Strategic Planning Wins Tournaments

Someone recently asked me how to stay alert at the table in poker tournaments late in the evening. He mentioned seeing players get tired late in the tournament and just blowing it because they are exhausted. I thought about this and realized he had asked a very good question, one that deserves some thoughtful discussion. The answer really lies in planning for the tournament you about to play.

Exhaustion and bad playing is a real phenomenon, and it can be a real problem. I do believe that the stronger more experienced players have an advantage as the tournament drags on past eight or nine hours for the day, but that is through sheer conditioning. However, most players rarely if ever play this long of a session regularly, and most low level tournaments finish in three or four hours. Conditioning aside, with a little strategic planning, you can still be a contender.

Best Advice Tip: If you feel yourself fading during a live game, CASH OUT!

In tournament play, just about the time you are yawning, the blinds are and antes are getting huge and forcing the action. This is when you need to make real adjustments and decisions for your tournament life. All players at the table are facing the same issues just at differing levels and the good player must be aware of who is suffering and who is handling the stress. Some will wilt and others will thrive. Your job is to be the one player at the table that is thriving.

To do this, you must know and understand this rule: The player that is the best prepared has the best chance for success.

Seems simple and easy, right? Wrong! This is the rule that is ignored the most. You should be prepared, mentally and physically, to play all the way to the end of the tournament and know before the tournament starts what is required to make it to the end. At the World Series of Poker you are starting at noon and playing until at least two in the morning, possibly until three or four. You need to come to the table prepared to play 16 hours if necessary.

You need to be physically prepared. What does it take to play 16 hours of elite level poker? You need to be well rested. This does not mean simply getting to bed at a decent hour the night before. No, you cannot lie yourself into believing you need only four or five hours sleep. You need a full nights’ sleep. Be in bed by ten or eleven the night before and set an alarm for around nine. You should be fully rested and feeling good as you get ready for the tournament. Not only that, but I highly recommend a fairly low stress and restful day before the tournament. Do not expect to drive several hours and arrive just in time to sit down. You are only setting yourself up misery.

You need to be mentally prepared. Preparation includes knowing the round length, blind structure, breaks and just understanding the tournament. Get comfortable by knowing your table and seat assignment the day before. You should be clear on the order the tables are breaking and what direction you are moving. Will you be moved to another room and if so which one? These things need to be clear to you the day before the tournament and comfortably in your mind before you head to the tournament.

Good Break Advice Tip: Scope out the location of the bathrooms in relation to your table and the doors. Count on long lines.

Early to bed, early to rise. Have an outline of your morning prepartions. Get up, take a shower and shave. Wear comfortable clothes and dress in layers so you are prepared for a warm or cold room. Your tournament preparations should include a bag with everything you need for a long day, including a change of clothes just-in-case. Pack any medications, including simply aspirin or ibuprofen or prescriptions, and a back up pair of glasses (two of the thing I see players often forget).

To eat or not to eat? What to eat on tournament day is a big question. Personally, I try to eat a light breakfast but one with some calories and I keep it a little on the bland side. I prefer to eat oatmeal, toast or muffin, and a piece of fruit. I avoid high sugar, greasy or spicy foods. The food should be easy to digest and not cause any stomach problems. If I have coffee with breakfast I keep it to one cup and try to avoid any sort of bounce from caffeine.

In my small bag of supplies I include bottled water. I also include snacks such as power bars, nuts, an apple. I snack sparingly, just enough to not feel hungry. My goal is to have the energy I need, when I need it. During the early portion of the tournament I like to stay hydrated by drinking a little water, but not too much because as I do not want to put my bladder to the test.

Bathroom breaks require strategic planning. If you have done some pre-tournament legwork, you will know the locations of the bathrooms. Once break is called, be prepared for a mass exodus and long lines. Using the bathroom on break is something I do out of habit and it does not matter if I need to go or not. Just go when you have the chance, because you are not going to have many. The bathroom situation at big tournaments is horrible and if you can get somebody to stand in line for you, you can get in and out without any stress.

Best Break Advice Tip: Get someone to stand in and save a place in the bathroom line for you.

Dinner break. You should have already planned out where and what you plan to eat. Hopefully, you have a support team and they will go to the restaurant and order your food so you just sit down and eat a relaxed light meal. If not, employ the bathroom break strategy. Once again use the same guideline as breakfast. Keep your meal light and small, you have snacks if you need them later. I can usually eat in 20 to 30 minutes if my team has done their job. Whatever time you have after eating should be spent relaxing. If time permits, go back to the room and lie down, change clothes, or take a quick shower before heading back to the tournament.

Post-dinner break is when it becomes essential to be alert. You should be refreshed post-dinner break so you are prepared to take advantage of the other players getting tired and starting making mistakes. From eight thirty to ten is really a time when your preparation leaves you with a huge advantage over the rest of the field. The first break after dinner usually two hours after dinner is when I take an outdoor walk. A brisk walk outside in the cold fresh air usually serves to wake me up and get my body going again.

Between ten and midnight is hard on everyone; at this point you have been playing all day and it is close to normal bed time for most players. I am an advocate for exercise during this period; even just a short walk around the room between hands. Get out of the chair and make sure your body knows this is not the time to relax and get ready for bed. I will even jump up and down and expend some extra energy during this time.

After midnight the end is near. With only two hours remaining, now is the time to use caffeine and sugar as stimulants to power through the final hours of play. I will usually beak out a Pepsi at this point. I want to play faster than everyone else and I want to be fully alert and overly aggressive. The crash of coming down off a sugar and caffeine high is not critical at this point; I will just keep pouring it into my system until we are done for the night. If the caffeine is not doing the trick you need to combine it with exercise. If drastic measures are called for, go outside in the cold without a jacket and scream at the top of your lungs. You need to call upon adrenalin and endorphins to carry you through the rest of the tournament. Remember there is no tomorrow so pullout all the stops to get through tonight.

What about tomorrow? If the tournament ends later than four in the morning and you are expected back by noon you might consider an over-the-counter sleep aid, then plan on waking up only one hour before the start of the tournament. You need some sleep to be able to play. Use the same approach and know that you will be less rested and have to work that much harder the second day.

I hope this helps you play a long tournament day without getting tired and just giving away your chips. Remember your opponents are tired and looking to make a mistake so be the one that benefits from their fatigue.

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