Thursday, July 18, 2019

Veni Vidi Vegas

The first time I came to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, I was not a young man, but I was young (and naive) in poker terms. I was within a few weeks of my 43rd birthday when I travelled over with my brother in 2008 for my first WSOP, but I’d only been playing poker for a year. That first year was a successful one: I hit the ground running online and spun up a six figure roll without ever having deposited a cent, I’d come second in my first ever live tournament (a scalps game in the Fitz), and won the second major multi-day tourney I ever played (the European Deepstack). That success engendered dangerous levels of over-confidence and optimism going into my first WSOP, both of which slowly evaporated over six weeks in the desert without a single cash in a bracelet event. Looking back it’s pretty clear I wasn’t well prepared: most of my success to that point was a product more of run good than play good, and came in formats that didn’t translate to Vegas. The skill set needed to crush 9 man sit n gos (my main online game at the time) or 100 man live tournaments against the same people over and over in Ireland, both with no antes at any point, was quite different from that needed in thousands runner fields with shorter stacks, fast structures, and early antes.

After a summer of bricks that ended with my brother and me walking the full length of the strip from our hotel (Circus Circus) to the airport, it was time to reflect. My brother never really recovered from the summer of disappointment and has played only intermittently since, but the lessons I was forced to learn stood me in great stead as I transitioned from grinding a decent living in stts to doing considerably better than that in mtts.

Since then, I feel I’ve touched down in McCarran airport every year with a much more tempered sense of expectation, focusing more on giving my all and playing my best and seeing what that leads to rather than daydreaming about final tables or bracelets. I also feel I’ve left Vegas each time with a more measured response to outcomes. Once you have the experience to realize that if you specialize in holdem mtts with thousands of runners, as I do, and you will end up with a sample size of less than twenty in bracelet events, then you’re destined to have more losing trips than winning ones, so you learn to accept the losing ones better, providing you feel you gave it your best.

My record in ten WSOP campaigns going into this year was three big losing trips, three medium to small losing ones, two breakeven years, one small winning one, and one massive winning one. And that’s pretty much how it’s supposed to go: it’s the live equivalent of a Sunday online. Most Sundays you’ll lose small to medium, occasionally you’ll have a really bad one, but you’ll also get the occasional massive winning one that wipes out all the losses and more. So it is with my WSOP career overall: despite losing more years than I’ve won, I am a pretty big winner overall, thanks mainly to my one big 300k score back in 2015. The min cashes and crossbars are great for keeping the lights on and morale up that the game hasn’t passed you by, but it’s those big ones that ultimately make the difference.

This year is now in the books as another breakeven year, essentially a push. Lots of cashes (seven in bracelet events, a main event seat in a satellite, and three more in daily Deepstacks), a couple of deep runs and crossbars (39th in an online bracelet event when I ran AK into Aces with a top ten stack, 87th in a 2500, and just outside the top 100 in the 6k+ runner Little One Drop), but no final tables (except for one in the smallest daily Deepstack I played) or bracelet shots.

Part of my process this year was I recorded every single hand I played in bracelet events (or thought I should possibly have played if I folded preflop), primarily to allow me to review and analyse them in depth afterwards. One side effect of this is it allows me to look back and get a realistic perspective of how I ran this summer. Having done so, it’s pretty clear I ran significantly below expectation, in terms of card distribution, coolers and all ins. I lost most of my flips and got way less than my equity share in the all ins, even more so in the high equity spots. My point here is not to complain about running bad over a tiny sample: variance is an essential integral component of the game that has to be embraced and handled. What’s heartening to me is that I managed to grind out a very respectable consistent Vegas in the face of negative variance, and at no point felt sorry for myself as I focused purely on playing as much and as well as I could. To go deep or win a bracelet, you need just that one tournament where variance smiles on you and you win all the crucial ones. That simply didn’t happen this year, but I kept grinding myself into position for it to. This year I went in mentally prepared to embrace a higher variance style (in addition to 11 cashes, there was a stone bubble and several near bubbles as I refused to nit it up and focus on locking up min cashes). Sometimes you embrace variance and it spurns you.

As I wrote at the time, last year I felt I went into Vegas not as well prepared mentally or physically as I would have liked, and my play suffered to some degree (not much but a little), and I didn’t put in the long hours I had in previous years. I came out of that summer believing that the best approach for me personally in Vegas is just to play as much as I can, taking off as little time or days as I feel I can get away with. The main reason for this is that Vegas is just not my kind of place: I don’t enjoy gambling, or shows, or drinking, or lying by the pool, or any of the other things Vegas has to offer outside of poker. If it weren’t for poker I’d never set foot in Vegas again in my life, and be much the happier for it. When I’m not playing poker, I just get distracted and stressed by the place, and much more affected by the company I keep than I should (more on that in my next blog). For the most part I was very lucky on that front on this trip that the people I socialized with helped me destress rather than causing distress: it would be inaccurate to suggest I was essentially an antisocial hermit on this trip. I also find it much easier to get into the zone and stay there playing long days every day: I genuinely feel the last five weeks were the best I’ve played live, as I essentially replicated my online grind as well as I could live.

This year I paid particular attention to my diet and exercise in Vegas, and pacing myself. I stuck to a no alcohol policy for the first ten days, which got relaxed to a one drink a day rule for the next ten (which I broke once), and two drinks a day for the final stretch. I ate more Asian food than I do in an entire year usually, and stayed away from greasy burgers and desserts for most of the trip. I ran most days and took a lot of vigorous walks, and tried to get as much sleep as I needed. This greatly helped with my stamina to put in long days at the tables: in my five weeks there I took only one day off, most of my days I was starting by noon and still playing at 10 pm, and many of them stretched past midnight. I feel that I managed to maintain my level of play throughout this marathon, so my main takeaway from this summer is to try to do the same only even better next year.

One thing I do want to radically overhaul is the way I study, which has drifted into being too unstructured and sporadic as I struggle to juggle other commitments. I come out of this Vegas happy overall with how I played and performed, but more acutely aware of the areas I need to improve and work on. The plan is not just to work harder on that, but also smarter, and also to make some tough choices on what other areas I need to cut back or cut out to free up more of my time.

As much as I’m able to focus on process and the things I can control, I’m also a human with emotions, and it would be a lie to say I don’t feel a little disappointed with the actual results, even though they could (and usually would) be a lot worse (several friends bricked completely, friends whose games are perfect for Vegas and/or who have had great campaigns in the past). I don’t give up 5 weeks of my summer to leave the person I love to fly to a place I really don’t like just to slightly better than break even and notch up another few Hendon mobs. At my age and in this industry I have a limited number of years I can expect to be competitive, so this feels a bit like a throw and a miss. The good news is the ball gets thrown back, and I have an entire year to prepare myself for the next throw.



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