It’s the opening stages of the opening day of a major poker tournament and for a new player it is an unfamiliar world. It may also seem uneventful, boring even, as hundreds of players with the same starting stack play mostly small pots that will have very little impact on the eventual result.
But for a professional player, these moments are crucial too. And in the first article of a new series named “The Daily Strategy”, we allow a member of Team PokerStars Pro to see the tournament through their eyes.
The Dutch sensation Lex Veldhuis explains what is going on, what to do, and what to look out for in level one of day one.
The plan for the early stages
My plan on the first couple of levels in a major tournament is to play a lot of pots with suited connectors, hands that flop decently for very low prices, and try to win big pots. You risk very little by putting little in but the pot can get very big.
Because you’re so deep, suited connectors become better to play. You go for bigger hands with them – flushes and straights, whereas if you play pairs you can of course make sets, but with a hand like ace-jack off-suit on a jack-high board, you don’t want to play a big pot. If you have six-seven of diamonds and its Ten-Five-Four and the turn is another diamond, then you’re very comfortable playing a big pot if you hit on the river.
The concept of being “deep”
When you play tournaments online you’re used to having a shallower stack – fewer big blinds. Live, you start with bigger stacks, because you have more time. You also get to play more hands online than you do live and you try to compensate that by being a lot deeper which means sometimes you start a tournament with 300 big blinds which is unheard if. It’s a very different form of poker and it’s very important to adjust to that.
More big blinds is good, for you or your opponent
The advantage of having a lot of big blinds is that there is more room either to get paid off or more room to make a big move.
Normally people think they might be pot committed and they’ll just call you down with a weakish kind of hand, because they don’t have time and their stack is running out. In this situation they’ll lay it down because they think: “I still have 26 of my 30 and still have a lot of room”.
Sticking with what you’re comfortable with
I don’t know if it’s a mistake to play a little tighter at the start because it’s all about what you’re comfortable with. If you do play with marginal hands, six-seven suited, but you’re not comfortable playing a king-six-four flop, then it’s not correct of you to play that hand.
It’s all about experience and what you’re comfortable with. If you know how to play a little looser you can grow into it, see what other players are doing and how they’re doing it. It’s all about adjusting – how do the people think you’re playing? Then do the opposite.
Learning to control your game
You have to look at what hands are calling you down. If you think you have a very tight image and you try to bluff two rivers and they’re calling with middle pair, then you don’t have a tight image. You have to adjust accordingly. It’s a constant trial by fire. You first have to watch a couple of times. If it’s going bad then, OK, they’ve figured you out. Switch gears again and do something different.
It’s one of the bigger problems in my game because everybody knows I’m really aggressive. It took me a long time to adjust to that. At the beginning I thought “OK, I’m just going to bluff even harder.” Now I’ve finally settled down and I play a bit tighter and people just call me down every single hand. Until they’re going to play big folds against me I’m going to play like this. So If I see somebody show middle set and then fold to me, then I’m going to start playing aggressively.
Developing the ability to spot patterns
Once you start playing live you have to get comfortable with yourself and your own actions, and everything around you, before you can start to comprehend what’s going on in other people’s heads. For me it took three or four big live tournaments to see how people would classify me as an aggressive European. Even then I don’t think I adjusted well.
So as soon as you feel more comfortable at the table open up to what other players are thinking. Start thinking about what hands they’re showing. If you don’t do that at the first three tournaments it might take you another five before you start thinking of that part of the game. Keep it at the back of your mind.
What to look for in other players
I have this standard label that I’ll give somebody until I get more information. If there’s an older person at the table I’ll classify them as tight. That’s just 90 per cent of the people I play with that are older are tight, so it’s a good assumption to make until they prove otherwise.
There are so many small things you can pick up. However polite it is when people introduce themselves to the dealers… professionals don’t do that. Then you think: “I don’t have to bluff this guy.” I’m just going to value bet very strongly and adjust accordingly, because the weaker you think a player is the less special stuff you have to do to extract money. Again, I’m going to play very basic in pot.
All stuff you have to pick up on. That’s why it’s important to arrive rested, and to concentrate even when you’re not in the hand. I think that’s where I pick up the most. If I’m not in the hand I’m aware of everything.
The benefit of longer levels
You’re going to be deeper for a longer period of time. Creativity gets more room, which is important. But even for tight players who play very straightforward they have more time to wait for good hands. It’s beneficial to everybody. The slower the structure the more actual poker there is. When you get shorter you don’t have enough room to do stuff and are forced into decisions. That’s delayed a bit. Overall for poker tournaments it’s always good when they add time.
The dangers of overplaying big pairs
Sometimes you see this when the blinds are 50-100 and you have a 30,000 stack, which is insanely big. You see people getting all in with queens against aces. You really have to wonder with queens: “Do I really have to risk my own tournament after one hour of play when I have so much room to do other stuff?”
If you have queens or even kings or ace-king, which is a really strong hand, and raise and get re-raised, be comfortable with just calling and not always putting in the four bet. Don’t be afraid to play small pots. It’s weird because usually people don’t want to play big pots but their actions afterwards kind of make them play big pots. They inflate them to try to push people out but that’s not always what happens. Suddenly you’re stuck in a gigantic pot with a hand that’s up against other strong hands.
What to consider a good day one
I see a lot of people make goals: “I want to finish the day with 70k.” But in a game where very short term you’re dependent on cards as much as good reads I think it’s silly to give yourself something to be satisfied with.
I aim to play every hand as good as I can. If I bust or make day two then that’s either way. But as long as I can think after the tournament that I made all my decisions accordingly or that I made a mistake I couldn’t have known at the time – but maybe I could plug the hole – then I’m satisfied.
It’s very easy too. If I have three times my starting stack I’ll be through-the-roof excited. But it doesn’t mean you made a better effort than when you’re out. It’s important to be honest with yourself and look at decisions in a vacuum, not towards what the result was.
When to change up a gear
It’s usually after three levels. Then you have a pretty good read on what people are doing and you can make a more specific game plan.
You see that a person is folding a lot to re-raises. Okay now I’m going to re-raise him a little more. Or the person to your left is very aggressive. Now I’m going to play a little tighter and open less hands so he cannot attack me as much.
Now there’s a more player specific plan coming into play. And if you see how that works or two or three levels then you’re into the next phase of seeing how it’s working out for you. With a great structure you have to time to do this. So you can sit back and look what’s happening and then you can readjust and re-readjust. Poker is all about adjusting.
Looking back on that first major tournament
My first major tournament was EPT London season two or three, very early. I was really nervous and if I think back my fundamental poker skills were insanely bad. I was thinking very result-orientated, a mistake I mentioned before. In the end I had 15 big blinds and got it in with ace-king against kings. I was actually thinking about a way I could have played the hand differently, where I would have still been in the tournament. It was just a constant struggle of being comfortable with the things around me.
Things that made me uncomfortable were silly stuff. “Am I throwing my chips in right?” If you do the things in the most amateurish way possible people around you will appreciate it! I was constantly thinking about it, second guessing my decisions.
I’d never played against that many people so deep-stacked. I couldn’t label people like I do now because I didn’t have any experience. It was so new, I was kind of lost. I bled a lot of chips without knowing it. And actually my final decision that made me question myself was the only good one I made.
It’s tough, it’s definitely tough, so I would say don’t jump into a huge tournament immediately. Build it up. Always play in your comfort zone. That’s when you play your best.
Thanks very much to Veldhuis for his time, and sharing some invaluable information. Look out for more to come in the Daily Strategy series.