The Truth About Poker Tournaments I

The Truth About Poker Tournaments I

Poker Fundamentals

Tournaments are great. They're fun, exhilarating and addictive. And the truth about poker tournaments is that they can be too addictive for many players.


And it goes beyond the game. If you’re someone who’s self-worth is closely connected to your poker results. Then when the spark of your tourney life dies, the quality of your real life diminishes too. 

When I started playing tournaments, it was for a few reasons. First, I liked the excitement. Tournaments made me feel alive. I also felt the competition was weaker than cash games, and therefore it was easier to make money. Finally, there was a cool group of people playing them, and I wanted to get to know them better

Immediately after starting, my mindset and my attitude shifted. I went from being a slow, steady, hard working and consistent grinder to someone who was banking on longshots and hoping that the poker gods would grant me great fortune. To someone who was always hungry for more, never satisfied. To someone who pushed himself way beyond his limits. In short, I was showing the signs of a problem gambler. The addict part of my brain was strongly stimulated.

But I didn’t know I had a problem right away.

It took some serious suffering to make that clear. 

It began with realizing the recovery from sessions took longer than the sessions themselves. One Sunday session was disrupting the rest of my week and my mood was completely tied to my results. I was forgoing eating, sleeping, exercising and spending time with friends just to get my fix. 

I realized I had a problem when my only goal for winning at Fallsview was so I could play more events. I’d even mapped out the schedule: what and how much more I could play with each pay jump? It was great motivation, but after I had to take two weeks off to do nothing but sleep and let my body recover from all I’d pushed it through. I had to let my mind recover from being in a perpetual state of fear, competition and excitement. It was then I realized the last thing I should do after getting a big win is play more tournaments.

And that’s the thing about playing tournament poker: without perspective, it’s a trap. It will consume you. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

When you are chasing numbers, there is never enough. On the other hand, when you’re in it for experience, and it can facilitate other experience, that’s when you’re really doing things right. Of course, you actually have to follow through and have those experiences. You have to spend that time with those you care about, or buy those things that make you happy when you get your score. It’s vital to give yourself those rewards because it keeps your motivation up and it lends purpose and value to the challenges you’re facing at the tables. It adds depth and value to what is otherwise a somewhat empty pursuit.

It’s about more than winning.

So many of my roommates would be miserable, and when I’d ask why, they’d say, “I just need to win, man.” Like many players, they associated winning with happiness, and didn’t think they could be content without it. Their minds had been completely warped. The truth was they felt bad for a multitude of reasons, but since they were only seeing the world through the lens of poker and competition, they were limited in what they felt the solutions to their problems were.

The gambling high is concentrated and amplified by the raising stakes, time constraints and potentially massive payoffs. I’ve heard people say playing a three day tournament is like putting three years of poker play into one day. Most people go broke, a few people make money, and some players win a lot. It just happens at a much faster rate. And the faster things happen, the more stimulating they are, the more pronounced the impact is on the mind and the emotions, and the more addictive it is. Just like any drug. Just like any extreme experience.

Now, I’m not trying to say tournaments are bad. Tournaments are fantastic, but I feel that as someone who’s played this game for a long time - who’s observed others who played tournaments exclusively and the impact in had on their body, their mind and their world outlook - it’s important for me to hand out a little reality check so that you can be aware of what you’re getting into - especially if you want to make poker tournaments your exclusive source of income and/or entertainment.

Tournaments are meant to be played every once in awhile as a fun competition to see who could come out on top. Luck will always be more pronounced than in cash games so that the weaker players actually have a legitimate chance of emerging victorious. Tournaments are meant to be played as a supplementary experience; a chance to get the blood rushing and the adrenaline pumping. It feels good to feel that sort of aliveness. That’s why people throw themselves out of planes, free dive, drink booze: all experiences that have the potential to be dangerous at best, deadly at worst.

These high-octane endeavors get us into a state we’re not supposed to be in 24/7. This is why I think that playing cash games or something that’s more consistent is optimal for people who want to go pro. Cashgames are less turbulent and they afford you more flexibility around your own schedule. Tournaments should be a journey you embark on every once in awhile just to test yourself, to push yourself a little harder, and to see in what ways you can grow and how the experience can change you.

The truth about tournaments is that you’ll lose 80-90% of the time.

And that can be a tough pill to swallow. You’ll lose a lot of the time, even though you’re making solid plays. It’s the nature of the beast, friend, and in tournament poker, it’s unavoidable. But that said, the high that comes on those rare occasions is appealing. 

So the question is: do you think you can survive the frequent lows and handle the exceedingly rare, but extremely potent high - if and when the time comes?

I know that I’ve made some poor decisions after big scores because I just didn’t know what to do. I was in such an unfamiliar place. I couldn’t understand what had happened or how I was supposed to adjust to my new reality. Fortunately, I’ve learned and now have a healthier understanding of the appropriate way to act after a big score: namely, lock it up. I don’t fire it back into the beast.

If you’re someone who’s self esteem is strongly affected by their results, choose a poker format that allows you to win much more frequently and lose less often. And if you’re being honest with yourself, and you’re someone who simply cannot handle losing, then it would probably be smarter if you didn’t play poker at all, because there are many hands that you’re going to lose, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but there are also plenty of careers out there where every effort you put in you gets a reward, and the reward comes with absolute certainty. Or as much certainty as there ever is in the world.  You show up. You do your job. You get paid. Simple as that. These sorts of professions allow you to plan your life around a certain income and certain outcomes.

That said, resilience is a powerful trait, and there’s nothing like adversity to help us build it. Ask yourself: at this point in my life, what’s most important to me?

Because we can only do one thing at a time, you might as well put your efforts into something that helps you satisfy that thing, whatever it is. Don’t waste your time and energy on something that will only satisfy you in an extreme longshot outcome, because - in poker and in life - the satisfaction of a big score is transient. If you are not truly content, extra coin isn’t going to fill the void. 

This is the truth about poker tournaments, and it’s a major lesson I’ve learned in my 10+ years as a professional poker player. We want the game to give us everything, but there are certain things it can’t offer us, and it’s our duty to look within ourselves, and to look outside of the game for the outlets and activities which will satisfy those desires.

As you broaden your horizons, you’ll see the infinite possibilities, and you’ll realize that it probably doesn’t have to be as hard as you’re making it out to be. Just look out the window.

Photo Credit: Arnaud Fraioli | Flickr