I've been spending a lot of my poker hours playing tournaments. I am extremely confident in my ability and would say that my game is fundamentally sound. But I'm still interested in learning, and I'm aware that in tournaments, there are many instances in which decisions and strategy are not based on those fundamentals.
I'm struggling with the "gear-changing" aspect. Sometimes when I look at my cards, I get a feeling that I should play a hand -- usually out of position. It's never total junk, maybe something like 8-6 suited or 10-9, but I chalk up that urge to impatience and decide to fold, sticking to the fundamentals. Is this "feeling" my mind's way of telling me it's the right time to shift gears? Is shifting gears a conscious decision or an instinctive one?
--Louis F., New Jersey
Poker tournaments take forever to play out and can be extremely monotonous. To be successful, a tournament player must be able to stay 100 percent consumed in the game hour after hour, maintaining the hyperfocus needed to avoid the quicksand that is boredom. You will most certainly find that quality in every elite poker professional.
When I'm playing tournaments, I often peek down and find a hand I shouldn't play, but I want to play it. Ultimately, I've learned this is the result of my mind's desire to be involved and stay stimulated. That desire is a crucial tool, but you must be sure that it's channeled properly.
There can be an enormous amount of downtime in between each hand that you are actually involved in. It's during those times that you will be tested. Instead of daydreaming, you must soak up as many "factors" as you can. Your brain should be digesting these factors during a tournament, helping you to determine when to change gears and make style adjustments.
Stack sizes, table images (yours and your opponents') and tournament structure are the most important factors for a tourney. If you start out by focusing just on those three basic things, you'll begin to understand how much usable data is being generated at the table. Realize that those three factors are constantly changing. You have to pay attention to players who are NOT involved in hands just as much as the ones who are. Every hand dealt prompts changes in stack sizes and table images, and the tournament clock is ticking away continuously, morphing the structure of the tournament.
Ideally, you will consume all of the data available at the table to keep your mind occupied when you aren't involved in hands. Over time, your comprehension of the important factors will increase, and you will be combining that with your fundamentally correct approach of playing each hand. This will lead you to make sound strategic decisions and appropriate gear changes.
The multi-tasking that your mind is engaged in at that point can cause you to feel as if your actions are more instinctual, almost subconscious. It may seem as if your intuition is guiding you, but in reality, your brain is accessing all of the information that you have been gathering -- you're not merely playing on instinct. You just become so attuned to the information you're gathering that your mind comprehends and processes it without effort.
Scott Fischman is a professional poker in the live and online poker worlds. He has won two World Series of Poker bracelets and has accumulated nearly $3 million in career earnings. He is also the author of the poker book "Online Ace." Send your poker questions to him at email@example.com.