With the World Series and other recent major events fresh on my mind I thought a discussion of the mental preparation for playing a tournament might be helpful.
Tournaments require a different psychology than cash games. In a cash game you can come and go as you please; you can go into your pocket if you need more chips; time is less of a factor; table image and reads might be more important. When you enter a major tournament you’re committing a good length of time, sometimes more than one day; you can’t go into your pocket; there is a specific prize pool.
Mental preparation is essential when entering a tournament. There are several stages of preparation: deciding which event to play, pre-tournament preparation (including the day of) and preparation for the mental work during the tournament.
The first step in mental preparation for a tournament is to minimize uncertainty. Mental preparation starts with getting as much information as you can. Know the structure: starting chips, blind levels and lengths, breaks, when antes kick in, when Day 1 ends, and how many places are paid. Eliminate uncertainty to attain peak performance through relaxed activation!
Getting this basic information is necessary not only for game strategy but so you won’t be surprised as the tournament progresses. Uncertainty sometimes creates anxiety, nervousness and often throws folks off their game. Your want a state of relaxed activation and you can’t be relaxed and tense at the same time. If you don’t believe me try relaxing and tensing a muscle simultaneously — it doesn’t work.
The second step is awareness. Keep an eye on stack size at your table and try to keep on eye on the other tables. Instead of dashing for a smoke, the bathroom or coffee at a break, look around the other tables to get a feel of where you stand. Be aware of opponents’ patterns, emotional state and changes in demeanor.
Tournaments can be mind-numbing, long and drawn-out. Stamina, endurance and mental alertness are essential. Remember if you’re hungry, thirsty or need a bathroom break, leave in an early position. You’re not chained to your seat. Take a break. The worst that will happen is you will lose a blind.
Before you arrive at the cardroom make sure you have everything you need: gum, snack bars, comfortable clothes, a sweatshirt or sweater, a charged iPod or iPhone, comfortable head phones, sunglasses, small bills for tips, etc.
If bathrooms are far away or unusually crowded, sip your water slowly. Plan ahead. At the table remember breathing. Breathe through bad beats and suckouts to avoid tilt. Before you get there try to study this and try to devise several alternative game plans for the tournament you’re playing. Visualize the play.
Get to the room early and take a few laps around, especially if it’s a new room. Get used to the surroundings. Attune yourself to the playing field. Leave your problems at the door. Remember the tips I’ve covered in previous articles: They’ll be just as useful in tournaments are they are in cash or online games.
If you’re traveling take notice of jet lag, change in time zones. Some folks need to arrive a day early. If I’m traveling from Florida to Biloxi, this might be more important than if I were driving 90 minutes to Daytona.
Get yourself settled as much as possible before you get to the room and when you get there. If you create a checklist of everything you need to do it will help you focus and maximize your chances of winning. Control everything you can control.
• Get all information possible
• Do pre-game preparation
• Practice relaxed activation
• Attune yourself to the room
• Avoid tilt
• Keep your head in the game
— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at firstname.lastname@example.org.