Photo by Brian Bentley @ 2009 WSOP Main Event

Friday, August 5, 2011

How to Run Deep in a Big Field Poker Tournament

2011 has been a year of massive upheaval in the U.S. poker world. With the closure of Full Tilt Poker, Pokerstars and Absolute Poker, many online players are looking to try brick and mortar casinos for tournaments and cash games. For some, the transition to live play isn’t easy. Just walking into a giant casino like Commerce can be an intimidating experience. Gone are the creature comforts of playing on your home computer. You’re sitting at tables with complete strangers, and the quality of poker veers wildly. If you are serious about cashing at a large tournament, the hours are long and can extend over several days.

Just what does it take for the dedicated recreational player to run deep in a big field casino tournament? I decided to seek advice from players who have found recent success. I got to know Brandon Zimmer at a free L.A. league called BarJoe2PokerPro. BarJoe is a great place to work on your game and discuss strategy in a relaxed manner that would be impossible in a real-money tournament environment. The first time Brandon sat at my table, he immediately caught my attention. He knows proper bet sizing, how to apply pressure, and is next to impossible to chase out of a hand.

So it was no surprise when I found out about his great run at the 2011 Liz Flynt Spring Poker Classic at the Hustler Casino in L.A. The Flynt tournament was a deep stack $250 buy-in, where each player started with 20,000 in chips. In a field of 1541 players, Brandon lasted two days (about 20 hours) and finished in 12th place for a cash of $2,200. The final table included Bruce Buffer, who has appeared at a TV final table on the World Poker Tour.

Across the Felt (ATF): Before I ask you about the Hustler tourney, which of the local So-Cal casinos do you think offer the best tournament structures and why? Which buy-ins do you prefer?

BZ: I don't have a favorite casino. Unlike some players, I don't care how many chips I start with. I know there are players who prefer deeper stacks, but that doesn't really matter to me. I look for the larger prize pool guarantees more than anything else. I like buy-ins around $200-$350. This gets rid of some of the junk players who are praying to do well so they can make their rent, and brings in more players who know the game.

ATF: Congrats on finishing 12th at the Liz Flynt Classic. What was the biggest adjustment you were faced with at that tourney – and at any big field event?

BZ: Being that the Hustler was a deep stack tournament, the cards I might play in a typical shorter stack tourney got mucked because I had the chips to wait for hands. The patience factor does get tested though, when you see your chips leaving and you aren’t getting any hands! I just kept reminding myself to stay focused and relaxed.

ATF: How did you adjust your reads when you sat down at a table (or tables) of players you’d never seen before?

BZ: I've always had a motto of "never underestimate or over-credit ANYONE!" If you're playing Phil Ivey or grandma Phyllis, ultimately cards will dictate your play. Now it’s very common for poker players, especially men, to let ego get in the way of their judgments. You gotta check your ego at the door and play cards period.

ATF: Please walk us through the steps you take in a deep stack tournament.

BZ: A deep stack tourney gives you a chance to evolve your game more. In smaller stack structures, tables get broken quicker and the less you can build a "table reputation.” In deep stack, you'll more than likely be playing against the same 7-8 players. This makes it easier to put them on a range of hands and develop your table rep. Obviously, if I go for an ultra tight rep, people will give me more credit for a top hand when I bet, and if I go loose, they are worried that I may have connected on a low board. If you go loose, you also know that some of your bluffs will be called more often.

ATF: As the tourney progresses, do you have a process of figuring out when to play tight … and at what point/level do you start loosening up?

BZ: With deep stack, you can open your range of hands based on your position. Since you have more chips, you might try to take down major pots with marginal hands, or trap with hands that opponents will have a tough time putting you on. This, of course, can backfire when those hands get out kicked or outdrawn. Or you can go tighter than a nun's hind parts and wait for premium hands. This protects your chips, but also scares away callers since you only play hands at a rate of maybe three or less per hour. At some point, you have to find a way to mix the two. I don’t base it on any set time, blind level or chip stack level. You have to go by the feel for the way the game is going.

ATF: At the Hustler event, were the players better or worse than you expected? Was the play tighter or looser than you’d anticipated? Can you recall any memorable hands and situations that affected your results? How many coin flips did you win and how many all-in’s did you survive?

BZ: It was what you’d expect from a deep stack. There was tight play from wanna-be pros and everyday Joes. The only loose play came from online players. The one hand I do remember came on Day 1. We were on the bubble for getting paid with 36 players. Under the gun went all in and seat 9, with only 47,000 in chips, and the shortest stack left in the tourney, debated long and hard, but ultimately called with pocket jacks. UTG turned over 9-10 of clubs, and the guy who called with the jacks was very happy! Well, I was in seat five and the flop dropped right in front of me. Flop comes 6-7-8 of clubs for the straight flush – and since we were going hand for hand, it meant that EVERY player still left was crowded around the table. I've never heard so many people saying, “oh my god” and “holy shit,” mixed with, "we're all in the money now.” It was definitely one for the books. I ended up winning 6-7 races. I was all-in four times and survived three. I know a lot of players talk about coin flips, but I've always had the old gambler’s philosophy of “the odds are 50-50, either it’s coming or it’s not.” That doesn't mean I’m calling an all in with one out, of course!

ATF: Most players have no trouble playing poker for a few hours at a time. But a big field tournament that stretches for days is a completely different animal. You have to maintain patience and keep grinding. What’s the best strategy a player can utilize in these situations and what’s the worst mistake(s) a player can make?

BZ: Staying focused and patient really is an art form and something that you'll develop on your own. I like using techniques that a hypnotherapist friend of mine taught me. It’s actually quite simple and a lot of actors use it for stage fright. I press my fingers together and it causes me to relax because my subconscious mind registers that as trigger to be calm.

ATF: I have to try that one myself.

BZ: Or you can get up and stretch your legs. If you're not in a hand, walk for a sec. No one will miss you at the table. Set little goals, like getting to the next blind level or break. Every time you reach that next goal, look around and see how many players are left. Remind yourself that you are still in; while others only wish they were in your shoes. The worst mistake players can make is being impatient and trying to win a tourney in one hand. Now, if you’re heads up at the final table, WIN that tourney, but remember, it takes many small wins to accomplish that. There's another huge mistake that players fall into. They think everyone at the table plays the EXACT same way they do. Reality is, you might be a genius at seeing, reading and betting hands – but if you think every player you come up against looks at it the same way, you'll end up outplaying yourself and ultimately sitting in the losers lounge wondering, "How could they have called that when I..."

ATF: Have you played big field tournaments in Vegas? How did they differ from the typical L.A. tourney? Easier or tougher players?

BZ: Haven't been in a large Vegas tourney yet, but that's only due to not having the time. I have played a lot in Vegas though. The play is a little easier there, based on the fact that you get more of the home game players jumping into ring games and smaller tourneys. You're not going to get as many home game players in L.A. The local players here usually have a decent grasp of the game. In Vegas you will get lesser level players who are there more on vacation than to play poker.

ATF: What’s the biggest adjustment that home players must make who are interested in jumping into the bigger tourneys?

BZ: The biggest adjustment for players trying to take the next step is patience and focus. It’s a serious process to stay patient and focused for hours on end. I know a lot of players who are afraid of making the jump, and are worried about being easily "read" by known players. That’s not a worry once you get in and realize that it ultimately comes down to the cards. This is not to say that there isn't skill, because it takes a LOT of hands – hours and hours of review to become a truly skilled player who can make the right reads, bets, folds, etc. My advice is play as much as you can to build up that memory rolodex of hands, which is vital to growing your game.

BZ: Good Luck to all and I'll see you on the felt.

Online Casino Admin
Online Casino Admin

Friday, July 22, 2011

2011: Online Poker Goes Broke and the WSOP Cashes

When an unknown named Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event at the 2003 World Series of Poker, it marked the beginning of a poker boom that elevated the game from a curious pastime enjoyed by old folks, professional gamblers, cowboys and convicts – to a full-blown multi-billion dollar industry. It took the emergence of the Internet and its dominance by the youth of America to fuel an explosion of unprecedented interest in poker as an occupation. Suddenly, every third dorm room seemed to have its own feature table, and ESPN’s finely crafted coverage of the WSOP created millions of Moneymaker wanna-be’s. The online poker gaming sites became more sophisticated in their marketing approach, while the advertising dollars seeking the money that kids spend flowed into poker TV shows and affiliated media. All these contributing factors snowballed to spur huge expansion and a golden era of positive expectation.

Against this sunny backdrop of prosperity and growth, loomed the specter of the UIGEA. Passed in 2006, the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act did not make poker a crime for individuals to play, but made it illegal for online sites like Full Tilt Poker and Pokerstars to transfer gambling money back and forth. Enforcement of the poorly worded legislation never really happened. Online poker was sort of like pot – there were laws making it a crime of sorts, but everybody just kept doing it anyway.

On April 15, 2011, the deadline for Americans to pay their rightful taxes, the abstract threat posed by the UIGEA became a shocking reality. In a vicious and ham-fisted display of authority, the Department of Justice seized financial control of U.S. operations at Full Tilt, PokerStars and Absolute Poker. The charges were serious: money laundering and bank fraud. Black Friday crippled the poker industry. Online American poker players lost their jobs and the game lost its revenue stream, its momentum and maybe any chance to finally connect with the average sports fan.

In the six years since the passage of the UIGEA, nothing has been accomplished to legalize Internet poker in the U.S. Politicians like Barney Frank have drafted bills that never came close to passage. Individual states have thrashed about to analyze legalization measures amidst confusion, discord and apathy. With an election year approaching, few politicians are eager to go on record supporting a game that most Americans don’t understand or care about. Meanwhile, the anemic and woefully disorganized Poker Players Alliance buys full page ads in the trade magazines vowing to take the fight to the streets and the card rooms of America. Missing is any kind of real plan or cohesive vision for giving people back the right to play a game of skill for money in the privacy of their own homes.

The trickle down effect of all this dysfunction has hit hardest on the poker media. Gone are the creative, revenue-generating, black and white TV spots for Full Tilt that heavily funded the WSOP on ESPN and network shows like NBC’s Poker After Dark. Magazines like Card Player and Bluff have seen their ad dollars cut in half and their pages shrink with each issue. In the three months since Black Friday, the people employed to write, broadcast and chronicle the game are living in a diminished world. The death of online poker is the loss of the coveted 18-34 market – and paying to reach that audience is what pays the bills for everything else. Until (or if) online poker is legalized in the U.S. and major advertisers return, growth is a distant memory, and hanging on for dear life will be the order of the day.

With all this depressing bullshit going on, bad publicity and petty feuds have hurt the image of poker and turned the public off. The Tobey Maguire nosebleed home game scandal made tabloid headlines, while the aging trade, Card Player Magazine, continued its pissing match with Harrah’s Entertainment. For the first time in memory, publisher Barry Shulman didn't print preview articles on the WSOP and ignored the biggest event in the poker world – kind of like Sports Illustrated pretending the Super Bowl doesn’t exist. In the void, Bluff Magazine stepped up to cover Black Friday’s impact on the WSOP in a comprehensive manner that should earn them some respect.

Following the recent shutdown of Doyle’s Room and the expected prosecution of Bodog, online poker is done in America. Full Tilt has emerged as the real bad guy in its downfall. The abysmally dishonest and fraudulent website is intent on establishing itself as perhaps the sleaziest business to ever operate inside (but outside) of U.S soil. Full Tilt owes U.S. players 60 million dollars, and has yet to give anyone back their money – 60 million bucks that could be flowing into the poker economy. Poker pro Howard Lederer, a Full Tilt owner and self-righteous shill, actually had the insufferable gall to tell one reporter that the company will cash out players “When we get around to it.” For good reason, Lederer could be seen nowhere at the WSOP this summer, as he might have had trouble leaving the Rio in one piece.

After much of their finances were seized, Full Tilt no longer has the funds to pay players anyway, and is seeking outside financial backers to bail them out. Meanwhile, their self-inflicted problems continue to mount. The site removed most of its own forums when the chief thread of conversation this year revolved around the alleged theft of approximately 3 billion dollars from player accounts.

According to vocal critics like former FT pro Mike Matusow, Full Tilt stole from thousands of tables at various stakes. Software bots (fake players the site created) would join a table and suck out on impossible long shots, like rivering a higher straight flush to beat a lower straight flush – and then immediately log out to cash. It’s sad and almost funny that despite the global corporatization of poker, the business continues to be dominated by thieves and shady back room deals. One of the numerous DOJ investigations surrounding Full Tilt theorizes that the website shared some of its money laundering techniques with drug dealers, a revelation that perhaps sullies the reputation of drug dealers by association.

This brings us back to the fascinating goings on at ESPN and Harrah’s Entertainment and how much both companies have profited from the misery of others. In April, the DOJ dropped the hammer on online poker. While everyone else is updating their resumes, the only end of the business that seems to be thriving is the partnership of Harrah’s and ESPN, a deal which runs through 2017. After dumping poker from its programming like an old girlfriend after Black Friday, ESPN mysteriously flipped and increased its Main Event coverage this past week to spectacular heights, offering poker junkies over 30 hours of live, no-hole-cards shown action. Depending on your interest in the game, ESPN’s live programming has either been a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at the world’s biggest poker tournament, or a pointless exercise in tedium, akin to watching paint dry. Is it just me, or does someone need to institute a mandatory three-minute time clock that forces players to stop stalling and play cards?

Whether or not Harrah’s paid off the U.S. government to shut down online poker will be a subject that’s debated for years, but it should be duly noted that Nevada and Washington are the only states to criminalize online play, and at least one of these states has outlawed it for commercial reasons. Don’t be surprised when one day in the not-too-distant future, Harrah’s or positions itself as the only legal online poker site, and rakes in the billions once enjoyed by the Big Three. How could this strategy not succeed? For poker players who used to play online, there are only these scary choices: leave the country to play legally, get friendly with the cheesy, local home game, or head for the nearest casino.


So what effect would all this bad news have on this year’s WSOP? As is my usual custom, I headed out to Vegas for a few days to check out the Main Event. The early projections of a less than 3,000 player turnout were quickly dashed when the field swelled to 6,865 by the end of Day 1’s entry deadline. The big numbers were a shock as the 10 grand entry fee is a chunk of change, and players could no longer satellite-in from online qualifying tournaments. It was also assumed that since players who busted out of earlier tournaments had no way to reload their bankrolls by playing online, by the time the Main Event rolled around, many of them would be broke. But Ben Lamb probably said it best when he told ESPN’s Kara Scott that, with the demise of online poker, players reasoned that this year’s WSOP might be their last chance to make some serious money.

By Day 2A, the vibe in the hallway outside the Amazon room was muted. After all, what’s a Main Event without Phil Ivey? The side rooms that once played host to lavish industry parties were empty and the only logos on display were for foreign poker sites with weird names. Since no admission is charged, the WSOP has never been a particularly fan-friendly event. No attempt is made to seat better known players near the rail, so all the best action tends to occur in faraway corners.

Overall, the play I saw was disturbingly loose. It was not uncommon to find two players locked in a hand and raising each other on every street, with high card taking down the pot. Call it ruthless aggression or donkey poker, but several pros, most notably the volatile Jeff Lisandro, seemed annoyed. Other veterans were floundering. J.C. Tran was his usual too-tight self. At one point, the player to his left 3-bet Tran’s min raises several times in a row, and J.C. folded each hand with a murderous look in the guy’s direction. Mike Matusow was short stacked and shoved all-in with K-K, after the board flopped dry and 10 high. The Mouth got one caller who turned over 10-10, and when the caller’s trips held up, the ESPN cameras arrived just in time to capture Matusow’s uncharacteristically polite exit.

There are certain advantages in watching a poker tournament in person that TV can’t duplicate. One is the freedom to watch anything and anyone you want at the table, not just what the camera will allow. TV also doesn’t capture the buzzing, clickety-clack sound of a thousand players in a giant ballroom riffling and shuffling their chips, like a sea of crickets absentmindedly doodling away and lost in thought.

Several funny observations stand out from this year’s Main Event. One was listening to the table talk while Jimmy Fricke dryly recounted a series of e-mails he exchanged with Howard Lederer, where The Professor made Fricke promise that he would not share Lederer’s personal e-mail address “with anyone, especially players.” Another was running into Steve Dannenmann, Andrew Black and Joe Hachem embracing in the hallway, as if the 2005 Main Event Final Table was just last week. Then there was T.J. Cloutier at the crap tables, throwing out $1,000 on every roll of the dice and losing bigtime. I wonder if T.J. still has any WSOP bracelets he hasn’t pawned yet. But my favorite moment was standing next to three tall, blonde, stripper/model types railing a huge player in his 60’s with a fat cigar. “Do you want us to wait in the limo, or just like stand here… or what??” one of them asked.

Online Casino Admin
Online Casino Admin

Friday, May 6, 2011

Vol 2: Why Math is Overrated in Tournament Poker

You’ve probably heard someone say it a hundred times in a tournament. “I had to call.” Here’s a theory on why “I had to call,” usually means, “I had to lose.”

Math is obviously an integral part of poker, and to ignore it is to overlook what the game is about. But sometimes players miss the huge structural differences between cash games and tournaments. If you’re multi-tabling cash games online to grind out a living, and utilizing programs like Hold Em Manager, your decisions are based on numbers and tiny statistical advantages that pay off nicely over time and thousands of hands.

Tournament poker is a completely different animal. There is only one hand that matters – the hand you are playing right now. Calling down light is the biggest mistake anyone can make. I have seen excellent players prematurely dismissed from tourneys after horrible calls that were prompted by the misuse of poker math. As they rise from the table and gather their iPods, they rationalize why it was mandatory to call an all-in from a very tight player. Maybe they were drawing to an open-ended straight or the nut flush. Their pot odds and their outs (likely to be missed) dictated they “had” to call that shove.

Watch too much poker on TV and you start to think that chasing cards is easy because all you see are the draws that hit. Antonio Esfandiari built his reputation as a fearless and successful party boy gambler by routinely spiking absurd two and three outers at the World Series of Poker. But in the real tournament world, if you are constantly calling off your stack with just top pair and medium kicker – while drawing dead to a weaker flush – then you probably bust out early quite often. Pot odds mean next to nothing in a single elimination structure when you are completely dominated in a hand.

The problem for some players is they fall in love with their holdings, especially if they started out strong. But as the texture of the board grows scarier by each street, an unhealthy combination of ego and stubbornness settles in. Like Birthers who still believe Obama was born outside the U.S., these players just cannot let it go. A pair of aces is basically worthless with three-to-a-flush or a straight on the board, and several others showing strength. If you find yourself trapped into calling because you’re “curious,” and there is a lot of money in the pot, expect that satisfying your curiosity will be expensive.

A-K is the type of vastly overrated siren hand that lures players into the rocks. Early in a tournament, when players are trying to settle in and read the various opponents at the table, why would anyone call for most of their stack with this unmade holding? A-K will whiff on the flop two out of three times. If the other guy has A-Q, you’re in the driver’s seat. However, if he’s already got a pair, you’re not even 50%. In the early/middle stages of any tourney, racing with coin flips is unnecessarily risking your tournament buy-in. I’m not advocating playing like a scared nit. But seriously, learn how to lay more hands down and survive to fight another day.

I’ve seen players bust out and then launch into long monologues with their rail buddies about fold equity and implied pot odds, and why they would make the same losing play again, even if it seemed they were behind. Loose tables with bad players just magnify the problem. If no one else in your game is paying attention, how can they be aware that they have no mathematical reason for being in a hand? Opponents who ignore pot odds and stick around just to hit something, make it imperative that you go to showdown with premium hands. In a donkey game, it’s not uncommon to have four callers to a 4x Big Blind raise. Fancy strategies are wasted in these settings.

Reading players at a live tournament is the most potent form of poker math. Betting patterns and physical tells are the best indications of how to play your hand. There is also a subconscious voice that every player needs to listen to. It’s the one that says you’re beat. Ignore this voice at your own peril. Start relying more on gut feelings about the opponent across the table and less with assigning percentages. Don’t gamble from behind or chase unless the blinds are through the roof, or you’re completely card dead.

If you discover that you’re often ahead when the cards are flipped over, be content that you’ve made the right calculations. Make it a goal to stick around and remain within striking distance as the tournament winds down. Learn the math; just don’t be a slave to it. If you think you are beat, there is no percentage in ignoring your poker intuition. Realize that making the “right play” means making the smart one that will keep you alive.

Online Casino Admin
Online Casino Admin

Friday, April 22, 2011

Vol 1: Reads and Concentration at the Table

One of the most challenging components of live tournament poker is harnessing the ability to focus one’s concentration for long periods of time amid a myriad of distractions. No Limit Hold Em is particularly brutal since it punishes players so severely for mistakes. The bigger your stack, the more you can get away with a bad decision from time to time. But, if you are a tight player who is perpetually short stacked, once those blinds go up, even one big mistake is usually fatal to your tournament life. Always be clear in your head what the potential consequences are of each choice in front of you.

Mediocre players have a tendency to call down in critical situations with less than stellar hands. But what do you do if you’re a decent player who finds his ability to read other players evaporate after three or four hours of live play? It’s not about knowledge. You know what you are supposed to do; you just sort of zone at the wrong moment and completely misread the situation.

Here’s an example. You’re at a home game and into hour 3 and the blinds are at $400 and $800. The bubble to make the final table is approaching and you’re one of the shorter stacks at the table. You have been waiting and waiting for the right spot. You’ve shoved a couple of times into limped pots and stolen a few blinds, but you need a big payoff on a hand to survive.

Sitting across the table from you is a semi-talented card rack, a deep-stacked calling station who cannot be moved off a hand by seemingly any bet you make, and you’re not getting particularly great cards. Despite the fact that this player has not shown a bluff, somehow at the wrong moment, you become convinced they are bluffing. Tired of being bet off hands and generally annoyed, you lose patience and call down with something like top pair/kicker and discover they have slowplayed aces. See ya.

In last night's home game, I had been forever hovering around $10k in chips, while the average stack was close to $20k. My patience was waning with my lousy holdings. (Ever reach that place where you’re Peter Finch in Network? “I’m mad as hell and not taking it anymore..”) With the blinds at $400 and $800 and about to go up, I look down at A-9 suited, my best hand in the last twenty minutes. It’s folded to me in middle position. I could just shove here and try to grab a quick $2k, but if I hit my nut flush and can get some followers, I’m golden. I do believe the safest play here is to shove. But instead, I raise to $1600 and tonight’s designated card rack calls from the BB in a heartbeat.

The flop comes down A-K-X with three clubs and two players in the pot. The card rack in the BB checks to me. I’ve got top pair and no reason to believe she has a hand. I have about $10k behind. But this is the kind of scary flop that should cause any player to take a deep breath and think for at least 30 seconds before acting. What is your stack size? Where are you going with your actions after she checks the flop? What hand are you representing and what hand are you putting her on?

With me at only $10k behind and her stack at $30k, can I really bet her off a flush draw, especially considering her inclination to call anything? I believe the safest play is to check back, for no other reason than this is the exact kind of hand that the card rack lives for, and the kind of flop that kills my aces (and my tourney) if she has flopped a flush, or has a nut flush draw that she’s not going to abandon – and she will hit it. A weird set, two pair, or A-K through A-10 also has me reeling.

Instead, I become convinced that she is only on a flush draw, and so I toss out roughly a pot size bet of $3k to see where I’m at and discourage her chasing, not realizing that I’m at the final table bubble, and now I’ve put 40% of my stack in play against someone who doesn’t seem to ever fold a hand. She promptly shoves all-in. This is where the part comes in about losing the ability to focus and the mind just shorts out. Convinced I'm pot committed (a more irritating concept for calling with a weak hand has never existed) and that she has some kind of ace-rag, or maybe second pair or a flush draw, I steam call and make the worst play possible, and the card rack has indeed flopped her flush.

Every player who battles hard and blows a play like that has this moment of denial at busting out. “Can I please just take that hand over? Can we please just run it twice?” The whole night comes down to a bubble bust after some earlier bad beats and fairly spectacular play to get back to square one.

So how do you prevent horrible misreads like that and avoid calling down light as your patience wears thin after a night of too much folding? I think it comes down to basic tournament survival and staying awake. Keep a can of Monster drink by the table and refer to it. Unless you have a lock read that it’s a bluff, calling an all-in with just a pair is a play that cannot come close to a 50% positive expectation. Even against a bad player.