Commentary

Succeeding live

Updated: December 15, 2008, 3:32 PM ET
By BLUFF | Brian Townsend

Poker players have always looked forward to the World Series of Poker, but modern players have a new sort of anticipation: Many of them hardly play any live poker until they head to Vegas. I'm one of these players. Most of my play takes place on the computer, and even though I love my chances against opponents at brick-and-mortar poker tables, I have to remind myself that there are adjustments I have to make. Poker may be the same game everywhere, but you will be losing money if you don't adjust to the different challenges, opponents and information involved in the live game.

Brian Townsend
Bluff Media Brian Townsend finished 15th in the 2008 WSOP Europe main event.

If you are a skilled player, you know how to gather and process information at a poker table. When I'm playing live, however, I have to change my focus. For example, preflop play is completely different, especially in tournaments. We all know that preflop strategy affects all of our decisions and that any informational advantage you pick up before the flop will compound itself as the hand progresses. Online, however, there's often simply not much of an advantage available -- many opponents have a standard raise size and many opponents play roughly the same way preflop. Neither of these is the case live. Opponents playing live will open-limp and vary their raise sizes much more than their online counterparts; that means their ranges for all these actions must be narrower, which means there is extra information you should be collecting.

What I'm trying to get at is that you have much more to do before the flop in a live setting than you do online. There is far more information in the betting, and this also generates second-order information as your opponents react to the initial information. Some players attack limpers, while some get suspicious and just limp behind with a wide range. Knowing who does what will make a big difference in your live results. Preflop isn't a time to simply wait your turn and fold. It is a time to work.

To succeed live, you'll also need to adjust away from the felt. Many players I know find this much harder than making the adjustments they need to at the table. Being in a live poker scene simply puts strains on your body that are not present when you play online. I, for example, had to cope with the aftereffects of a long night at McFadden's with CardRunners members spent partying, playing beer pong and enjoying an open bar. It was worth it, but the next day I had to draw on the discipline I've developed over the years. Sitting in uncomfortable chairs for 12 hours while you wait two minutes between hands can be an unfamiliar and exhausting struggle even when memories of beer-game prop bets aren't close to mind.

We all like to imagine ourselves as fine-tuned mental machines that can hum along at top performance quite independently of our bodies, but that's not true of me and it's not true of you, either. You simply must get some exercise and eat reasonable food, and you have to keep doing that once you start. When I look around the WSOP in the first week and then look again in the third week, I might as well be in a different world. Most of the faces I see are worn by days or weeks of nonstop poker and partying. Even the ones who resolved to take care of themselves have mostly forgotten about it, lured by the more glamorous activities available in Las Vegas. It's easy to recommend complete abstinence from the wild side of Vegas -- if you can do it, great. If you're like me and enjoy the VooDoo Lounge too much to stay away, you need to aim for moderation and pay extra attention to your exercise and general health to make up for it.

Winning at live poker requires not just having skills but using them. My trips to Las Vegas have become more successful and enjoyable as I've figured out how to apply my skills on the literal felt and how to keep my body in its best shape.

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