Saturday, July 8, 2017

Torpedoes and lifeboats

David Lappin asked me once what the hardest part of a 24 hour race was. After some thought, I gave an answer that wasn't intended to be funny, even if he seemed to find it hilarious. The hardest part of a 24 hour race comes about 6 hours in, because you've already run farther than you ever do in training, so you're very tired, and you know you're only one quarter of the way there. It's not the 6 hours you've been running that sap the energy from you, it's the 18 hours you know you still have to keep running for.

There's an equivalence here to poker. Peak poker performance is about being able to play your best at all times. That's pretty easy when you're fresh, optimistic and positive because everything is going well. It's not quite so easy when you're downswinging, losing every flip, tired and frustrated because it seems everything is going wrong. But that's what separates the pros from the boys.

Most online pros experience this every week. Or, more specifically, every Sunday. You find yourself starting the day full of optimism this is the day you ship a major and/or make six figures. Then you lose a few flips, take a bad beat in the Kickoff, get crippled in the Warmup, and you have to keep focused on optimal decision making as you hit your maximum number of tables. The beats and bustouts keep coming thick and fast, and before you know it, 14 hours after you started, you're one tabling a $10 rebuy, 56/70, and you're down more in buyins for the day than first place pays. Now comes the real test: can you keep playing your best, or do you just punt your stack?

The nearest equivalent to an online Sunday live is a WSOP where you are bricking everything. The bad thing is that it goes on for so much longer, six weeks as opposed to 16 hours. This is also the good thing. You have time to sleep it off every time you bust, and mentally reset and focus the next day before you start. With experience, you get better at this. The first time you do a long series, and it goes bad, I guarantee you will be feeling punch drunk by the end. But every year it gets a little bit easier. Another good thing is that at the WSOP you don't end up one tabling the $10 rebuy: you end up one tabling the biggest best structured event of the year. And of course, this can also be a bad thing...

I walked by one of the original and more durable online beasts in the corridors of the Rio the other day. He was on the phone, and from the snippet I overheard, I assume his series is not going great either.

"I'm just focused on not being results oriented, on being totally indifferent to outcomes"

Most pros know they have to do this. Most recreational players will never understand why it's so necessary. They look at a guy who just won a big score who looks about the same amount of happy as a small child about to undergo a dental extraction and wonder "What's wrong with him? Why can't he rejoice in his success?" But to stay afloat in this game where there are more torpedos than lifeboats, you have to learn to dampen your emotions. Even if the emotional flatline may not be achievable (or even desirable), at the very least you have to look for the positives when things are going bad, and the pitfalls in times of success.

I go into this year's main event off the back of a series which if not disastrous is lackluster at best. 3 small cashes in bracelet events, two other small cashes in non bracelet events, no truly deep runs. Most of my tournaments have followed the same script: I chip up to roughly double starting stack in the early going, and then I lose the first flip. The positives I take from that is I'm doing well in the bits that are at least to some degree within my control, and not so well to those that are beyond my control (1/19 in major flips). My deepest run came in the Marathon, the best structured event I played so far, so that's also a positive to take into the best structured event of the year. My mood has remained positive and despite the lack of poker success I've enjoyed my time here this year more than any other previous Vegas trip. My housemates are good people to be around, and I've met lots of old friends and made some new ones.

Mistakes, I've made a few, but then again, too few to mention. I've learned what I can from then and moved on to the next one. Much of the work I've done in the last year with my study buddy has been with the solvers and game theory, designed to adjust the one glaring weakness in my game. Like most tournament players who didn't serve an apprenticeship in cash, I have often been a bit at sea against better players in the early stages when everyone is deepstacked. My approach in game was to cut my losses by playing a lot tighter than optimal so as to have fewer tricky decisions. Away from the table, I ran spots by the best deepstack cash player in my circle of friends. The advent of the solvers have allowed a more systematic and reliable approach to study: in fact, my buddy joked to me recently "I just realised that I used to be your PIO before PIO".

Before the series started, I wrote about the power of pessimism. This was to prepare myself for exactly the situation I find myself in now: facing into the biggest tournament of the year off the back of a long, lackluster and potentially demoralizing campaign. As I wrote then, you have to prepare mentally for bad outcomes, so they don't destroy you psychologically when they do come.

My running coach used to say that the best approach to a 24 hour race was to start as slow as possible, and then slow down. Because no matter how slow you go at the start, you will slow down. The key is if you start slow, you'll have to slow down less. I believe I prospered in ultra marathons because when we all lined up at the start, I was one of the most negative thinkers there, with a strong sense of dread as to what was about to happen. This stopped me from going off too fast, and meant as the race progressed and the end came closer, the dread lifted and put an extra bounce in my step. Twenty four hours races usually start at midday. By 4 AM, the field is generally looking the most demoralized and drained you'll ever see (at least until you find yourself in the Rio towards the end of the WSOP when everyone is both under it and over it). What used to look like a race now looks like a tortuous death march of tired injuried bodies that want to be sleeping forcing themselves to keep shuffling one foot in front of the other.

Then the sun comes up, the end is now only 3 or 4 hours away, and the zombies come back to life. Bodies that could barely shuffle four miles an hour in the wee small hours suddenly have a pep in their step. With the end in sight, most people cover the most distance they have in an hour in the last hour than they've done since the first hour.

This is the mindset I take into the main event. There is no longer a need for pessimism, to prepare mentally for failure, because this is the final sprint and what's the worst thing that can happen? I bust, it hurts, but it's over, and I get on with my life. I can allow myself a period to recuperate before I have to face into my next big challenge. So for now, all I have to do is clear my mind, and be ready to try to play my best as I have all summer when I hear those magic words:

"Shuffle up and deal"


Middle of the pack "handy all the way".

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