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.

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