10 Tips to Prepare for Your First Poker Tournament

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Preparing for Your First Poker Tournament

Casino poker games are a great way for casual home game players to take the next step in their poker progression. These games will have your blood pumping as you battle complete strangers for cold hard cash.

However, nothing will get your adrenaline soaring like playing in your first poker tournament. You’ll eventually need to hop into tournament action if you ever want to realize your full potential as a poker player.

Poker tournaments don’t need to be a scary proposition. Nor should they be reserved for elite players.

These events are held weekly and even daily at most casinos. They also offer relatively low buy-ins, so you can gamble for hours on a set budget.

Utilize these 10 tips to prepare for your first poker tournament, and you’ll be way ahead of many competitors.

1 – Schedule Your Time Appropriately

Ensuring that you have the appropriate amount of time allotted for the tournament is paramount when playing your first poker tournament.

Yet, many players will skip this step entirely and then panic when the tournament pushes through dinner and into the morning. Worse may be making it deeper into a large tournament than you planned for and missing a flight home or scrambling for a room.

Odds are your first poker tournament will not be a multi-day affair. Regardless, these events can take all day to complete.

Once you make it to a final table, the dynamics shift considerably. Most of the less skilled players have been knocked out at this stage.

Many players are happy to merely cash, and the short stacks will start to dwindle. This stage is where the super grind begins.

You shouldn’t be thinking about how angry your spouse is going to be that you’re going to arrive home five hours late.

2 – Establish Goals

No matter what journey you focus on in life, the most productive step early is to establish realistic goals. This step will pay tremendous dividends in the future.

Obviously, the most common goal for tournament poker players will be to win the event. That’s a great goal but has a few setbacks.

First and foremost, there can only be a single winner. That may not be an issue during your weekly game at the cigar bar. Still, in an event with hundreds or even thousands of real money poker players, it leaves many on the outside looking in.

So, you will want to adjust your goals for the event. Personally, I’m hard-wired to win at everything I do.

I’ve had to learn to break myself of this view regarding tournament play. If I refuse to settle for cash or top three finish, I’ll constantly be frustrated.

Eventually, that all or nothing mentality will kill any chances to become a better player. I’ve seen many solid poker players quit the game altogether.

3 – Eat Well Ahead of Your Session

Professional athletes take great care of their bodies. They understand the importance of keeping their body and mind in peak condition.

Poker tournaments will often boil down to keeping yourself hyper-focused longer than your opponent. This task can be complicated with many factors contributing and detracting, but a proper diet will keep you sharp.

I like to avoid a heavy meal before a tournament. A large steak with a baked potato is fantastic any time of the day; I’ve had it for breakfast enough times that my wife makes jokes at my expense.

Playing Poker

Still, before a tournament session, this heavy meal can make you lethargic. You’ll also want to avoid sugary snacks like candy bars before a tournament.

Focus on light meals and fresh fruit before you sit down at the table. You’ll be sharp, and that will be critical throughout the event. 

4 – Commit to Your Strategy

One of the most devastating mistakes I see poker players make is walking into the poker rooms without any strategy.

The poker world is full of strategies and systems; there doesn’t seem to be any natural formula for success that will net a win every time out.

Bear in mind that all of this information is readily available online. In fact, if you haven’t spent time learning basic poker strategy, sit the tournament scene until you have.

Playing a tight aggressive strategy will most likely serve you best as a rookie, but that’s just my two cents. There will be circumstances at the tables that will force you to deviate slightly during your first tournament.

Be flexible, but never abandon your strategy entirely. That may be tough when you lose a few hands in a row.

Sticking to your guns and maintaining a level head will weather more storms than you probably imagine.

5 – Visualize the Wins and Losses

As the saying goes, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Well, this is equally true in poker.

That’s why spending time visualizing your losses can be as rewarding as doing so with wins.

Imagine how it will feel to win big hands and go deep into the tournament. Do your best to visualize sitting at the final table.

You’ll then have a certain level of comfort and familiarity when you’re facing off with the group.

Then, you need to take a similar approach to tough beats. Doing this will guard against going full tilt during the event.

6 – Get Your Beauty Sleep

I can’t really stress the importance of sleep. Poker players have this image as disheveled gamblers that spend all night playing poker.

That leads many people to assume they never sleep. I can tell you from experience that an elite player you see on the tables until 4 am is sleeping until well into the afternoon.

My buddy that spent over a decade as a professional poker player, would regularly not get out of bed before 6 pm.

Then, he’d have a meal, maybe sneak in nine holes of golf, and hit the poker tables. He always got his eight hours of sleep.

It can be difficult to sleep the night before your first tournament. Your mind will be racing with excitement, so avoid caffeine before bed.

7 – Take Measures to Obscure Your Emotions

Novice poker players are constantly tipping their hands. Even professional players will don sunglasses, hoodies, and earbuds to guard against giving opponents information.

The important thing is that you are comfortable at the table. If you never listen to music when you play, this may not be the best time to start.

Playing Poker

However, taking measures to obscure your emotions will make it more difficult for opponents to put you on a hand.

This style of fashion-based gamesmanship is relatively new to the poker scene. Still, it may help you gain a slight edge over competitors.

8 – Learn to Breathe

Poker tournaments are incredibly taxing emotionally and physically. First-time poker tournament entrants are often surprised by how much of a grind tournament play can be.

Even the smaller daily events at casinos across the world are much different than your standard cash game.

Players that learn to breathe will instantly gain a distinct advantage over their opponents. Stress and doubt are constantly lurking during a tournament, and how you deal with these factors will determine how you fare.

Learn to take deep, controlled breaths. Some players will listen to meditations during their tournament sessions.

Whatever it takes to find your zen, go with that and rely on it to carry you through the lows that will invariably come.

9 – Clear Your Mind

I have played a tremendous amount of competitive poker. I’ve played even more tournament golf during my life, and I feel like there are lessons I’ve learned on the course that directly translate to poker.

Possibly the most crucial step I’ve taken from the course to the poker room is spending time clearing my mind before a tournament.

That usually means getting away from the casinos or poker games for a day before the tournament. You can spend the day hiking, watching movies, reading a book, or anything that you enjoy doing.

Free your mind of worry and get centered for the following day. When you enter a tournament willing to accept the results, good and bad, you’ll find successes even among utter disappointment.

10 – Stay Away From the Booze

I feel like this is an important area to cover because I see it harpoon a lot of tournament players. It makes no difference whether you’re a rookie or not; alcohol will cloud your judgment.

That directly impacts how you assess opponents and value your cards. Clearly, this will have adverse side effects on your gameplay.

I understand players wanting to take the edge off before their first tournament. I merely suggest you find a healthier way to rid yourself of the jitters.

Remember, these tournaments are a marathon. A couple of drinks early may add up over five to seven hours.


Playing in your first poker tournament should be an exciting adventure. I’m proud of anyone considering taking this step.

These 10 tips to prepare for your first poker tournament will help you perform your best when the cards are dealt. Most importantly, remember to have fun and learn as much as possible.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...

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