Fearlessness is key to poker tournament success

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Four years ago the impossible happened: I won a World Series of Poker bracelet. I’m living proof it can be done. As I was so fortunate to discover in 2007, anyone willing to study, practice, learn from mistakes and lose their buy-in has a chance at glory. It doesn’t hurt to have some talent, too, but every successful poker player possesses different skill sets. The best and most versatile players possess all the skill sets.

I believe the most important skills found in every modern great poker player are logic and fearlessness. Every poker hand is a new multi-dimensional puzzle. You’re constructing a puzzle for your opponents to decipher based on your cards, betting patterns, table image and verbal and non-verbal language. Your additional tools to tell your story are your button position and your stack size. At the same time, you’re working hard to figure out your opponents’ holdings based on the same factors. If you ignore any of these factors at any time it can often spell disaster, especially in a tournament setting.

The importance of fearlessness goes without saying. You must view those little round things on the felt as clay or plastic chips of no monetary value. If you need any proof of the power of fearlessness watch any episode of High Stakes Poker this year and watch how Tom “Durrrr” Dwan completely dominates players two or three times his age and experience with aggressive fearless play. Notice I didn’t say foolish, because Durrrr is wise far beyond his years. And it’s also his amazing ability to logically dissect a hand and determine where he is and then pressure his opponent that makes him such a scary player.

So, with that background in place, back to my WSOP win. Often when I meet someone who does not understand poker or is not very good at the game, their first comment when they learn I’m a bracelet-winner is, “You must have gotten really lucky.” In fact, for two straight days I played perfect poker. I did everything right in every hand. I never sucked out, my bluffs worked because I set them up or I had position, I folded when I was beat, and I played excellent sit-n-go strategy. I’m not being cocky, I’m just being honest. It may never happen again, and I was very fortunate it happened on the biggest stage at the perfect time.

My WSOP win was in the $1,500 shootout, which is essentially a big SNG. I needed to win two tables of 10 players and a final table of nine. My professional opponents severely underestimated my experience and abilities at this particular format. For several years I had been successfully playing the $250 and $500 SNGs at the Tampa Hard Rock. They are a very different animal from multitable tournaments, and I would guess I had as much experience in that format as anyone at any of my three tables. SNGs and shootouts continue to grow in popularity.

This year’s WSOP boasts three of these events as the number of entrants grows each year. Daniel Negreanu, who I beat at the final table, calls the shootouts the most difficult WSOP events because at the second and third tables you are facing nine or 10 champions at the same time.

By the time you read this article I will have returned to Vegas to try to recapture my title. As a poker player this is always my favorite time of the year. I look forward in future columns, and maybe even in person, to sharing more of my WSOP experiences and SNG strategies.

— Don Baruch lives in Tampa, Fla., and was the 2007 World Series of Poker bracelet-winner in the $1,500 Shootout event. Contact him via email at editor@anteupmagazine.com.