Tomorrow marks Day 1C of the Aussie Millions Main Event and we’ll be getting back in the action. It’ll be the first No Limit Hold’em tournament for some months... and given the significance of it, I’d like to show up as not rusty as possible. Saying that, I might’ve been advised to play an earlier Hold’em event in the series, but we did at least get down for an 8-game event to get used to the environment again. It was another sharp reminder that, no matter how you’re feeling at other times, once inside a casino the body responds very differently to all the stressors – so if you’ve been out of there for a while, adequate preparation for it is essential if you want to play at a high level... at least, it is for me.
I’ve had many long hiatus’ in my career, so there’s been a lot of lessons about where my game can initially suffer from them. Let’s talk about those, plans to address them, and a bit of general Main Event strategy.
Don’t Overestimate Your Competition
When it comes to anything competition related, fortunately I tend toward being very self-confident. Perhaps due to the relative unfamiliarity with feeling the opposite way, when I do feel insecure and uncertain about myself in an event, it presents a very alarming challenge that I have to address with urgency.
As we know, poker is a game that acutely challenges confidence levels. Regrettably, I think many players play consistently with a crippling vat of insecurity, which molds their baseline game accordingly. Personally, I seldom find myself playing in that state – knowing how detrimental it is, I simply refuse to do so. We all have the ability to game select, and a good problem solver will develop an aptitude for not letting that state fester for too long.
One time I did find myself playing in that state was at the $5,000 No Limit Hold’em 6-Max tournament at the 2015 WSOP. It was actually my first live NL Hold’em tournament since the 2014 WSOP Main event. I was very unwell, so much so that I’d missed the Aussie Millions that year. I couldn’t sit comfortably on a chair and knew that I wasn’t able to think many clear thoughts during hands.
Earlier in the Series I’d had a very unfortunate incident go down, where I discovered that I’d lost a great opportunity and a lot of money by unintentionally exposing my cards to the rail (spectators directly behind me), including friends of a player to whom that information was being relayed. I needed money. I wasn’t in a great state to be finding my A game! Also, with the evolution of NL Hold’em that was happening, I didn’t feel great about having not been playing it live or doing much study, knowing that a $5k 6-max event would draw the majority of the world’s most elite players.
Ultimately, of course with the help of much luck, I’d eventually final table that event and have a great chance at winning. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I was registering the tournament because it was a great opportunity, and a profitable one despite the state I was in. The insecurity induced by the aforementioned factors had just engulfed my mind, and initially I was overly concerned by the threat of many great players – when I should have been reminding myself that I had the skillset to deal with my situation, and focusing on the many weaker players you are sure to get in a 550-player field WSOP event, to create confidence.
I’m sure I kept my game face on in that event and consequently probably derived benefit from others viewing me as the player they thought I was, not knowing that I was a long way off my best.
The lesson is this: It’s erroneous and extremely unhelpful to put your opposition on a pedestal and assume they’ll play in the same postcode of perfectly. Respect appropriately, don't drool.
I don’t care who it is, none of us are bots, and all humans are subject to the same emotional challenges. I’ve gotten very good over the years at identifying any sign of insecurity or false bravado in my opposition – and even if I’m reaching to find something, I’ll find something, because if my opponents seem less intimidating, I become more self-assured – and I can only suggest you focus on getting good at this too, if you haven't already!
Winning is Absolutely Realistic
This follows naturally from the previous topic but is specific to large fields like you find in Main Events. In my first two years playing the WSOP Main Event I went in cynically disbelieving that winning was realistic (largely because by that stage of the Series, I’d precious little left in the tank) ... almost to the point of begrudging the idea of having to experience the emotional rollercoaster and inevitable low again at the end of such a protracted event.
A simple mindset shift sparked by a good showing in the 2016 Aussie Millions Main Event has made all the difference since. The mindset I just mentioned was pathetic, unacceptable, and not something I stand for. Every Main Event I now play, regardless the field size, I remind myself of my strengths and aptitude for playing such events, create a bit of an illusion that I have more control over the outcome than I have, and I give everything I’ve got to give. It’s made an enormous difference and allows me to feel proud instead of dejected when the last of my chips get pushed across the table.
Calm the Impulsive Reflex
In terms of in-game strategy, this is the most important focus area for me coming off a layoff. Often with many of the decisions we make, we know within a split second what it’s going to be. The more recent play, the more you can rely on your instinct, as your brain is better trained to consider and weight more relevant variables in each decision. On the other hand, playing for the first time in a long time, your instinct can be governed more by detrimental, impulsive forces like your ego. I find that old leaks I worked hard to erase in high-volume periods resurface after a layoff, and it’s imperative to vigilantly plan for that beforehand, and coach yourself through the early stages of play.
Main Events specifically require enormous composure. With such a vast cross-section of players entering, you may find yourself at a table that in no way reflects the playing standard of the overall tournament. These are long events with great structures, and mandate a clear head that can see the bigger picture, including in the middle of high-intensity hands as they are happening.
Particularly playing a Main Event off a break, I like to just take a fraction more time, remind myself that my first instinct can’t be blindly trusted, and actively engage my brain and fully immerse myself in the moment, to get the ‘old feels’ coming back as soon as possible.
What Would Justin Bonomo Do?
If I don’t feel on top of my game, this is a simple trick I’ll use to help elevate the level and complexity of my thought processes. Take someone whose game you think highly of and talk through hands as though you are them.
This was a trick I used a lot playing mixed games. I created the illusion that Phil Ivey was the perfect poker player who never made a mistake. If I felt myself getting too aggressive and out of line, playing online I’d start saying out loud for every decision: Ivey would fold, Ivey would raise, etc. This quickly brought me back into line - I couldn’t justify a terrible play anymore!
This shouldn’t need to be said, but sometimes your first time back on the scene can involve a lot of friendly greetings with old mates, and a generally more jovial mood. Ruthlessness is the mark of a great competitor, and given I wouldn’t say I’m naturally ruthless away from the table, reminders help!
Don’t mistake ruthlessness for simply meaning: “Raise heaps, re-raise even more, pick off bluffs with bottom pair and stick it in your opponent’s eye.” Ruthlessness can just as easily mean: "Make cunningly big folds, manage your intensity levels such that you take maximum equity away from your opposition, and don’t take your eye off the prize." And of course I should point out: you can simultaneously be ruthless whilst being fun at the table and having a great time!
One other obvious essential coming off a break: Don’t be lazy, watch some training videos and or PokerGO footage; don’t go in completely cold. Preempt and plan for as many challenges as you can before they happen. Good luck if you’re playing!