While I can't bring myself to call poker players athletes (a lot of us can't even run a half mile without dying), I will say that we do have a LOT of mental and physical fortitude when it comes to surviving the long and grueling days of tournament poker.
If you're a cash game player, yes, a lot of times you have this same resolve. This blog, however, is only about tournament play as tournament players do not get to pick when they show up, when they break, or pretty much anything. Surviving this long day and staying sharp is a must if you have any plans of walking out of the casino the victor.
As someone who has somehow survived playing tournaments online and live for over 12 years, I wanted to share some of my tips and tricks to retaining your sanity, not peeing your pants, not keeling over and dying, all while still being successful at the game.
Before we jump into the tips, let's have a group whine fest to make sure we are all on the same page. We need to understand what makes tournaments so challenging from a survival standpoint if we have any hopes of learning how to conquer them. First, they're long. Not like long, but loooooonng. Sometimes you'll be playing 10,12, 14-hour days for multiple days.
You get a 10-15 minute break every two hours and one short dinner break (sometimes). You are literally glued to that table for hours upon hours and forced to focus. The conditions are not ideal either. You're usually sitting with people who smell and don't know how to bathe, the lighting is usually too bright or too dark, the air is sometimes smoky or musky, and the chairs seem like they were designed to double as torture devices.
The conditions are brutal, but it's the price we pay for greatness, right? Let's talk about what we can do to help extend our longevity and make it through these grueling days.
Sitting in the same position for hours on end is terrible for your body and your back. If you don't believe me, just ask anyone who works in an office for a living. Not only will you be damaging your body for good, but you'll also be inducing pain and discomfort in the short term that might lead to impatience at the tables. The answer? You have to move. Every 20 to 30 minutes you need to stand up and at the very least shake things out behind your chair.
I understand you can't go for a walk or anything that often but you can at least stand up to give your spine and your muscles a rest. On your breaks, make sure you are getting up and moving around. You don't have to go run two miles on break but at least get up and walk around for a few minutes. Personally, I like to try and stand on my entire break even if I'm eating.
Your body needs fuel. If you don't eat, your body can't function properly which means your mind can't function properly. I can't tell you how many poker players I know that won't eat before they play or even worse, will pump their bodies full of garbage food. I don't want to walk you through an entire lesson on how to eat properly, but if you want to be a champ, you need to eat like one.
Casinos are not always the best spots to get healthy brain food. Usually, you'll have your choice of pizza, burgers, and maybe a rough looking salad from a spot in the food court. Hooray for food poisoning! How do you combat this? You have a few options.
First, plan ahead. Make sure you eat something healthy BEFORE you get to the casino. If you're going to be there all day (which should be the plan), bring a backpack with some snacks. Tupperware is your friend or even throwing some stuff in ziplock baggies. Everyone always laughs at the guy or gal that is packing snacks but always wants to be their friend as soon as they get hungry and tired of slamming down their 80th slice of pizza.
Second, don't forget that you can use Uber Eats and other food delivery services. Sometimes they can be a bit squirrely about delivering to casinos, but if you tell them, you'll meet them in the lobby or outside it's usually all good in the hood. They'll usually have a lot better options than you can find in the casino.
The good news about both of these options is they will also save you some money. Casino food is expensive and bringing your own food is WAY cheaper and almost always healthier.
You may be catching on to the trend already; you have to be mentally sharp the entire duration of a poker tournament if you want any shot of taking home the win. A huge key to this is eliminating any distractions you might have in your life before getting to the tables. Otherwise, you may find yourself worrying or having to deal with things while you're trying to stay focused.
Be proactive and take care of things that might come up as an issue. For example, let's say you have an important work call that you think might be coming in while you are playing. Call that person the day before the tournament or morning of and get it out of the way. What are you going to do during the tournament if they call? You're either going to have to leave the table at what may be a crucial time, or you'll have to ignore the call and then worry that you jeopardized your work and personal life.
This is, of course, stuff that you are going to want to think about BEFORE the day of the tournament. You should be planning things to be taken care of at least a week out before the tournament. Again, this may sound like overkill, but as the game gets tougher, you need to look for every little edge you can find.
Breaks in poker tournaments are few and far between. The standard these days is 10-15 minutes every two hours and then somewhere between a 30 minute to an hour and a half dinner break (if you get one at all). For those of that haven't played in a poker tournament before, this is not much time away from the felt.
You need to make sure that the few minutes you are getting away from the felt you are using to your advantage best. This is going to come down to some personal preference. Some people like to use breaks to bounce hands and scenarios off of their friends to see how they would play it. Some people like to talk zero poker and give their minds a rest.
For me, I lean towards no poker talk at all unless I have a pressing question that I need help figuring out how to proceed against. For example, if a player is picking on me or doing something I'm not used to seeing, I may ask for some thoughts on it. I also may ask if anyone has experience with a certain player that just moved to my table. I will certainly not use the break to talk about bad beats or listen to bad beat stories from other people.
Our minds are incredible machines, but they need a break every now and then to cool off. I typically like to kick on the music, walk around outside and get some fresh air, and let myself mentally reset for a couple of minutes. I'll also use the bathroom as well which can sometimes be a nightmare especially if you are a male at a major event.
The lines can be silly long, so you need to have a plan. Look for hidden bathrooms or ones that a little further away before the tournament. Poker players can be lazy and will always go to the closest bathroom where one only a few minutes away will have no line whatsoever. If you're trying to relax, you don't want to be spending 15 minutes in a bathroom line and then running back to get to your table before the break is over.
I am going to do my best not to sound like a mother here, but this is necessary for those of you that want to succeed in poker. You have to allow your body to get rest, nutrition, and some relaxation the day and night before a big poker tournament. If you are out hammered until 5 am, you can't ever expect to be able to bring your A game to the table. You may THINK you're still playing well, but I can promise you that you are not.
If you want to be sharp, you need to take care of your body. This means 6-8 hours of sleep, a nice healthy meal (not McDonald's), and not a ton of drugs or alcohol. Yes, this sounds like no fun, but you have to ask yourself why you are there to play that tournament. Are you there to have fun or are you there to win? I can promise you that winning is a lot of fun so going that route checks off both boxes.
Being prepared and understanding that you have a long day ahead of you is crucial to surviving the day. The second you start getting tired and wanting to leave is the same second that your mind will start subconsciously looking for ways to gamble and take chances you don't want to take. It's amazing how your brain will start looking for crazy coin flips or wild rationale to talk you into making crazy calls just because it wants to go home.
Your mind can be your greatest weapon at the table, or it can be your worst enemy. This is the nature of things that are powerful. Treat your body and mind well, prep them like they deserve, and take care of any other distractions that might lead you to want to leave early. I promise if you take all of this to heart and implement it into your life, you're going to be setting yourself up for success.
Yes, there is still the whole issue of playing well, utilizing proper strategy, and running well but you're at least setting yourself up for success. I like to use the analogy of a race car driver. Winning for them does come down to how well they drive, how well they strategize for the race, and if they're lucky enough to avoid accidents, but none of that matters if they show up to the race with flat tires.