I played in 3 of the WSOP 1.5K events this summer, and a few other $500+ buy-in tournaments. I am not much of a tournament player, to be honest. I’ve only played maybe 60 live tournaments and just a few HU SNGs online. I used to hate tournaments and only in the last couple of years started to play more of them, slowly starting to appreciate the specific kinds of talents they require. I had a good ROI off the tournaments I’d played but I also knew it was a very small sample size. I know there’s some people who eat and breathe tournament strategy and that those people are far ahead of me in many aspects. Still, I thought I had a good edge on amateur players, so I thought I’d be +EV in most tournaments.
After playing this summer, though, I’m no longer convinced I have much of an edge in these events. While it’s true that there are a lot of bad players in these large buy-in, large field events, I also realize that if I do make it deep, I’m likely to be up against a good number of very skilled tournament specialists, who have decent edges on me. Considering that most of the money is in the top spots, the chances of me getting into those top spots is, at best, a crap shoot. And if I don’t have a good shot at getting into the top spots, then my EV may actually be negative. While I’ve done quite well playing in smaller ($100-300) buy-in tournaments with lots of amateurs, I think I’ve got a big uphill struggle in trying to best a lot of tournament pros in these bigger tournaments.
I knew all this going in, of course, but after playing in these tournaments this summer I felt like my estimate of my edge had lowered substantially. I just know what my weaknesses are, and I’ve never studied tournament strategy in depth, so it’s silly for me to think that these things are a good investment.
Also, I definitely didn’t play my best down there. I’d never played a tournament over a $400 buy-in and then I was playing in $500 and $1,500 ones, and sitting next to known pros like Randy “Nanonoko” Lew. I was not at the top of my confidence, for sure, and my doubts in my game were at an all-time high.
Also, I think I made a mistake in reading Jonathan Little’s first two tournament strategy books right before I started playing that month of tournaments. I think Little’s books are great, and I recommend them, but I also think they threw me off my normal game a bit. I don’t think it’s good to suddenly absorb new theories and information right before you play a lot. I’ve always known this, and have even advised some people to not read my book right before they play a tournament, because I know this can be a factor. You start thinking about new ideas and you’re suddenly unsure of what the right thing (or at least your usual thing) to do would be because you’ve got new ideas floating around in with your old ideas. So I think that was a factor in me being at low-confidence.
As to the WSOP tournaments themselves, I had never before played in structures with such long-blind levels before (hour long). (And most of the other Vegas tourneys I played were also 45 min to an hour.) Even though you only start with 4,500 chips, which doesn’t seem like a lot, the first two blind levels are 25-25 and 25-50, so it was actually more playing room than I expected. The first and second $1.5K WSOP events I played, I was way too impatient, and it took until the 3rd one where I felt more confident about the pacing of the structure. I tend towards too much aggression as it is, so my misplaced impatience in those events definitely didn’t help me do well and I found myself making, in hindsight, some too aggro moves.
I also became more comfortable with some of the more common tournament bet-sizing. Like the 2x-2.5x pre-flop raise. I was definitely not used to playing with skilled players, with most of my tournament experience has led me to adapt my raise sizes to the table and to specific players, with my raise sizing being variable. Playing against more good players in Vegas (and it’s usually easy to tell who they are), I started seeing the obvious benefits of having consistent bet-sizing, and at keeping the bets smaller, so you weren’t committing yourself to the pot too much. I also had a better understanding of the smaller 1/3 or 1/2 pot size bets and how they made sense.
With regards to poker tells, I didn’t see or use many poker tells in many significant pots. This trip drove home to me the differences between tournaments and cash games. Players in tournaments are just much more buttoned-up and intently focused than players in cash games. So even fairly bad tournament players are likely to emulate what they’ve seen on TV; stoic behavior, pausing before acting, trying to maintain the mythic poker face.
I did get a few good reads here and there. Probably the most useful one was for very amateur players who had this tendency: if they were waiting-for-action, on the flop for example, and you were heads-up with them as the pre-flop raiser, they would tend to stare at you alertly when they were weak and not wanting a bet, whereas when they had a hand they were happy calling with, they wouldn’t look at you as much or not at all. This common tendency was true for maybe three players that I noticed. It only affected a few pots but I think I maximized my profit in those spots.
For instance, against one of these players I’d raised in early position w/ QJs and he called behind me. The flop was QJ4. He was staring at me intently, something I’d already watched him do when weak against other players. So I felt it was quite probable that if I bet he’d fold that flop, so I checked. He bet, probably putting me on AK. I called. Turn was a blank that made a flush draw possible, and I checked again. He bet, and I check-raised him and he folded immediately. I feel like that’s money I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t noticed that tendency.
Against a couple other players who were showing this tendency, it made me feel better about following up my c-bet with a turn bet in spots where I probably would have usually given up on the turn.
There was also quite a bit of bet-timing tells from amateur players. For instance, when an amateur player calls a bet on the flop or turn (and less so pre-flop) immediately, they most often have a weak to medium strength hand or draw. While this didn’t affect any significant hands I played, I did witness a lot of spots where a player making an immediate call clued me in to his possible holdings. (I have a few blog posts about Immediate Calls in the blog if you want to check them out.)