I’ve been playing in poker tournaments on and off for about 10 years now, and in that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to make your first live poker tournament enjoyable and hopefully successful.
Some of these tips come down to strategy and gameplay, but some come down to just understanding how live tournaments differ as compared to online ones, for example.
I’m certainly not a WSOP-level player, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get there, but nonetheless, I’d like to share with you my tips for making your first live poker tournament a hit.
1. Make Sure You Know Live Poker Etiquette
If this is your first live tournament, you’re going to need to be extra sure you understand poker etiquette in a live setting.
I’m not just talking about the common-sense things such as keeping your hands off the pot or understanding when it’s your turn to bet and what you’re supposed to do when it is. I’m talking about things which are specific to live poker tournaments, such as:
- Stack your chips properly. Don’t try to hide your large-denomination chips, and don’t try to make your stack look bigger than it is. Generally speaking, you should neatly stack them in rows of 20. Make sure the high-value chips are in plain sight. This is fair play and allows other players to assess where they are in comparison to you quickly.
- Show proper respect for players and don’t touch/grab anyone . Don’t set drinks or food on the table. Don’t shout across the table or to anyone at other tables. Don’t excrete bodily gases out of any of your orifices. You get the picture.
- Don’t talk about hands. Even if you fold, you shouldn’t say anything like “Thank goodness I folded.” This can give players still in the game information about what cards someone else is likely to have. Zip it, and don’t talk about hands at all, even when the game is over.
These are just some of the basics. If you want to know more, check out our full guide on live poker etiquette.
2. Practice Good Bankroll Management
Your first live poker tournament isn’t going to be a hit if you crash out in the early stages, is it?
This is where good bankroll management comes in. I suggest taking the time to think about this deeply and decide what you’re going to do before you go in so that you’re not influenced by the mood and emotions of the moment. A few good poker bankroll management tips to follow include:
- Don’t spend so much on buy-ins that you will be playing “lean” in the actual games. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to restrict yourself to 2% of your total bankroll for any given buy-in.
- Avoid excessive risk. You might think this point is obvious, but you’d be surprised what the emotions of the moment can make you do in a poker tournament. Ask yourself how sure you are that you have the winning hand and decide how much to risk based on that. Don’t take significant risks on a bluff, at least not in the early stages. That’s an amateur mistake if there ever was one.
- Get in early. The big blinds will naturally increase as the tournament progresses. This can take away from how many buy-ins you can afford. For example, if big blinds start at $10 and you have a $1,000 bankroll, that’s 100 buy-ins. If you wait until the big blinds are $20, that’s only 50 buy-ins.
Bankroll management isn’t only about minimizing costs and avoiding risk. You also want to strategically build it by stealing blinds, taking risks when you’re sure the odds are in your favor, and grinding out a slow, steady percentage by thinking of your bankroll like an investment. Seeing things this way will change the way you play and will alter your risk-reward calculation in most scenarios. Hey, return of investment is always more important than return on investment, right?!
3. Leave Your Emotions at the Door
Just like in any pursuit which requires strategic thinking, your emotions are not your friend in a live poker tournament. Letting greed, excitement, overconfidence, fear, or pride blind you will be costly and will likely send you crashing out long before you otherwise would.
Yet, how are you to manage your emotions effectively? These are a few tips I’ve learned over the years:
- Be sober. You can get drunk on more than just alcohol — coffee, energy drinks, and even sugar can send you into hyperdrive and can cause you to act erratically. Just because these things are available on every street corner doesn’t mean they don’t have effects on your emotional state. Take it easy on this stuff during a live poker tournament.
- Breathe deep after a big win. Overconfidence is dangerous, and you can almost always spot a player who has just had a big win just by looking at them. Their chests puff out a bit, and their body language changes to display much more confidence. Take a deep breath, let go of the rush (even though it feels good), and get back to calculating poker odds in your head. Those numbers are the only real thing in this game.
- Keep your cool. The other, more negative emotions like anger, pride, and vengeance will equally lead you to destruction in a live poker tournament. If you feel you’ve been cheated or have a beef with another player, bring it up with the tournament official. Don’t shout, don’t fixate on it, and don’t make accusations you can’t prove. All of these will not only make you lose but could get you booted out of the tourney.
I’m a competitive martial artist as well as a poker player. My coach once told me that your emotions defeat you long before your opponent will. I try to remember that in poker, too. A cool head, reacting to each situation as it arises based on logic and cold-blooded calculation, is the only way to prevail and make your first live poker tournament a hit.
4. Have a Goal and Game Plan
This could perhaps be better stated as “understand why you’re here and play accordingly.”
Are you here to win? To get to the bubble? To have fun and try to learn? Getting clear about this will truly help you to form your game plan and strategy.
You would be amazed at how many players sit down to play in a live poker tournament with no game plan whatsoever. Ask them why they’re here, and they’ll tell you it’s to win. However, few pause to think that winning and winning money are different mindsets, even though winning the tournament will naturally lead to money.
You should be implementing some sort of poker strategy to help you meet your goals, rather than just reacting to everything as it happens. Also, how you play in a live poker tournament should be very different from how you might play in cash games. Consider the following:
- In a tournament, it’s all about surviving into the final stages. Chips you win are worth less than chips you lose. This thought should form your early-stage strategy.
- You’ll need to understand the stages of a poker tournament and play according to which one you’re in. At the start, you should play conservatively. In the middle, you should play to build your bankroll. And in the final stages, you should play to win.
- Your strategy should also be based on how you stand in relation to other players at the table. You should play differently against the guy who’s down to his last few chips than you should against the lady with a mountain of high-value chips in front of her. You’ll also want to build a profile in your head of how your opponents have been playing and take that into consideration. This is the psychology element of poker, which in my opinion is one of the most fun things about the game.
Think about what you want out of this tournament. Are you happy to take a risk and crash out in order to learn? Or are you there to make it to the bubble at all costs? Know this and form a plan to get there. Fail to plan, plan to fail.
5. Brush up by Playing Online First
Like all things, practice makes perfect in poker. The more you play, the greater your skill will become, and the better your chances of winning.
It’s likely that most of the people you’ll be playing against play poker online regularly, except maybe the old timers, so you don’t want to be sitting idly while they are getting better every day.
Playing online poker has several advantages which will help make your first live tournament a hit:
- You can play with bonus money, meaning that you can afford to take greater risks. If you lose, it’s not that big of a deal if some of the money was given to you by the house. You’ll file that lesson away and ultimately be a better player for it.
- You can test various poker strategies at low-stakes tables. Again, this will be a lot less costly than when you play at a live tournament where the blinds will inevitably be bigger than in the low-stakes online poker games.
- You can use poker calculators and cheat sheets to learn and memorize the odds of each hand in each scenario. Again, the more you familiarize yourself with these, the greater the likelihood that you’ll know what to do when the real-world scenario comes up.
Heck, if you really want to take things up a notch, build your own poker website. Learn how to create a poker website here.
Another way to get better at poker constantly is to watch it. Did you know that Mike Tyson used to spend his evenings watching old boxing matches? Well, this works the same way. All of that gameplay you watch will filter into your subconscious, and you’ll learn from it without even realizing it.
6. Remember You Either Win or You Learn
This is possibly the most important element in making your first live poker tournament a hit — remember to relax and enjoy yourself. You’re not likely to win the whole thing, but that’s okay because the vast majority of people there will not even finish in the bubble.
Poker tournaments are supposed to be fun, and if you finish in the money, that’s an added bonus. Since this is your first live poker tournament, you likely don’t have the experience to beat the best players, although I’m not saying it’s impossible.
Just chill, learn, don’t worry if you lose, and keep practicing by playing online, studying poker, and evolving/growing as a poker player. Nobody got their poker blackbelt overnight, and that’s just a fact of life.
If you go in planning to have fun, you can’t fail. You’ll only learn, and if you do manage to win the whole shebang, well, that’s just double the fun then, isn’t it? Relax, let go, and enjoy your first live poker tourney.