We’ve all seen those magical moments on TV when a lucky player watches the final card fall in their favor to clinch a poker tournament win, from the iconic image of Phil Hellmuth pumping his fists to the heavens after winning the 1989 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event to Antonio Esfandiari bagging the largest prize in poker history of $18 million at the 2012 WSOP Big One for One Drop.
Scroll through enough poker tournament coverage on YouTube, and you’ll see the same sort of scene play out time and time again.
Two exhausted opponents squaring off from across the green felted table. A pile of chips in the middle of the pot, surrounded by stacks and stacks of cash. And soon enough, one player celebrating in ecstasy when the river card delivers a hard-earned victory.
But for all the gold and glory that triumph in the tournament arena can offer, the real reward comes from knowing exactly how hard accomplishing this feat truly is. Simply put, winning a poker tournament outright — or even chopping the prize pool up through a final table deal — represents one of the most difficult tasks in competitive gaming.
As the game of No Limit Texas Hold’em becomes increasingly close to “solved” status thanks to math genius whiz kids aided by computer algorithms and innate talent, the gap between us “Regular Joes” and the top pros grows wider by the day.
Throw in the proliferation of reentry or rebuy tournaments, which allow those with a bigger bankroll to fire multiple buy-in “bullets” in hopes of spinning up a big stack, and scoring a win as a recreational player has never been harder than it is today.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands of hopefuls still show up at the WSOP in Las Vegas each and every summer, all of them looking to buck the odds and bring a gold bracelet home.
Then there’s the World Poker Tour (WPT), the WSOP Circuit, the Mid-Stakes Poker Tour (MSPT), the Heartland Poker Tour (HPT), and countless other “mid-major” tournament circuits currently crisscrossing the nation.
When daily and nightly tournaments hosted by local casinos and card clubs are added into the mix, poker players have a seemingly endless lineup of opportunities awaiting them.
But an opportunity is far from an actual triumph, a rude awakening most poker enthusiasts come to discover soon after hitting the tourney trail. While the more experienced and skilled players make trips to the winner’s circle look routine, the rest of us are forced to settle for minimum cashes if we’re lucky and busting out before the money bubble when we’re not.
It doesn’t have to be that way forever, though, as tournament poker — for all of its innate difficulty when it comes to sustaining success — is still a purely egalitarian game. Top pros like Hellmuth and Esfandiari may be stars today, but they had to start at the bottom of the ladder like everyone else.
Steadily expanding their knowledge and experience until finally achieving that fateful breakthrough in a big moment.
That effort entails:
To help you climb your own personal poker ladder, check out the list below to find 101 hours every aspiring poker player should put in if winning a tournament is the top priority.
Over the last decade or so, many of the game’s elite talents have transitioned from full-time play on the felt to the poker instruction industry.
And that’s been quite the boon for recreational players looking to take their game to the next level.
By enrolling in a few of the leading poker tournament instructional programs on the market, you can gain direct access to cutting-edge game theory provided by top pros turned coaches.
Take the Run It Once course as the perfect example. Launched in 2012 by high-stakes online legend and three-time WSOP gold bracelet winner Phil Galfond, the Run It Once concept is deceptively simple. Based on the pricing tier you decide on, you’ll be able to view any of the 2,400 video tutorials created by the Run It Once coaching stable.
That stable isn’t filled with slouches, either, so along with Galfond’s wisdom, Run It Once students can learn directly from tournament legends like Fedor Holz, Brian Rast, and Jason Koon.
That trio alone has pocketed more than $80 million in live tournament earnings between them, which should give you a sense of the skills they impart as Run It Once instructors.
Another great tournament course to consider is Upswing Poker, a product of three-time WSOP winner Doug Polk and fellow pro Ryan Fee. Shortly after launching Upswing Poker, Polk and Fee proved their bona fides on the felt by capturing the crown in the 2016 WSOP’s first-ever Tag Team tournament — so their students are in good hands.
Upswing Poker focuses more on tournament play, developing intricate “Push/Fold” charts to help players pinpoint exactly when to go for it on a short stack.
Let’s say you have exactly nine big blinds and a hand like K-7 suited in late position. Your instincts might be crying out to fold and live to fight another day, but according to the complex statistical analysis that went into Upswing Poker’s Push/Fold charts, this situation represents a clear shoving spot.
You’ll find plenty of variety out there when it comes to tournament instruction, including programs like Advanced Poker Training, Tournament Poker Edge, and Red Chip Poker, but they all share one goal in common — incremental improvement.
In exchange for a small monthly subscription fee, usually priced between $30 and $100 depending on the tier, anybody can learn directly from a group of poker’s most accomplished pros.
Get yourself enrolled in one or more of these courses today before devoting at least 20 hours to studying the ins and outs of advanced tournament theory.
Once you’ve wrapped up an instructional course like Run It Once or Upswing Poker, you’ll find yourself brimming with new knowledge.
Crucial concepts pertaining to every aspect of the game have just penetrated your consciousness, but until you put those ideas into practice, the information doesn’t do you much good.
To solve that dilemma, fire up your favorite online poker platform and begin a training regimen designed to test your newfound skills. Your personal bankroll limitations may vary, but it’s best to roll with a small buy-in stake for the sake of this exercise, as volume will be the name of the game.
Perhaps you prefer $11 multitable tournaments on Bovada. In this case, your goal should be to play as many of these games as you can find on the schedule during a given day. From there, enter as many events as you can and set to work applying the lessons you just spent 20 hours learning.
Now, the goal of poker is always to win, but for these 30 hours or so, focus more on exploring how the pro’s teachings really work in the real world.
If you’ve been studying Push/Fold charts on Upswing Poker, have those handy while you play and identify spots where the short-stack theories can be put into action. And don’t hold back, either. Trust the instruction and make the proper plays as you’ve been taught — even if they don’t feel proper in the moment.
You might be attached to a particular tourney after putting in a few hours behind the mouse, but the aim here isn’t to go deep in a single event; it’s to put yourself in position to make deep runs routinely.
Such as shoving an average stack from the button holding a marginal hand.
As you progress through this 30-hour practice challenge, keep detailed records of your progress both on the micro and macro levels. Data like hours played, buy-ins made, and cash won is always useful, but be mindful to track things like how often certain advanced plays worked out (and why they did or didn’t).
In the end, you might find your bankroll has swung up or down by a few bucks, but that isn’t really the point. What you’re really looking for here is to acclimate yourself to a new style of play, integrating the lessons learned in your training course until they become a seamless aspect of your playing style.
Poker instruction courses are all the rage lately, but there’s another way to observe and learn from better players — live streaming sites.
These days, a site like Twitch, which allows gamers to stream their progress to worldwide audiences in real-time, is an essential resource for aspiring tournament players. Just fire up Twitch and search for poker streamers to get an up close and personal glimpse into how winning players really approach each and every hand that comes their way.
A good example is Lex Veldhuis. Known as one of the original high-stakes beasts, Lex Veldhuis has been a member of Team PokerStars for several years running.
After turning to live streaming in recent years, Veldhuis has emerged as one of the industry’s most popular figures, with his Twitch channel attracting more than 100,000 loyal subscribers and counting.
And while this clip was from a larger buy-in event like the $215 Sunday Million, Veldhuis is happy to grind it out playing at all stakes.
By observing how a top pro like Veldhuis solves the various poker puzzles that a long tournament run brings his way, you can absorb all of that knowledge straight from the source.
And there will be plenty of knowledge to digest, as the loquacious Veldhuis isn’t shy about explaining every facet of a close decision to his rabid fan base.
Other top tournament streamers out there include the following star-studded list:
Get yourself on Twitch and subscribe to some, or all, of the live streaming celebrities listed above, and you won’t be sorry.
You’ve devoured hours of instruction from acclaimed pros. You’ve grinded through a seemingly endless lineup of practice tournaments designed to test your mettle. And you’ve sat back as a spectator while somebody like Veldhuis lets you in on his every last secret.
To make that dream a reality, you’ll need to get in the game, which means identifying the best live tournaments hosted in your local area. Hopefully you have access to a nearby commercial or tribal casino where daily and nightly tournaments can be found on the regular.
If so, head there early and often, playing as many events as your bankroll will allow until securing your first-ever first-place finish.
But even if you’re stuck in the proverbial poker desert, with no casinos or card rooms in the vicinity, you can still hunt down that most elusive of play.
Tournament circuits like the ones listed in the introduction are constantly traveling from coast to coast and all points in between. Sort through the tours’ current schedule and find a stop within manageable driving or flying distance, then save up a little dough to make the trip happen.
The best part about attending a poker tournament circuit stop is that you won’t be in danger of a “one and done” experience. While daily and nightly tourneys are great to have around, as their name implies, you’ll only get one chance to win on any given day.
But if you hit something like the WSOP Circuit or Mid-Stakes Poker Tour, their respective schedules offer a long lineup of events to choose from over the course of 1-2 weeks. You’ll find everything from low-level $250 buy-in tournaments to the $1,700 Main Event, along with satellite qualifiers to help you get into the bigger events on the cheap.
However you choose to approach this final piece of the puzzle, be sure to take a page out of every poker pro’s book and really go all-in.
Focus on every hand you play from preflop action to the final call or fold. Evaluate your opponents’ play and target the weak while avoiding damage from the strong.
Apply every last lesson learned over the last 100 hours, and in the end, you’ll be spending Hour #101 posing for a winner’s photo and happily counting your cash.
The 101-hour path to poker tournament success isn’t set in stone, so by all means, feel free to adjust the schedule as you see fit. The real objective here is to show you exactly how much work really goes into those winning moments captured on TV coverage over the years.
Sure, a “luckbox” will stumble their way into an occasional win here and there — that’s just how poker works in the short-term.
But if you want to make winner photos and trophies a consistent part of your poker life, devoting a few hours every day to achieving your goals presents the most effective path.
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