August 11th, 2012
Coming into this year’s WSOP, I wasn’t happy with my past poker performance, both in terms of last year’s series and in terms of the immediate months that preceded the WSOP on the poker circuit.
Last summer was the first time since 2008 that I had played a full schedule of tournaments, and I hadn’t made the adjustments that one has to make for the WSOP. The structures to the tournaments are faster and I was struggling to find the right pace of play. At times I would pass up good spots to wait for better ones, a luxury that one can take in the better-structured EPTs and WPTs, but not in the WSOP prelims where that strategy can quickly lead to getting short and being forced to take flips and leave the results to chance, something I try to never do. Then in the next tournament, I would overcompensate and push things, looking for spots that didn’t exist, busting on bad bluffs and marginal spots. I finally figured out the right tempo towards the end of the series, but by then it was too late.
In the months leading up to the WSOP, I had just played sub-par poker in a few key high-equity spots and it cost me a lot. I made a couple very bad calls in huge pots in Premier League and the Vienna high roller, and then, down in confidence from those mistakes, I failed to pull the trigger in some great spots in Monte Carlo. We should of course always question our play, but sometimes we forget to do it or get complacent or lazy. When the big errors came in the high-equity pots, it led me to really think deeply about my mistakes – what technical things had I done wrong and how could I change them? I made some adjustments in terms of the lines I was taking, and that helped a bit, but I knew that wasn’t the answer. I think what it comes down to is for whatever reason, I sometimes just ignore my instincts and make the wrong play, even though I know in my gut, deep down, that the play is wrong. In Premier League, I played two big pots where I told myself I would fold the turn and river, respectively. In both, I ignored the plan and called down to the river. Why? Well, it’s a form of tilt, really – I just didn’t want to lose those pots and my actions and emotions got the better of my brain.
In some ways, the understanding that sometimes I make bad plays based on tilt was a tough pill to swallow – it’s a lot easier to correct a strategic deficiency than an emotional one. And tilt is something that I’ve been susceptible to much more in my career than other pros I know. My tilt was much worse when I wasn’t playing very often – I would chase big losses and force things, causing really bad play. Since playing professionally again, the problem has mostly subsided – I know that next week or next month is another opportunity to win. Still, it rears its ugly head every so often. I thought of two things I could do to help the problem – the first is to stop thinking about my “peak” chip count during a tournament. Sometimes when I think about where I once was, I become impatient and make poor decisions to try to get there. Mental toughness includes a willingness to fight and always make the best decision no matter what happened in the past, and its something I will be much more conscious of in the future. The second solution is just to be aware of the general problem. I think that will help me in those moments when I am tanking, and my heart is debating my head, because ultimately I am a very rational person, and the recognition that this moment is one of many that contribute to a pattern that is detrimental to my performance will stop me from doing dumb things.
So that leads me to this WSOP. Coming into it, I decided on some conscious things I could do to improve my performance. First, I would think about the structures beforehand to give myself a better understanding of when to gamble and look for more spots, and when I could sit back and wait. Second, I would focus on making good decisions every single time. I think that when I’m playing my A+ game, I’m completely unstoppable and my cards don’t even matter. I see every spot and make the right play every time. Unfortunately, I probably play that game maybe 10% of the time. No one can play her A+ game very often – it takes such an intense level of focus that is unsustainable for long periods of time. So my goal for the summer was to play B+ or A- poker 80-90% of time, and achieve the A+ level of focus deep in the tourneys, when it mattered. I would try to avoid all of those moments of tilt because when I become susceptible to those, I’m playing D or F, and I don’t have a chance.
I was fortunate enough to have a deep run in the first event, so that gave me the experience for the rest of the series to understand how the structure changed throughout the tournaments, and also how other players’ play would vary depending on the different stages. I was also very pleased with my emotional control. In the first level of the tournament, I was down to 1300 chips from 4500. In fact, the hand that got me down to 1800 involved folding 86 on an 883hh board in a 5way pot when someone bet, I raised, and then someone else cold 3bet the flop. Despite getting good odds, knowing I would be short-stacked if I folded, and likely having decent running chop outs even if I was already beat, I still thought I was behind so often that I couldn’t justify going with the hand. I think last year, I might have given up and stuck the money in, but this year I told myself I would fight to the bitter end. I have no idea if the fold was correct, but I do know that I rallied back from 1300 chips to come in fourth place and pocket $160k. That comeback gave me tremendous positive reinforcement that making the best decision every single time can reap huge rewards. (Speaking of awesome mental toughness and comebacks – some other great examples from this year’s WSOP are Brent Hanks coming back from 1 blind to win Event #2, Matt Matros taking a huge beat in a chiplead pot with 8 left in Event #16 to become the short stack, and coming back to win, and Greg Merson being knocked down to 50k chips late on day 5 of the Main and coming back to enter the FT 2nd in chips. I’m sure there are more great ones that I’m forgetting too).
The rest of the series just went great. I played my B+ game or better probably 85% of the time, and I focused when I needed to. In the women’s event, within 10 minutes I lost TPTK to a set in an inflated pot and found myself down to 100 chips from 3000, but I managed to rally back to 11,000 before ultimately busting long before the money. Still, being able to make that comeback was a success for me in and of itself. I made a couple of big mistakes in the $2500NL and in the Main Event, but they weren’t disastrous ones, and I reflected on them and came back stronger. Other than one event which I majorly punted 1 level in (the $3k shootout), I feel I gave it my all every single tournament. I also ran well, of course, and was fortunate enough to win a bracelet toward the end of the summer and to cap it all of with a Main Event run. I’m extremely pleased with my results, but more importantly how I put my mind toward specific goals and for the most part, achieved those goals. Now I am challenging myself to apply those same lessons to my play this upcoming year, and to play my best, even when the cards aren’t coming my way and it’s so much tougher to do.