Commentary

Don't make rookie mistakes

Updated: April 27, 2008, 8:32 PM ET
By Tom McEvoy, Team PokerStars Pro | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: 1983 WSOP Champion Tom McEvoy knows one or two things about amateurs who come to the table for the chance to strike big, but he warns that if you aren't paying attention, you could make one mistake too many and be on your way out.

Top 10 mistakes rookies make when sitting at the tables with veterans after winning an online satellite:

(1) Thinking their job is done, simply because they have won their seat. Many players are so happy they won their way into a big event like the World Series of Poker main event, that they lose focus on what their real goal should be. They are just happy to be there as a participant -- as well they should be. In reality, their job is just starting. You should go into this tournament with the attitude that getting into the event is only half of the battle -- and really the least important half at that. I know, I know, you can't win it if you're not in it, but except for the thrill and excitement of playing, you should want to set your sights on winning or at least cashing. Just winning a seat does not put any money in your pocket. Of course you can't put a price on the fun factor, but for me that is not enough. I want to play the best I can and do everything possible to give myself the best chance to win.

[+] EnlargeTom McEvoy
Neil Stoddart/PokerStarsTom McEvoy has seen all the mistakes that amateur players can make throughout his career.

(2) Being intimidated by famous players. Every championship event has a large number of top professional players. Many of these players have been on television and been written up in the various poker magazines. Thinking these players are invincible is an error in judgment. Many of the recent World Series of Poker main event champions were total unknowns before they won that tournament. Since then, many of them have become household names in the poker world, but they didn't start out that way. Poker is a game of mistakes. Top pros make fewer mistakes than amateurs, but even the greatest players still make mistakes just like everybody else. Nobody, no matter how great a player they are, is a favorite to win any particular event before it starts. Everybody is an underdog. The top pros, of course, have a better chance than most of the players in the starting field, but even they are facing long odds. In recent years only a handful of name pros even made the final table of the World Series main event, and none of them won it.

(3) Being too protective of their chips. Oftentimes, players who have survived for a while in a major event, then become more and more concerned about preserving and protecting what they have won so far. They stop playing to win -- instead they are playing to avoid losing. They become more timid and stop making aggressive plays. This occurs most often when players get close to the money, but aren't quite there yet. Aggressive players who are willing to take more chances often run over the game, including players with bigger stacks, because nobody wants to gamble until they have at least made a payday. A big stack is a weapon and you should not be afraid to use it. That does not mean taking foolish chances, but remember, that most of the other players at this stage of the event are just as afraid of you as you might be of them.

(4) Being afraid of playing speculative hands. In the early stages of a major event, you might have 200 times the big blind in starting chips to begin with. For example, some tournaments start off with blinds of $25 and $50 and give each player $10,000 to start. That is a lot to work with at the beginning of the event. This is the perfect time to play a few more marginal hands like suited connectors and small pairs. Naturally, you want to play them cheap, but even calling a small raise with them is acceptable. What you are trying to do is flop a big hand, and then win as many chips as possible when you hit. If you do make a big hand your strategy should be to bet strongly and make your opponents pay to draw against you. Of course if you have the absolute nuts, your greater concern is how to get your opponents to put the most money in the pot. Making a smaller bet or checking and calling might be the better strategy in that case. During the early stages of the tournament is the perfect time to gamble a little bit more. Even if you don't hit anything, it probably won't hurt your stack that much, and if you do get lucky, you might double off somebody and have a real shot of winning. Many of the top pros use this strategy right from the start, and if they are successful, they keep doing it even in the middle and later stages of the tournament. An aggressive player with a lot of chips who is willing to mix it up is a very tough opponent indeed.

(5) Giving a free card. This can be fatal. Marginal hands like top pair that are probably the best hand at the moment can become a loser if it is played too passively and someone gets a free card to beats you. A proper bet would have probably won the pot right there for you and from there it gets even worse. That free card beats you and you wind up paying off your opponent. As long as you think you have the best hand, make a bet. One pair hands, in particular, need to be protected. The only way to do that is to bet. Even hands like bottom two pair on the flop are vulnerable, and need protection.

(6) Not making the proper bet. Betting is the whole key to no-limit hold 'em. Overbetting or underbetting the pot are the most common mistakes that rookies make. They flop a big hand and get so excited that they move in or bet far more than the size of the pot. That usually scares everyone away, unless they have the nuts against you or something close to it. Amateurs want to win what is already in the pot, instead of trying to maximize the most money they can out of their hand. Sometimes you need to give your opponents enough rope to hang themselves. Overbetting often drives them out when they would have called a smaller bet. Really big hands are few and far between. When you get them you need to make the most of it. Underbetting is also a common mistake. Normal postflop bets should be in the range of half to two-thirds the size of the pot, sometimes even more. Making small bets like 25 percent of the pot or slightly more than that, often give your opponents the chance to draw at you very cheap, with large implied odds if they make their hand. Not charging drawing hands enough to make them fold so they are getting the right price is always a mistake.

(7) Unwillingness to gamble on a coin flip when circumstances demand it. Often you reach a stage of the tournament when the blinds are so large that you cannot go through more than one or two rounds before your stack disappears completely. If you are in this situation, a coin flip such as a pocket pair against two over cards, or the reverse, is exactly what you need to look for. If you're going to go broke very soon if you do nothing, then look for an opportunity to either steal the blinds, gamble with any pair, including deuces, or any two face cards. Even if you know you're going to be called -- after all, short stacks do get called far more often than medium or large stacks -- it's still the right play. At some point you simply have to double up in order to have any chance. You have to be willing to lose in order to stay alive.

(8) Not folding correctly. Bets saved are just as important as bets earned. Getting married to your big pairs and not giving them up when it is obvious they are beat is a major and often fatal play in a rookie's game plan. A classic example is pocket kings or even worse, queens. You are early in the tournament, the blinds are $25/$50 and a player raises it to $150. You have queens and decide to make it $450, which is a very reasonable play. Now your opponent comes back at you for $2,000 more. He is sending you a message, listen to it. If you started with $10,000, it costs very little to surrender at this point. Naturally, if I am willing to fold queens, any lesser hand should also go into the muck. Now let's change the circumstances slightly. You have pocket kings in early position and you make it $150 to go. Your opponent now raises you and makes it $450. Well, you have the 2nd best starting hand in hold 'em, so you decide to find out right now how strong your opponent is. You raise him back another $1,500. He hesitates a moment, looks at you, calls your bet and then reraises $3,000 more. At this stage of the tournament what in the world do you think he has? Well there is only one possible hand unless he is a total nut job. Pocket aces. Save your remaining chips and live to fight another day.

(9) Not being aggressive enough. When your opponents are playing very passive and checking to you, it often means they don't have much. This is especially true if you are in late position and it's now been checked to you twice after both the flop and the turn card. This is the perfect time to make a bet and try to pick up this pot. There are lots of "ownerless" pots when a bet will take it down with or without a hand. Aggressive players know this, same with the pros, so they take advantage of it as often as they can. Even amateurs know this, but just can't force themselves to pull the trigger. Many times when you sense weakness, you can overcome your positional disadvantage by being the first player to bet. Go by your gut instincts in these situations and fire that bullet. You will be surprised how often you will take down the pot without a hand.

(10) Being unaware of your table image. Quite often, amateur players have no clue how they come across to their opponents. They fall into certain playing patterns and seem powerless to escape them. The alert professional opponents will eat them alive if they don't change gears. You must constantly be aware of how your opponents perceive you at the table. Do they think you're tight or loose, solid, aggressive or timid? Are you known to never bluff, or bluff too much? This is especially true when you are in a hand. You must take your thinking to higher levels. You're trying to read them, and they are trying to read you. What do you think they have? What do you think they think you have? What do they think you think they have? It gets even more complicated than that, but you get the general idea. So what do you do about it? Do the unexpected. Cross them up and make a play, now and then, totally contrary to your image. Of course you have to be aware of your image first. This takes work and practice, and the best time to do this is when you're not in the heat of battle at the moment.

Tom McEvoy is the 1983 WSOP Champion and a part of Team PokerStars Pro. Tom has written 12 books on poker and has won 4 WSOP Bracelets. He plays exclusively a PokerStars.net where you can play for your chance to make it to the WSOP.

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