Booking Wins & Tracking Hands in Live Tournaments

Alex Fitzgerald at the PCA (Photo courtesy of PokerStars)

Alex Fitzgerald at the PCA (Photo courtesy of PokerStars)

“Did he check that turn?” I ask, with my iPhone open to a note taking application.

“Gotta update the HUD, huh?” David Tuthill asks me with his customary wry smile.

I laugh. In the two days of playing the World Poker Tour World Championship, he was the only one who called me on what I was doing.

When I play live poker, I’m not the best at paying attention. I can talk a little too much, trying to do anything to pass the time. There’s just not enough going on for me. I like action. I like a lot of tables. I relish being at home, Twitch broadcasting on my channel, playing multiple tables and ranting to an audience about whatever is bugging me in the game or real world.

On the felt, where I have to watch the painfully slow pitch of the blackjack transplant the casino hired the day before, I’m bored stiff. It’s only worse when you try to start a conversation with the “pro” next to you, and he responds with grunts. I expect that treatment from LAX security, but didn’t you pay money to be here playing a game with these people?!

This WPT however, I’d come armed with a plan. I had a counter in my cell phone. Yeah, like one of those things your gym teacher would click at you disapprovingly when you mucked up the shuttle run. Except instead of recording my failures in athletics, this time I was recording my successes in poker.

I had three columns for my play. One was “Well-Played Hands.” The other was “Mediocre-Played Hands.” The last, dreaded column was “Poorly-Played Hands.” After every hand was completed, I marked the proper section. Successful upkeep gave me a score at the end of each break to analyze.

Fold 9-3 offsuit from under the gun? Yeah, okay, you played that well, but that doesn’t mean it’s a well-played hand. Even though you didn’t give up anything to the game you also didn’t draw value. In order to mark that hand in your win column, you need to observe the action of the entire hand. If there is ever a showdown and you don’t know the action you just passed up on a fountain of information. Your goal is to prevent that from every happening with purposeful practice.

A mediocre-played hand doesn’t mean you necessarily lost money on the hand. You could have jammed a profitable hand preflop, only to realize later a raise/fold would have maybe been more profitable. You could have also folded early in a hand because you were about to walk out a play you weren’t trained for. While, yes, you could have maybe derived profit from winging the hand, you would have just been gambling due to your ignorance of the situation. Minimizing your losses in this scenario is the best you can accomplish, but it doesn’t mean you played the hand optimally.

The poorly-played hand column is reserved for when you blatantly picked an option you knew was wrong. It’s also for when you make impulsive plays, only to realize a second later that if you’d taken stock of the situation you’d have seen a much better play.

Your whole goal with the day is to keep the poorly-played column empty. Everyone else in live poker is impatient and wants to play everything. They start with small number fudging. Pick up 6-4 suited from middle position? Ah hell, I’m bored, let’s open. Oh, they three-bet? Well, normally I’d fold, but that’s no fun, and the three-bet is kind of small…and so on, and so on.

With this system you know the open is mediocre. You fold, book the win in your column, and move on with your day. If you’re an aggressive player, this will just make you slightly more careful, but a small adjustment coordinated correctly against the field can reap big dividends.

In my field testing of this system at a World Poker Tour event, I was much more patient in the opening levels than I’d normally be, because I wanted to grade myself honestly. When profitable situations did present themselves, they almost always worked out for me. I’d developed a more careful image than I’d normally have. A couple double barrel bluffs worked, then a triple got through. My three-bet semibluffs were being respected. Soon, I’d doubled my chips with few showdowns.

And then, inevitably, a hand went against me. But when this bluff didn’t work out? Well, I’d done the work at home, and known the spot was profitable. I felt good about marking the hand as “well-played”, because I was pretty sure I’d just run into the top of his range. Booking a win, even when my chips had slid into another’s stack, left me contented and focused in the face of defeat.

What if you haven’t done the work at home, and you don’t know if your plays are profitable? Then check, fold, cut your losses, and don’t give your chips to those who have worked harder than you. Blow up the pots where you know you have an edge, but don’t leave them a tip when you’re confounded. Mark the hand as “mediocre” and write down as many details as you can remember into your cell phone. Everybody else will just mark you as a donk who is texting about a bad beat to his wife.

Now, marking a hand as mediocre is not necessarily a bad thing. Someone had to correct Tiger Woods’ swing at some point. That feeling of uncertainty is downplayed in poker, which is fraught with annoying “pros” who brag about how good they are, but make no mistake: That pang is the call of responsibility. It is a great quality to have. It shows you’re honestly assessing yourself. You want to get better. Now don’t just pray it will happen. Do something to see that you will improve.

Are you a great poker player? This question can only be answered through action.

When you go home and explore a situation in your mediocre or poor column, and learn from it, you have just converted that into a huge win.

The scores you accrue at the end of the day are really interesting. This will help you become more like Phil Ivey, who can reportedly win a tournament and can raggedly inform his friends, “I played horrible today.” There will be times you have a successful session, but you’ll notice you had a ton of marks in the “mediocre” section, because you were idiotically busy talking to a friend about some past tournament that’s already dead and buried. There will be other times you get gutted for all your chips repeatedly, but you’ll notice you were focused the whole day, with only conscientious questions being logged in your mediocre column.

It is important you be honest with yourself. There is no shame in admitting a mistake. It is a mark of maturity. It can be quite humbling, yes, but it will also allow you to be more hopeful. Your situation can only improve if you know there’s improvement to be made. No one can improve upon bad luck.

Rating your performance allows you to see reality on reality’s terms. You will be focusing on the right things. A couple Sundays back I final tabled a $500 tournament, but logged seven errors along the way! Needless to say, in high stakes tournaments there’s no chance you’ll win long term if you make seven errors in a day. When I busted the tournament on a cooler later, I was more focused on my mistake-laden chip position at the start of the final table as opposed to, “my God I can never win a flip!”

I found when I backtracked through my tournament results this system would have saved me considerable woe. I have around $600,000+ in tournament profit online, but in one part of my graph I had a $150,000 downswing. In that section I noticed I was racking 4-5 serious errors per day. While that might not have been much of an issue in 2007, in 2012 with superior competition, it was unsustainable. Once I did finally commit to a system of fewer tables and cleaner play, I quickly got over that downswing.

Don’t make the same mistakes I literally paid six figures to learn for you. Track your play with some system or another. Commit to purposeful practice, and lots of it.

Good luck to all of you.

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Alex “Assassinato” Fitzgerald has won millions online, is a Pocket5’s training instructor and a sought-after MTT coach currently living in Costa Rica with his wife. He has his own Twitch stream and developed his own Assassinato HUD.
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