Thursday, July 19, 2012

Leaving Paradise

I first came to Vegas in the summer of 2008. I'd only been playing poker for a year but I was already a "pro" (in the sense that it was my sole  source of income). An online winner from the start, I'd already won a major event (European Deepstack) and after a deep run in a GUKPT and a final table at the JP Masters) decided to go for it full time.

That summer in Vegas was my first serious downswing in poker. Looking back, it wasn't really a downswing: I still had a lot to learn. I think I even knew that at the time. I was staking my brother who had taught me the game and was my first poker mentor. What disappointed me the most was not my lack of cashes in the bracelet events but also a lack of true success in the softer nightly tournaments we were grinding. Most nights started with us entering the nightly in the Rio, and ended with us walking up Industrial Road, the road that runs parallel to the strip and pretty much nobody walks, on our way back to our room in Circus Circus. One night we had a raging argument that lasted the length of the walk. I had become convinced that we were doing something intrinsically wrong. My brother disagreed: his assessment was simply that we weren't getting cards at the crucial time. I pointed out that a select few players seemed to be deep most nights, and they were playing a style very different from us. The argument proved inconclusive: we agreed to disagree.

Over the next few months, I started to realise where the problem lay. While my basic TAG game was effective and maybe even optimal early in tournaments where stacks were deep, I was not playing 20 big blinds and less correctly. This deficiency became all the more glaring as my online focus moved from cash to sit n goes. I worked out a push/fold chart for different stack sizes from first principles.

Wind forward a few years and what was my biggest weakness is now seen by many as my primary strength. When good players ask me about hands, it's pretty much always a "20 bigs or less" spot.

The end of every WSOP campaign since has sparked a period of reflection where I gaze inwards at my game and try to identify where I need to improve. This year is no exception. I believe all winning poker players must remain a work in progress if they wish to remain winning. My task now is to identify what my biggest weaknesses are, and how to address them so that if or when I return to Vegas in 11 months, I'll be a better player.

When I was a runner, I knew a lot of guys who were happy to finish in the middle or back of the pack. I was never one of these people. It mystified me how training partners who would run the legs off me in training would, come race day, settle into a steady mid pack pace, while I battled it out at the front. What mystified me even more was how happy these people always were after the race. It seemed to me they were too comfortable with mediocrity and unwilling to step outside their comfort zone to test just how good they could really be. My coach, a proponent of the psychotic Scottish school of straight talking, used to say "Show me a good loser....and I'll show you a loser". His point was losing is supposed to hurt. Pain is Nature's way of telling us that we should avoid something.

As a runner, it took me a decade of intense training and disturbing levels of commitment to get to a level where I could be world class, and it meant moving up through the distances all the way to the insanity of 24 hour races. As a poker player, I'll never be happy to look at Vegas as an annual work outing, I'll never be content to go there to make up the numbers. I returned from Vegas annoyed, frustrated, upset and a number of other negative emotions that once again I'd done essentially that: made up the numbers. The point is now to use that as motivation to keep working and preparing for next year. I have weaknesses both at the table and away from it that I need to identify and address. In my next blog I hope to have organised my thoughts into an honest assessment of what I did right and wrong in Vegas this year.

I started this blog with a lie, saying I first came to Vegas in the summer of 2008. I thought it was true at the time, but it turns out I was misinformed. The strip, the Rio and all the other Vegas places I've been are not actually in Las Vegas: they're in an unincorporated town outside it called Paradise. Every June I've gone to Paradise filled with optimism that this will be my year, and every July I've left it feeling like I did after all those races I thought I was going to win but didn't. Hopefully, one year I'll go there and feel the poker equivalent of what it felt like to win the New York ultra marathon in Central Park. Til then, to borrow a phrase from a discredited political leader, much work done, but much still to do.



Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More