When I reflected on the emptiness of the ‘prizes’ I was looking to acquire with my winnings, that’s when I realized I had developed a compulsion, an addiction, a gambling problem. And this was not the case when I was playing cash games, where I was much more in control of the outcomes, and was much more able to predict my expectation, and design my life around that.

If tournaments, or even poker itself are a means to an end, then it’s important to cash in on the end when you acquire the resources to do so. The most powerful goals are those that center around deep meaningful experiences or tangible real world goods that your heart longs for. Playing just so that you can keep playing (or play for higher stakes) is like a hamster running on the wheel: you’ll never have enough, and you’ll never be content, because money in and of itself is something empty.

Physical Truths about Tournaments

No movement = no life force, and tournament poker has you locked into a chair, with long days where the breaks are few and short.

In addition to this, when we are not allowed to enter a rest state, it’s hard to be healthy, because when we rest, is when we digest, and absorb the nutrition from our food, and integrate the learnings from our experiences.This is why days off are so important for tournament poker players. Without them, burnout and physical breakdown are a guarantee.

Tension multiplies the effect (because it puts us in fight or flight state) and it strangles the organs, and dries out the system - and if fluids can’t get to the organs and tissues they will die. Those are organs and tissues you might not need while you’re playing poker since it’s such a mind heavy game, but trust me from personal experience when I say you do need them to live a long and healthy life. (For more on this, listen to James Obst in episode one of this year’s WSOP coverage, paying close attention to the health problems he developed as a result of spending too much time being sedentary and sitting in front of a computer screen.)

Rising stakes in tournaments will typically increase tension in the body and mind, because there’s more at stake and the life or death reality of your tournament is amplified. Because of this pressure, the player is typically in a constant battle, a constant state of fight or flight, and it’s tough to relax and enjoy things when we’re constantly being pushed out of our comfort zone.

That said, being taken out of your comfort zone every once in awhile is a great way to develop your character and to fine tune your edges. But it’s not somewhere you should live: it’s somewhere you should visit. It’s similar to the idea of having a home base, while mixing in world travel to gain experiences which we can then bring back home to reflect on and integrate.

So now you know about the bad and the ugly, to accompany the good that tournament poker offers: excitement, adrenaline, opportunity and glory.

Here are my keys for success for people looking to get the most out of tournaments:

  • Pick your spots and take many days off.
  • DO NOT FALL FOR THE HYPE! There is always another tournament around the corner, and the casinos and poker sites are simply trying to manipulate you into believing that this is a MUST play event, a high value event. The highest event is really the one you play when you feel your best, are going to play your best, and will get the best result.
  • If you want to play your best, you’ve gotta feel your best.
  • Control your schedule and time commitments (don’t let others be the boss of you and your most precious resources of time and energy).
  • Make the most of your breaks. Johnny Chan (three time WSOP Main Event winner) said that one of his three keys to success was to take care of his body. To find out the other two, watch episode three of the Main Event coverage.
  • Be aware of your true expectation to avoid chronic disappointment and to avoid confusing your mind. True expectation and understanding leads to a stable mind, and more self control.
  • Bank your wins and invest in your happiness!  Don’t make your default banking back into ‘the beast’.
  • Try to detach emotionally from outcomes which will give you peace of mind (the peaceful poker player is the one who has limitless patience and is guaranteed to make progress).

Understand, I didn’t write this article to scare you away from tournaments.

I didn’t write this article to tell you tournaments are bad, because they have a lot of great characteristics which I discuss in my videos and other articles, and I have had life changing experiences thanks to tournaments.

I wrote this article so that you can be more aware of what you’re signing up for before you commit your time, energy and money. I wrote this article because I want every investment you make to be a great investment in yourself and in your future, and I know that’s possible!

These resources are precious, and it’s my duty as a guide to encourage you to invest them in the people, activities and experiences you feel best about. Into things that have a positive expectation, and an expectation that you are likely to realize while you can still enjoy it.

Whether it’s for fun or for financial gain, it’s important you know the results of the game.

This article has acknowledged the shadow side of tournaments, but that doesn’t mean there is any less of a light side to enjoy, play within and profit from.

Now go out there and get stackin’!

Photo Credit: Yannick Croissant | Flickr