Stepping Up Your Game

Hello! I hope all of you are well! With this post, I’m doing something a little different than you are used to seeing here. Over the last week I have been working on a few topics and one crossed my mind that’s place is needed now. With the recent and future events in the poker world there is a lot of excitement brewing! Last weekend we gave away 4 seats to this up coming World Series of Poker! The people who earned them will be playing in Event #46,which is called the $1500 Bounty No-Limit Hold’em. A few of the players have never experienced the extravaganza known as The World Series of Poker, so my goal was to find a way to help prepare them to go. Around the same time as I was beginning to build my outline, I was asked by my very good friend if could do a guest piece on my blog. Low and behold, all the stars lined up for this! “Of course!” I exclaimed! “And I have the perfect topic for you!”

Today’s post will in fact be offered by none other than my good friend Skylar Hawker. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Hawker, here is a brief introduction: Skylar, who is originally from Orem, Utah, now living in Sandy, UT is a veteran poker player who excels in the Texas Hold’em Tournament genera. He has cashed in several  WSOP events and most recently placed 155th at last years WSOP Bounty event. As a seasoned veteran of the home game, as well as the bar games, he’s very familiar with the differences and the changes that are needed to get you ready for whats to come as you enter the WSOP arena.

The topic I asked Skylar to talk about, is none other than transitioning from the bar game to “The Big Game”. I hope you enjoy what Skylar’s insight has to offer and my hopes are that there is something you can take from this. So without further ado, here is what Skylar has to offer!


      -Many of you only play poker casually at the bar or in friendly home games, but would love the chance to play for some serious money. We’ve all seen Chris Moneymaker win the WSOP Main Event on TV and he was an unknown amateur player winning the biggest poker event on the planet. Maybe you’ve been playing well and winning recently, and may think you are ready for the WSOP. This post is going to cover a variety of topics to help you transition from your small local game to playing in some of the largest live poker tournaments around.

Let’s say you decide to just take the plunge and play in a WSOP event. You book your flights, make hotel reservations at the Rio, and break open your piggy bank with the money you’ve been saving up for just this occasion. This is it. This is your big chance. The only thing on your mind is walking away with a gold bracelet and that pile of cash sitting on the table. You know you’re better than most of the people you usually play with, and now you plan to prove it.

You get to Vegas, walk in to the Pavilion Room at the Rio, and are immediately overwhelmed at the sight of hundreds of poker tables and the white noise of chip shuffling. The feeling is electrifying, and your adrenaline starts pumping. You head to the cashier and eagerly hand her your stack of Benjamins in return for your tournament seat assignment. Weaving your way through the tables, you recognize a face from a televised poker show, but you just can’t remember his name. Maybe that could be you next year. Maybe you will be seated at the featured table and you will get on TV.

You eventually find your table and get seated. The dealer slides over your starting chip stack of 15,000 chips and you are dealt your first hand of the tournament. Qc Jc. Two face cards right out of the gate. This is going to be a cake walk.

The blinds are 25/50, and you are in the big blind. The guy on your left (under the gun) raises to 150, the cutoff calls, the button calls, and the small blind folds. You have the option to act, so you raise to 300. The other three players call you.

The flop comes Jh 10h Kd. You are open-ended to the straight and have a pair of jacks. You have a good feeling, so you bet 500 because you want to get as many chips as you can from this hand. UTG raises to 2500 and the CO folds. The button looks at you while he is thinking, and calls. You easily call. They are all falling right into your trap.

The turn is 9c, giving you the straight. Now you check, because you don’t want anyone else to know you got there. UTG bets 4000. The button calls. You have the straight so you easily make the call.

The river is 3h. You shove all in. UTG looks really frustrated and mucks his cards very forcibly into the middle. The button snap calls. He turns over Kh 8h, and wins with the flush, knocking you out of the tournament on your very first hand.

So what happened here? Was this just a bad beat? Or could you have played it differently to win? In this example, there were a few simple mistakes that added up being catastrophic. After playing “bar” poker for so long, there is a good chance you have picked up some bad habits that your opponents will exploit at every opportunity. In large tournaments with thousands of dollars at stake, your goal is to consistently make good decisions, minimize the amount of mistakes you make, and survive as long as possible. If you know the common mistakes people make, you can take advantage of situations when your opponents trip up. There were a few major mistakes made in the example hand, and I will be breaking down this example to help explain them. These mistakes can easily be fixed, and will dramatically improve your results in Vegas.

Starting Hand Values

In the weekly “bar” tournament I play in, the structure is designed to make sure the tournament ends within about four hours. Players start with 25,000 chips, blinds start at 100/200, and double every 15 minutes. With a tournament structure that moves this fast, players will get blinded out very quickly. It is crucial to win chips fairly regularly or you will be a short stack before you know what hit you. Structures like this increase the amount of luck in a tournament by reducing the amount of hands you get to play. Players do not have the luxury of sitting around waiting for premium hands and will limp into the pot a lot more often to see if they can hit the flop. Players who regularly enter these types of tournaments often develop some very bad habits.

Many tournaments in Las Vegas have fast structures, but a good rule of thumb is this: the higher the entry fee, the better the tournament structure. You will see a clear difference between the structure of a $125 tournament and a $1500 tournament. There will be more time between each blind level and the blinds will go up gradually with each step.

At the WSOP, the daily $235 deep stack tournament has a much better structure than any free bar game. The starting stack is 15,000 chips, the blinds go up every 30 minutes and are incremental, instead of doubling with each increase. Players have the ability to slow down their game and fold until they are dealt a premium hand, giving them a much higher probability they will win the pot.

We all have seen people win the pot with random junk in their hand after they get lucky on the flop, but if you are playing junk cards and planning to get lucky, you won’t last very long in any big tournament. This is the same with random “favorite hands.” Just because you may have won a few hands with 6-3 doesn’t mean it is a good starting hand.

One of the biggest problems with playing mediocre starting hands is the difficult decisions you have after the flop. Let’s say you have Kd 8d and the flop is Qh 8c 4d. You have middle pair, but is it the best hand? Should you bet out? Should you call if someone bets out first? What if the flop was Kh 10d 6c? You would have top pair, but is your kicker any good? Will you be calling and betting on each street just to lose to someone with AK? You can easily avoid these difficult decisions by just folding pre-flop and waiting for a better starting hand.

Here is a really good article on the strength of various starting hands:

I suggest reading this article to get a good understanding of which hands you should be playing and which hands you should be mucking.

Playing in Position

You’ve probably heard that it is important to “play in position.” Everyone likes having the button in front of them because they don’t have to post the blinds, but position is much more than that. Your position in the game is CRUCIAL to your success or to your failure. When you are on the button, every decision you make in that hand will have more information than every other player at the table. Poker is a game of incomplete information, so the more information you have, the better your decisions will be.

Let’s say you have a pair of 7’s in your hand. You can play this hand in a variety of ways and a lot of this depends on your position at the table. If you are UTG, you are acting first. Let’s say you raise, but then you are called, raised, re-raised, and then the button goes all in. How confident are you about your hand now? If you had known that there was going to be so much action behind you, would you have bothered to put chips in the middle to begin with? What if you are on the button with 7’s, and see all this action in front of you. It becomes much easier to fold your hand, and you didn’t lose any chips with it.

On the other hand, let’s say you are on the button with 7’s, and there is only one player who has called the big blind before you. You have been able to watch him call, and he doesn’t seem too interested in his hand. Now you can feel much more confident raising with pocket 7’s, since they are likely to be the best hand going into the flop.

If the three keys of real estate are “location, location, location.” then the three keys to poker are “position, position, position.” If you look back to the first example, you were dealt Qc Jc on the button. Suited connectors, even suited face-card connectors, are speculative hands. With speculative hands, you want to see flops cheap and IN POSITION! When UTG raises right out of the gate, he is very likely to have a VERY strong hand. JJ, QQ, KK, AA, or maybe AK or AQ. Look back at the example hand and picture him having KK or AQ. Now you can see how far behind you likely were the entire time. Qc Jc is an easy muck on the big blind when UTG raises here.

What about the button? Should he have folded with Kh 8h? Maybe, but he was in position. The blinds plus a raise and a call were already in the middle, so he had good odds to call with suited high cards. Since he is in position here, he can speculate with his hand. He has the chance to win a big pot, but if he misses the flop, he can easily fold and lose a minimal amount of chips.

Here is a great article about the value of position in poker:

Your Cards vs. Opponents Range

Most casual poker players are only focus on their own cards and not on the cards their opponents are likely holding. Once you shift your thinking toward what other players may have, you will see a big improvement in your game. In the example hand, you were completely focused on your own hand and didn’t consider that your opponents could be drawing to a flush or could have a higher straight. UTG was definitely considering his opponents, which is why he reluctantly folded on the river.

But figuring out what cards your opponents hold is not easy. There are 169 different combinations of starting hands, and your opponents could be holding anything. This is where observation becomes key, and watching what other players do with various hands. Your goal is to find out what type of player they are and put them on a range of hands. If you can determine what hands they like to raise with, what hands they like to speculate with, and what hands they fold, you can narrow down the range of cards they might be holding at any given time.

Let’s assume you are at a table with someone who is known to only play AA, KK, or QQ. They will fold everything else, no matter what. And when they get AA, they always push all in pre-flop. Is this person easy to play against? Of course they are, because you always know exactly what they have. They have such a small range of hands, reading them is very easy. If a player is extremely tight, you know he won’t be holding suited connectors or low pairs in early position. If someone is playing extremely loose, it is more likely they could be calling with flush or straight draws on the flop and turn. A good concept to keep in mind is this: the earlier position someone is playing, the narrower range of hands you can put him or her on. Then, based on if they are checking, calling, or raising after the flop, you can narrow down what cards they may have in their range of possible hands.

Once you start thinking about ranges and paying attention to how tight someone is playing, you will have more information about when to raise or bluff your opponents intelligently. Again––think back to the example hand. UTG raises three times the big blind. This is the first hand of the tournament and you don’t have any idea how this guy plays. But he doesn’t know how anyone else plays either, so you have to assume that he must have a VERY strong hand to raise without any information from anyone else at the table. If you had been thinking this, folding your Qc Jc becomes much easier.

Here is a good article on putting players on a hand:

Bet with Intent

When you are playing in a tournament, there are only three reasons you should ever be betting or raising: 1) To isolate opponents pre-flop, 2) to make stronger hands fold, 3) to make weaker hands call. If you do not think that betting any amount will accomplish one of these goals, you should check. Keep in mind––you should never bet or raise to gain information. We should be betting to accomplish one of our three goals and then gaining information based on how our opponent reacts. In a tournament, your chips are your lifeline and you need to protect them at all costs. So betting unnecessarily is a quick way to lose your chips.

1) Raising pre-flop, you want to limit how many players stay in the hand. If you can reduce the number of players in a hand to just you against one other person, your odds of winning the hand go up significantly, regardless of what cards you are holding. For example, if you have AA in a hand with five people, you have a 49% chance of winning. But if you are against just one other person, it goes up to 85%. That extra 35% is huge!

Here is another example: Let’s assume you have pocket J’s in middle position and the button has 5-8. If you were to simply call the big blind, other players may limp in, including the button. The odds of your Jacks winning have just gone down. Then if the flop comes down 4-6-7, you are WAY behind in the hand. However, if you had raised with the intent of isolating only strong hands, the button should fold, and you will likely have the best hand with your over-pair. This is why slow-playing high pairs can be very risky.

Looking at the example hand again, you raised pre-flop based solely on the two face cards in your hand. If you wanted to speculate with suited connectors, you probably should have just called. With a minimum raise, every other hand had great odds to call and stay in the hand. By raising here, all you did was inflate the size of the pot, and risk more of your chips unnecessarily. If your goal was to get other hands to fold and isolate your game against one other player, you need to raise enough to not make it worth a call for your opponents. But as we discussed before, the best play here was to just fold.


2) Making stronger hands fold is not always easy, but it becomes easier when you’ve been able to put your opponents on a range of hands. Let’s say you believe your opponent has two high cards––AK or AQ. The flop is A-J-10. You have pocket 5’s. Is there any reason to bet here? Is there any amount that would make your opponent fold? Would they call if you went all in? If a stronger hand will always call, you should never bet in this spot. How about if you have J-10 on the button and you put your opponent on a pocket pair like 7’s or 8’s? The flop is K-9-3 and they check to you. They have a stronger hand, but would a bet get them to fold? In many cases it would, and you would take down the pot. This is why figuring out your opponents’ range is so important to how you bet.

3) Making weaker hands call can be difficult, especially if people have a good read on you. But when you flop the nuts, you want to extract as many chips as you can from the other players. Let’s say you are in middle position with KQ, the big blind and the button are also in the hand, and the flop comes out J-10-9. The button checks to you. How can you play this and get the most value from your hand? First, what do you think your opponents have in their hand? Was there a raise or re-raise pre-flop? If you think they have strong hands like high pairs or AK, you may be able to bet a good amount and get them to call. If you think they are weak and likely missed the flop completely, you may want to check and hope one of them tries to bluff. This is one of the reasons people don’t usually win a lot of money when they have AA and they hit a set on the flop. The chances are low someone else has an ace, and people will often fold their hand if they think someone else hit the ace.


Anyone who has enough money in their pocket can enter into the tournaments at the WSOP––and any novice can get lucky on a given hand. But large tournaments at the WSOP are unforgiving and will punish players who rely solely on luck to win. So take a look at how you play your game the next time you sit down at the felt. See if you are making these common mistakes and make a conscious effort to improve your game. Tighten up your range of starting hands. Focus on playing in position and try not to lose too much out of position. Put your opponents on a range of hands and deduce what they are holding when they act. And when it is your turn to bet, make sure your actions have purpose. I promise you will see an improvement in your tournament results and maybe when you get into the big game in Vegas, you will be able to finish in the money.

We’ll see you at the tables!



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