tEh_R3aLde4L in Tournament poker: Part One

tEh_R3aLde4L in Tournament poker: Part One

Monday, 3 November 2008

Playing as tEh_R3aLde4L on PokerStars, Wesley Whybrew has over $200,000 in online tournament winnings as well as a successful live mid-stakes cash and tournament career. Oh, and he’s only 20 years old – Vegas will fear this man when he comes of age.

While his online handle doesn’t quite inspire the same respect as durrr, OMGClayAiken or Good2CU, Wesley really is the real deal – a Sunday Million victory as well as countless other wins, final tables and cashes in his short career garners a certain degree of respect. His style of play is self-admittedly unique, constantly shifting from loose to tight depending on the game flow and players at his table. In this exclusive series of interviews with BluffEurope.com, Wesley will share with you the secrets of tournament success that he has learned in his fleeting, but action-packed, poker career.

Constant adjustment and changing gears
“The most overlooked thing in tournament poker is how often you need to be able to adjust and change gears,” he says. “I mean basically playing off table dynamics and image etc but it can go deeper than that.”

According to Wesley, many beginning-to-intermediate tournament players have some serious flaws in their game that will stop them crushing high stakes tournaments on a regular basis. One of them is not taking into account game flow and adjusting to the table dynamics.

“The biggest problem for small-stakes players is that they don’t know how to adjust,” he states confidently. “I have won a lot of smaller buy-in tournaments using seemingly reckless play. I have won tournaments where at the final table everyone was complaining that I was a maniac and terrible at poker – they didn’t even know they were getting outplayed. This is because smaller-stakes players have trouble adjusting.”

Less skilled players will play ‘their game’ and make the same decisions in every situation, which is where you need to adapt. “In smaller buy-in tournaments I raise-fold more and play a lot more aggressive. In bigger buy-ins I actually play tighter, and steal slightly, sometimes even significantly, less,” Wesley says.

"At higher stakes, people are going to be more aware of the table - if for a while I am winning all of the pots deep in the tournament; chances are there is another strong player at the table who is not afraid to try to slow me down. It becomes hard in situations where you get re raised in a marginal spot by a tough player who was letting you run it over. Was he waiting for a hand to play back or is he just getting tired of the aggression? It's a tough guessing game, where as in a small stakes tournament I can easily fold stronger hands to re raises as I am probably beat."

Observation and focus
According to Wesley: “Your plays in multi-table tournaments are based on hundreds and hundreds of things, not just your cards. And I’m not talking about blind vs blind confrontations where you have 5-15 blinds and can just open shove any two, obviously your cards don’t matter there.”

Every time you are about to make an elementary decision such as whether or not to open raise a pot, Wesley says you need to ask yourself questions - Who is on my left? Is he aggressive or passive? How many chips does he have? How many chips do the blinds have? If they have re-steal stacks are they capable of shipping light? If they have 20-30BB stacks are they defenders? What have I shown down? How much was the pre-flop raise?
“Then I look at my cards and decide if it’s worth it to steal,” Wesley says, going on to explain the level of situational play required in tournament poker. “Sometimes if the conditions aren’t right I will open fold A8 on the button. Other times, I have raised 23o on the button because the cards didn’t matter given the stack sizes and the players in the blinds – they just would not play back enough to make anything but raising the best play.”

And that's just preflop! "Every street, every time you are faced with a decision you must ask yourself: What hands that I can beat call? Do better hands fold? What am I representing? All the while your chips are changing value and you end up weighing survival vs accumulation; trying to do your best to estimate your EV given that your tournament chips only represent tiny pieces of the prizepool."

Practice makes perfect
The only way to learn how to truly play poker is not by reading books or browsing forums but by getting out there, sitting at the table and learning how to not lose your money. “We learn poker over time not by learning what TO do, but learning what NOT to do,” Wesley affirms sagely. “For example, some people love to make hero calls – I’m one of them. A few years ago I could never fold the river if I thought there was a chance someone was bluffing. This is obviously bad. Now, though, since I’ve called on the river so many times and been wrong so many times, I have seen more situations where somebody might be bluffing on the river than maybe anyone. So now I make ridiculously sick calls and I’m right more often than not – all because I used to be a huge calling station on the river.”

"By far the best poker advice I have ever read was a strategy tips email from Phil Ivey. He said for practice, jump into a smaller stakes game and literally try to win every pot. Try things you normally wouldn't. You begin to see all of the angles, and figure out what works and what doesn't. I never actually jumped into a small stakes game, I simply used to play like a maniac in my normal game."

Table image
Everyone knows about table image, but many players fail to truly recognise its importance: “Not only are you going to need to be aware of what other people are capable of given their stack sizes; you need to be constantly thinking about what people think YOU are capable with given YOUR stack size. That’s where image comes in. You also must be aware of what the other players have seen of you. If you are observant, there are many things you can use against other players in order to induce bluffs they would not normally make such as folding a big hand or making thin calls on the river." In short, the image you give out at the table can affect what hands you can play as much as your stack size or the people to your left can.

Bluffing effectively
People bluff all the time – when you pull it off you feel as cool as James Bond, the real big daddy who took the pot with ace-high. However, Wesley says that many people bluff for all the wrong reasons and players like him will have their chips before they can order a dry martini.

“The most important thing is: don’t just bluff to bluff, or bluff because poker players are supposed to, or just to win the pot. So many people bluff simply because they have no showdown value – ‘well, I missed everything, time to fire another barrel.’”

There are times to fire that barrel, but without a clear logic behind your bluffs, Wesley says that “good players will see through it. When an average player creates a bluff, he or she doesn’t put much more thought into it than ‘dammit, this guy is always stealing from me, time to get him back.’ I remember when I used to bluff without thinking about who I was bluffing or why, but if you are not representing a certain hand, or a range of hands that beats your opponents’ most likely hand or most likely range of hands then a good player will call you down. The first stage is to become good at reading hands, specifically being able to analyse when your opponent has one pair at best – this is a great spot to bluff because all you need is a scare card such as an ace or a four-flush on the turn.”

Overall tournament psychology
The internet meme phrase ‘lol donkaments’ came about due to the high-variance nature of professional tournament play – in a cash game, one mistake or suckout means you simply reload, win your money back and more besides; in a tournament, that same cold deck sends you home out of pocket.

Wesley says it’s important not to focus on the beats and coolers: “Tournaments are not about getting it all in with the best hand. How many times in your life have you complained to a friend about tournament poker: ‘I don't understand why I can't win in tournaments; I get it in with the best hand every single time, I never put my money in bad and I always get sucked out on?’ Everyone has said or thought that at some point – I have, and so has everyone reading this.”

That attitude is not only pessimistic, Wesley says, but flat-out wrong: “It’s impossible, for one thing, to play poker and never get your money in with the worst hand. Even if it was possible and there was a player that played tournaments and never got it all in unless he had the best hand, he wouldn’t be playing tournament poker properly.”

"Granted, I do admit one of my biggest leaks today is still not being able to lose graciously. At least now I don't let it affect my play on other tables, as this is the most important part. Let me tell you from experience, it's not fun.”

Wesley plays as tEh_R3aLde4L on PokerStars. He also regularly plays live cash games and has coached several successful tournament players.

Next week, look out for Part II of Wesley’s strategy tips with a piece on playing different stacks deep in tournaments.

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