For most of my 11+ years as a professional poker player I have focused on cash games rather than tournaments. For those of you who read this blog that are unfamiliar with poker I will break down the differences for you. In a cash game you buy in for an amount in real dollars (for example, when I played at Parx I would buy in for $3,000 in chips) and the blinds stay the same throughout the game (at Parx the blinds were $10/$10). You can re-buy at any point if you lose chips and you can choose to play for any amount of time that you wish. Once you decide you are done for the day, you cash out your chips and you have your result for the day. In a tournament, you buy in for a fixed price and receive a set number of tournament chips. In the WSOP Main event this year, the buy-in was $10,000 and you received 50,000 tournament chips. The blinds increase in set intervals and if you lose all of your chips you are eliminated from the tournament and lose your $10,000. The total prize pool is distributed among the top finishers (this varies by tournament and is usually somewhere between the top 10%-15%) with the prizes increasing as you get closer to the top. In this years main event there were 6,737 players who put up the $10,000 and they paid out the top 1,011 players with the first player eliminated getting $15,000 and the winner of the tournament receiving 8 MILLION dollars. The strategies and skills involved in cash games vs. tournaments are pretty different; almost so different that I think they could be classified as completely different games.
Early on in my poker career I played a lot of tournaments per year, especially for someone who derived the majority of his income from cash games. I really enjoyed the competitive nature of the tournament and the excitement that getting deep in it would bring. My girls were both either not born yet or still very young plus I was playing online cash games as my primary income so when I would leave to play a tournament there was far less stress on the kids and Jody and therefore the enjoyment I had playing in tournaments was high and the pressure was low. I had a lot of success in tournaments and hit my biggest score in January of 2011 when I finished 3rd in a Borgata $3500 buy in tournament for $189,000. I followed that up by chopping a small $300 tourney in the Dominican Republic and then chopping the $1100 main there for $21,000. Then on April 15, 2011 on a day poker players refer to as Black Friday the government shut down the online poker sites and my consistent cash game income was taken from me. We spent the entire summer in Vegas and I had a pretty poor showing at the WSOP. I came back and won a $500 tourney at Parx for $18,000 and at that point I had picked up my cash game schedule of playing from 9 or 10 am to 6 or 7 pm at Parx every weekday.
The change from playing online and being home every day to going to Parx 5 days a week for 10-12 hours a day (45 min drive or so each way) was tough. The girls were starting to get a bit older and they did not like me having to leave the house. They obviously adjusted but it was tough. I didn’t play a ton of tournaments during this stretch and when I did the results were very poor. I know that I didn’t run particularly well but I feel like the combination of playing so many live hours plus knowing that I was away from my family for extra time to play these tournaments hurt my performance. Tournaments require a special combination of patience and focus. Each day lasts far longer than any cash game session I would play and you need to be able to remain patient when things aren’t going well in the tournament or else you can make a quick exit. I had a pretty long stretch during this time where I didn’t cash in a single tournament although I didn’t play a ton of them either. I had noticed at some point during this time that especially towards the end of the day I began having panic attacks at the table. They never got so severe that I had to forfeit a stack and leave permanently but I would often have to get up and walk around to kinda shake them off. Even though I had a ton of experience playing live poker, sometimes the adrenaline that comes with playing a big hand and the focus expended throughout the day can combine to break you down a bit.
In November of 2013, NJ online poker started and I could once again resume my online cash game grind and be back at home with my girls. Immediately, I thought this would have a huge positive impact on my live poker tournament performance. At the end of December, I had the major panic attack that I detailed here. I honestly wasn’t too surprised that it happened at the Borgata considering I had plenty of mini panic attacks there previously. Jody was pregnant with Andrew and then he was born in July so I didn’t actually play my first live tournament in 2014 until August which meant I had gone a full year without playing a live tournament. I had skipped the entire WSOP including the Main event for the first time since 2008. I cashed in that first tournament and then played three more that year in which I didn’t cash. I was meditating every day by that point and my anxiety had improved but I definitely was still having issues. Having a newborn at home along with the two other kids made it tough for me to want to leave despite Jody always encouraging me to do whatever I needed to do.
In 2015, I played 8 tournaments total including the Main event. I had two cashes including a final table at the $1,100 MSPT event in Maryland where I got 8th place for $7,800. By this point, I felt pretty good about handling the anxiety issues but it was still really hard to be away from the kids. We’ve had a lot of issues with Cameron that further complicated things as well.
So as you can see, there are a lot more differences between cash games and tournaments for my situation specifically. The good news is I feel like I’m finally at a point where I can feel comfortable playing more tournaments and being fully present in the moment while playing them. We hired a nanny that we really like at the start of the summer. I still feel bad when I leave the kids because they get pretty upset but I’m trying to use them as a positive motivational tool to make sure I play my best at all times. They want me to win SO BAD and the disappointment on their faces when I don’t win the tournament is crushing. I’ve always been able to use them as a positive motivational tool to grind and try to be perfect with every decision so I know that I can use this pressure in a good way.
I didn’t play any tournaments at all this year until the WSOP main event a few weeks ago. On day 1, I had a few times where I could feel the anxiety creeping up and I felt like maybe I played my B- game as a result of it. Regardless of how many live poker hands I’ve played in my life, it still can be difficult getting back into that groove especially when your mind is flying in all directions. On day 2, I started off at a pretty fun table but still had some early jitters and got off to a rough start. The table broke pretty quickly and I got moved to a new table (for those of you not familiar with how poker tournaments work, they close tables and relocate the new players to tables with empty seats as players are eliminated). As soon as I got to my new table, I was greeted by a man named Gary, a mullet wearing the Dude type of guy. Gary was playing in his first ever main event, after winning a 20 person tournament at his poker club around Washingtonville, NY. It’s really hard to describe how amazing Gary is in words. He is quite possibly the happiest person I’ve ever met and he talked non stop but not in the way that it ever got old. He had all of his own catch phrases for different parts of the game. He was basically one of my favorite people that I’ve ever played poker with. He made me so comfortable at the table that for the first time in a very long time I completely forgot about any and all anxiety and panic.
Gary was at the table next to mine on day 3 and I could see everyone enjoying his presence there. When he got knocked out a few hours into day 3 I walked over and gave him a hug as did a lot of other people in the room who had been seated with him the previous day. I felt really sad that he got knocked out but you could see that he had the best time of his life over the previous three days. I eventually got knocked out at the very end of day 3 in 817th place by Griffin Benger who made it down to the final table of nine that will be played out on October 30th. I received $16,007 for my finish.
After spending a week vacationing in San Diego, I got back just in time to head down to the Borgata for the Summer Poker Open main event. Deciding to actually play this event was tough because Day 2 would fall on my birthday and the final table would fall on Jody’s birthday. I felt like I could use some of the positive momentum from the main event cash and felt like I was in a really good place mentally after playing with Gary in the main event. I had a great day 1 in the tournament where everything went really well. I got off to a great start on day 2 and probably had one of the biggest stacks in the room with about 130 players left from the 557 that started but then I lost a big coinflip to Darren Elias that would have probably given me the chip lead at the time. That table broke shortly after and I was moved to a new table where I didn’t win a single hand for about two hours. Fortunately the structure in this tournament is very good and I was able to win an all in and survive until day 3 where we started 12 people from the money. Unfortunately, I was eliminated 8 people shy from the money when I flopped top set against a flush and didn’t make a full house. A wide range of emotions hit me when I was eliminated. I was obviously disappointed that I had played three days to receive no money, including being away from the kids on my birthday. But I also felt more confident than ever before that I am on the way to having a lot of success in tournaments again.
I will always view poker tournaments as a sort of bonus income to my real job which is playing cash games. I am now certain that I am in the best place I need to be in order to succeed in these tournaments due to 1) The support I have from Jody as well as knowing she has someone helping her with kids. 2) My feeling of confidence and lack of anxiety at the table due to meditation and honestly just the thought of my buddy Gary. 3) I am in the best shape of my life due to exercising and eating well. 4) The drive and desire to see the excitement on my kids faces when I tell them that I won the tournament.
I have always tried to view every cash game decision as the most important decision of my life and I feel like that has given me a big edge over my opponents. For a lot of tournament players, each tournament is just another tournament. If they get eliminated then “oh well there is another tournament the next day or week”. I choose to view each tournament as the most important tournament I will ever play and I think that gives me an edge that I plan to cash in on in the near future. I will be playing the $3,500 WPT Borgata Poker Open main event towards the end of September as well as the WPT Maryland Live tournament at the beginning of October. If I feel up to writing more about poker, I will write up some summaries of my victories after the tournaments 🙂
Thanks for reading!