Welcome to the latest instalment of PokerStars Blog’s regular series: The Daily Strategy. Every day during season nine of the European Poker Tour, we will be quizzing Team PokerStars Pro for their advice on a specific element of major tournament strategy, aimed at introducing new players to key elements of high stakes tournament poker play.
Today in Barcelona it’s all about the final table, which you can watch on EPT Live. Ivan Demidov, who finished runner-up to Peter Eastgate in the 2008 World Series of Poker main event, knows all about what it takes to do well and talks about how to approach the day and how to handle your emotions.
Over to Demidov…
The night before the final
I don’t have any special preparations. Even back in my school days, I was always very good at exams. I’m not nervous at all, I don’t know why, it’s just the way I was in school. For this reason I think I play better at final tables than I do in general because I can get myself together, making no mistakes, or at least fewer mistakes.
I just think about it and try to tell myself how important it is. The final table is where all the money is. You can play perfect for five days and if you mess up at the final table it’s no good. I used to be a video game player before poker and that helped me. I was always doing better in tournaments rather than in regular play. It’s kind of a feature of my game.
It was the same in the run up to the World Series final table in 2008. At first I thought it was going to harm me and I’d be nervous. But actually it gave me confidence. What really helped was the final table in Europe in London (Demidov finished third in the WSOP Europe main event). I proved to myself that I knew that it wasn’t just luck, and that I really am a player and that boosted my confidence.
Arriving at the final table
First of all you have to study the seat draw. You have to know at least some general information about the players. Who’s aggressive for example? Of course I use the internet, but I’ve played tournaments for five years now so I know almost everyone and know what to expect. From that I try to work out a general strategy depending on my stack.
Ivan Demidov: “Control your emotions”
Let’s say there are aggressive players after me with big stacks. I’m only going to raise good hands that I’m willing to play. If there are aggressive players to my right I will try to re-steal them more. These are basic things you have to know.
Then I try to adapt to what is going on at the table. Sometimes an aggressive player will sit quietly for the first two hours. It happens. Sometimes they decide not to be aggressive. So when I start I sit and look for a while.
Controlling your emotions
When it’s your first final table you cannot always control your emotions. When I played live for the first time I remember turning red when I first tried to bluff. At my first final table, a small event in Russia, I was very emotional and I acted very quickly and I made mistakes. I actually remember the hand. I raised with ace-king of hearts and a good player called me. Three small cards came on the flop, including two hearts. I then bet and he called. Another card came. He checked and I bet. Then he shoved and I called – he had a pair of tens and I didn’t hit.
It may not sound as bad but it depends on other circumstances that as a player you have to be aware of. There were a lot of bad players at that final and we both had huge stacks. I should have checked the turn and stuff like that. But I did it automatically without even thinking. He checked the turn and I insta-bet. I wasn’t able to control my emotions and was too excited. I’m not sure if I can explain it but sometimes you get too excited. You start playing too recklessly and you feel like you’re the best player. I wouldn’t call it over confidence I would call it over emotional. You have to keep calm and control your emotions.
Judging a player by their stack
At the start of the final table your plan really depends on your stack size. If I’m short stacked I really don’t care if it’s the beginning, middle or end. You have 10-15 big blinds and you just have to push. That’s the only strategy.
Middle stacks are the most vulnerable and are in the worse position strategy wise. Short stacks are hard to scare. You can’t bluff a short stack – if they have a hand they’ll go. With medium stacks you can really bully them because they’re afraid to play. They don’t want to bust before the short stacks and if they have a decent stack they can wait. They think ‘okay I’ll wait a few more rounds. Maybe someone will bust and I’ll win more’. It’s much easier to bluff them and to bully them.
If I have a big stack I’ll try to play more against the medium stacks. Of course it depends on the player too. If someone is crazy and doesn’t care, that’s different. But normally it’s the medium stacks that are most afraid.
It’s about the money
It’s definitely about making more money. Of course winning is nice but second place is fine too! It’s not bad! Actually there is a math model for that called ICM (Independent Chip Model). Professional players know it. You have to understand in a tournament is not a cash game. If you lose then you bust. Even if you double up you don’t double up your expected winnings. it doesn’t mean your stack is worth twice as much money. When you play you just have to make right decisions based on ICM. That’s the only way to play. Playing for first place is mathematically incorrect. I don’t do that, I try to play right.
After the World Series main event I felt depressed. I was really devastated. It’s a chance in a lifetime. It’s very hard to beat 7,000 players more than once. But I’m the kind of person who reacts emotionally at first but an hour later I just completely forget it. So the next day I was fine and I never thought about it again.
Demidov at the WSOP final table
It’s definitely a help to have friends watching you at the final table. You can talk at the breaks and they boost your confidence. They’ll tell you played a hand well and it was the right decision, even if they don’t think so! It boosts your confidence. But, when I bust they just piss me off. Actually everyone pisses me off when I bust! But when I play it’s definitely a help.
Appearing on television
If it’s your first experience on the TV table then you’re definitely going to feel uncomfortable. When I first played on a TV table I played really badly. Perhaps it’s not a big deal for some but some players will change their style because of it.
Let’s say you want to bluff or want to push a marginal hand. If I push and he calls me with aces I’m going to look dumb on TV. Or when you try to hero call you can be afraid of the same thing. IF he shows me the nuts and I’m going to be an idiot.
That affects players a lot I think. It’s experience. If they’ve played on television before then of course they’ll be used to it. It’s something I don’t worry about now but if there are inexperienced players it’s another reason why they’re going to play weaker than usual.
Still time to get excited
Of course I am excited about reaching the final table but in the past few years I’ve definitely became more professional in this regard. I’m not really sad when I bust and I’m not really very happy when I go deep. Of course there are emotions but they are much smaller than they used to be. But it’s always nice to reach a final table, especially in a big tournament.