Poker tournament preparation is one of the key elements of being a successful player, whether you’re a casual gambler or seasoned pro. If you’ve won a major satellite, or are finally taking in a bucket-list tournament event, it can be a daunting prospect to have a sudden schedule of potentially days of grinding in pursuit of a big prize.

EPT Paris is certainly one such bucket list event, featuring some of the biggest names in poker. While we were there, we took the time to chat to seasoned pros about their routines and methods for how to prepare for a poker tournament.

Poker Tournament Preparation – Five Key Rules

From our experiences at the felt and talking to some of the best tournament players in the world, the advice was clear. These five key rules should put you in good shape for any major live tournament series, and allow you to play your best game.

  1. Don’t Set Goals

    This advice may seem unusual, but many players make the mistake of setting specific goals for big live tournaments. They want to make the dinner break, or they want to ensure they cash, or earn a certain amount of money. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s taken a bad beat knows, poker doesn’t always work like that.

    In any poker tournament, there’s always a risk of going out or losing most of your stack in any hand. Instead of trying to achieve an arbitrary goal, stick to focusing on each decision individually and playing your best poker. While you should be conservative off a short or middling stack around the bubble or before a huge payout jump, that’s a strategic consideration about ICM. Wanting to cash just because you’ve traveled a long way is not. If you think that it’s a harmless thing to have in the back of your mind, professionals may disagree.

    It was obvious, approaching the bubble of the €2200 high roller event, which players were focused on the game and which were constantly looking around at the screen to see the number of players remaining. It was clear who was going to stick to their game, and which players were in full shut-down mode – making them easy targets to push around.

  2. Get Plenty of Rest

    This is probably the most important rule of poker tournament preparation. It may seem obvious, but jetlag, last-minute planning, and the general temptations of meeting friends in a glamorous location can occasionally get in the way of rationality. A full eight hours should be your goal – no less. However, studies have shown that just one night of poor sleep can seriously impact decision making the next day. According to the Sleep Foundation, even getting only six hours sleep can cause:

    “trouble concentrating, as well as problems with memory, learning, creativity, and problem-solving. Short sleep can also cause impaired decision-making, increased risk-taking, and a higher chance of accidents and errors.”

    That’s almost a perfect list of everything you don’t want to happen when you’re playing a major poker tournament. As you get deeper into the tournament – and even more tired – these decisions will be worth more and more money. Staying well-rested should be the main goal of everything you do once you’re off the felt.

  3. Don’t Overdo It

    While almost every player will agree with the above advice, others take it significantly further. Cold showers, lengthy fasting, meditation, and grueling 6am gym shifts are all some of the ways that professionals have advocated staying ahead of the competition. However, there’s no need to take it to any of these extremes.

    If these things aren’t part of your daily routine, they’re unlikely to help you. In fact, when you’re not used to them, they can end up having the opposite of the intended effect. Try and stick to your normal routine as much as possible to stay in the zone.

    As David Lappin, co-host of the Chip Race poker podcast, who also cashed the €2200 High Roller event, says:

    “Poker tournament preparation for me doesn’t involve anything out of the ordinary. My study routine stays the same as it would normally. I don’t meditate or write in a gratitude journal. I guess what I try to do is be a little bit more well rested in the day or two before a big festival. Every moment at a big live festival is time away from family so I play all day every day, hopping into side events as soon as I bust. Therefore, being fresh is important.”

  4. Stick to a Study Routine

    As Lappin pointed out, sticking to a plan when it comes to studying is also essential. If you always study at a certain time or in a certain way, it’s best to stick to it rather than drastically adjusting it in the heat of the moment. The subjects you study, however, can and should change.

    If you’re deep in a multi-day event, it makes sense to study ICM spots, which come up constantly deep in tournaments, rather than 80bb deep spots, which do not. If you’re typically a cash game player, you should be studying shorter-stack spots, which rarely come up in cash games but are essential to know for poker tournament preparation.

    Finding time to do this can be a challenge with modern tournament schedules, but over your breakfast in a cafe away from the hotel room is optimal if you have the time. For breaks, however, you’re better using them for their intended purpose. Clearing your head, getting some fresh air, and moving your limbs is probably going to serve you better than ten more minutes on a solver.

  5. Avoid Intoxicants

    A key part of also making sure you’re well-rested and able to cope with the demands of a tough tournament schedule is by avoiding too many intoxicants. After a long shift at the tables, it can be tempting to hit the hotel bar for some well-earned relaxation. And with EPTs this year in locations like Paris, Barcelona, and Prague, there are plenty of tempting ways to spend your time that don’t involve sitting in a cardroom or studying PIOSolver over a bowl of ramen in your hotel room.

    However, alcohol greatly reduces your ability to get a good night’s sleep. And with modern tournament schedules being increasingly demanding, sometimes it can be a challenge to even get back to your hotel room with enough time to get eight hours of sleep in before the cards are in the air again. Adding alcohol into the situation is unlikely to help matters.

    If you’re looking to enjoy the locale, book a couple of days extra after the event to avoid any temptation during the tournaments themselves. Bert “GirafGanger7” Stevens, who was in Paris to play the €50,000 Super High Roller event, clearly agrees, having recently given up alcohol full-time. Next in line is smoking, which might be an impressive feat given the sight of his grinding den.

Live Poker Tournament Preparation – What to Study Off the Felt

If you’re not typically a tournament player, it can be difficult knowing what to study. However, even online tournament grinders could benefit from mixing up their study schedule to maximize their potential in common live tournament spots. Here are several key areas to run over when you’re preparing for a poker tournament.

Exploitative Play

It’s no secret that live poker tournaments are significantly softer than online. The €2200 High Roller FPS event in Paris played significantly softer than an online $109 event as a typical online cardroom, for example. While US online poker sites may be softer, there’s still a huge difference between online and live.

The slower pace of the game means that weak players go bust less frequently, and often play wider ranges out of sheer boredom. As a result, it’s well worth putting some work into exploitative plays with your poker tournament preparation rather than studying pure GTO. Look at typical mistakes that amateur players make, and how to maximally exploit them to build up a stack from early on.

Varying Stack Depths

If you’re primarily a cash game player, you’ll be used to playing deep-stacked poker. You may also know some shoving and re-shoving ranges for 25bb or lower. However, many cash pros come unstuck in tournaments in the middle parts – between 30 and 60 big blinds.

This should be the focus of poker tournament preparation for those who aren’t regular MTT players. The risk of getting 4bet-jammed on means that your 3bet ranges should change significantly, which drastically alters all postflop play. It’s crucial to understand that while you think you may know a spot, the strategy could be radically different at 35bb deep than it is at 70bb.

ICM Situations

ICM is something that anyone preparing for a tournament needs to be well aware of. Memorising preflop ranges is all well and good, but they’ll change drastically near the bubble or on the final table. You’ll also be able to pick up a lot easier in a live game which of your opponents are ICM-aware, or who simply have no respect for or knowledge of ICM at all. Some players may also be playing a tournament they’re not bankrolled for, and overdo it by being money-scared.

In fact, you should probably be tighter than even ICM strategies suggest, since the pool likely has significant amount of ICM-unaware players who will blow up their tournament with a loose all-in. During the FPS High Roller event in Paris, we saw an all-in and a call with two players remaining until the money – the all-in player bust after calling off on the turn with just a seven-high straight draw. In other words, bubbles and spots around ladder jumps will likely end quicker than in the world of theory.


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