They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Nowhere is this truer than in poker, where it is easy to get into a rut of making the same basic mistakes in your play, and being surprised that your bankroll keeps dwindling. Having had a bad run of play recently, largely due to some of the errors I described in “That One Hand”, I decided to change it up a bit, and stay away from both cash games and my usual assortment of turbo tournaments, and play a tourney with a deeper structure which would require more patience. I waited for an evening when I wouldn’t have to worry about waking up early the next morning to see patients, and chose Poker Stars’ $4 + .40, 8 players-per-table, 1,000 players maximum, no limit hold’em tourney.
The best thing about this particular tournament is that, despite its very low buy-in, each player starts off with a stack of 3,000 chips, the blind levels are 10 minutes long (which for someone used to 5 minute turbo levels feels very comfortable) and rather than the fourth level blinds already being 50-100, and the seventh level being 125-250-25, here the fourth level is only 25-50, and the seventh is 50-100-10, with future levels also growing much more slowly. This means that those who want to take the time to establish a solid table image actually have the leisure to do so, without feeling that the blinds are breathing down their necks. Also, it gives you more time to assess the other players at the table, determining which players are willing to commit lots of chips with less-than-optimum hands, which are being super-aggressive and which are more likely to allow their blinds to be taken without a fight.
Now you need to know that I had never won a large field tournament before. I’ve won my share of 45 and 180 player sit ‘n’ gos, but never one where I had to put in more than two hours of time, maintaining full concentration the entire way through. Inevitably, I’ve gotten fairly deep, but have either made a basic error in play or have gotten too short-stacked to do anything but pick a hand and push with it. I was determined to stay focused, and stay ahead of the blinds and antes for as long as possible. I also decided that I was going to try and be a bit unpredictable, and look for spots to put pressure on my opponents whenever possible.
I had an early double up with pocket aces against a player with A-Q who flopped a queen. This gave me the latitude to pick spots to steal blinds, but also planted in my opponents’ minds the idea that I was playing quality cards (nothing makes an immediate impact like showing off pocket rockets early in a game). I built slowly, and waited for an opportunity to attack a couple of players at the table who were seeing almost every flop. That moment arrived when I got to see a 6-way limped pot with pocket deuces. The flop came 2-K-Q rainbow, and one of the more aggressive players led out with a bet of about 2/3 of the pot, and was called by the other chip leader at the table. I raised to four times that amount and was called by the original bettor. When a 9 came on the turn, I was a bit concerned that he had hit a straight, but decided that he was more likely to have bet a king after the flop, so I pushed and he called with K-9. The river didn’t help him, and my stack was now over 17,000 at a level where 5,700 would have an M of 20, giving me even more time to look for the best opportunities to accumulate more chips.
One of the most important things to remember in a long tournament is to stay patient when you are not getting cards that will allow you to grow your stack appreciably. The most important thing to do during this type of stretch is to avoid bleeding away more chips than you have to, and look for the players whose blinds you can steal in order to keep your stack on as even a keel as possible. The next 70 hands of the tournament were like that, punctuated by a nice win on a hand where I aggressively bet a flop that I whiffed on (other than an inside straight draw), turned the straight and checked it, and then bet the river blank, confusing my opponent into making the call.
Another point to remember in tournament play is to take more chances against opponents who can’t eliminate you from the tournament. On hand #160, I raised in late position with , only to be re-raised by a player with 5,000 fewer chips than I had. I decided to call the bet, as I was getting huge pot odds to do so, since he only made a minimum raise. The flop was 9-2-5, all diamonds. I checked, and he bet about half the pot. My major concern was that he had the , but I decided to put him to the test, and raised all-in with the flush draw and two over cards. He wound up calling with A-Q, and NO diamonds. I rivered a king, and moved back to an M of over 20. I decided to take the chance here because losing the pot would still have allowed me to hobble into the money, but winning it would give me a real chance to go deep. Remember that the only real money in a tournament like this is at the final table, and that needs to be your target right from the beginning.
I had a huge setback almost immediately, in a battle of the blinds, where I turned the second nut straight, only to find out once the money was in that my opponent had the nuts. This knocked me all the way back to 13,000 chips, and a much more precarious position. I then got moved to another table, where I was the short stack, with an M of about 6. I waited for an opportunity to double up, and got it when I pushed with pocket sixes and was called by a big stack in the big blind with . He never got a king, and I had breathing room again.
To win a tournament, you need to be able to win races at crucial times. The next big hand saw me raising with pocket eights (with an M of about 7), and calling the re-raise for the rest of my chips. He had A-Q, and my pair held up, putting me up over 100,000 chips and more importantly, made me the second stack at the table. It is also important to be able to change gears when necessary. I was in the small blind in a pot that hadn’t been bet, with A-9 offsuit. I raised, only to have the big blind, who had me out chipped, re-raise me. I had folded a couple of times to similar aggression earlier. This time, I decided to push all-in instead, and got him to lay down his hand. I quickly doubled up by winning another race, this time the classic pocket queens against A-K.
As the final table approached, I took over the chip lead when I raised with pocket jacks, only to be put all-in by the player who, at the time, was in first place. I called, and his A-3 never improved. Unfortunately, I gave the lead away when I ran A-Q into A-K just as the final table was being seated.
With six players left, the critical hand of the tourney played out. I was in 2nd position, and saw pocket tens, which I raised to 4 times the big blind. The big blind, who was the big stack at the table and had been playing a pretty solid game, then re-raised another four times the blind. At this point, we had been playing close to six hours, it was after two in the morning, and I had been up since five A.M. the previous day. I really didn’t think things through very well, but just saw my hand and pushed all my chips into the middle. And he called with pocket queens. Here it was, the one over-aggressive move that had so often sunken me in a tourney. Oh well, I thought, as the flop, turn and river came without a 10, at least I made the final table. Then, as I tiredly squinted at the board, I realized there were four spades out there, and I had the ! Yahtzee!
From that point on, I quickly knocked out each of the remaining players, playing the big stack aggressively, but also being blessed with a sudden wealth of cards. When heads-up began, I had an almost 5 to 1 chip lead, and I kept the pressure on. Finally, I limped on the button with A-J, hoping to induce an all-in, with which my opponent obliged with A-6. I flopped a jack, and that was all she wrote.
Although I have read lots of books on what it takes to win a large-field tournament, there is something quite different about actually experiencing it. I’ve now seen that I have the capability (and yes, the luck) to do it, start to finish, and the feeling is exhilarating. Having done it once, I now have the hunger to make it a reality many times over.
See you at the tables!
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