Arts & Entertainment

Phil Hellmuth on Poker: Making Moves & Pocket Sixes

The grueling 2009 World Series of Poker is over for all but nine players who reached the final table of the $10,000 buy-in no limit Hold’em Main Event. I’m sorry to say that I’m not one of the remaining players.

This year’s WSOP was a great event. I played roughly ten hours of poker per day for six weeks straight. At the end, I was disappointed with my game, although my friends tell me that my six cashes and deep run in the Main Event made for a successful run.

I didn’t make a single final table this year as I’d done the previous nine straight years — a WSOP record. My other WSOP records also stayed intact including the most final tables (41), most cashes (74), and most championship bracelets won (11).

The amazing Phil Ivey won two more bracelets this year and advanced to the Main Event final table. Poker pro Jeffrey Lisandro took home three bracelets. A lot of poker skill was evident all over the WSOP.

Playing as much poker as I did requires physical and emotional preparation. I exercised and meditated every day and thought about nothing but poker. I constantly questioned my own game: What plays worked that I could use the next day? How could I improve my play tomorrow?

In one no limit Hold’em tournament, I lost two coin flips and missed a few opportunities along the way; I was both unlucky and disappointed in my play.

Late in Day 2, with the blinds at $6,000/$12,000, I folded hands more than a few times on the button. In retrospect, a better strategy would have been to play more aggressively, raising when in position to try to steal the blinds, like when the player in the big blind only had $70,000 in chips and I had $250,000. Instead of making a big raise, say $50,000 from the button, I folded my hand. That’s not how you win tournaments!

Another time, I found myself making a big raise with pocket sixes when I was one off the button, and then calling when the $70,000 man, now in the small blind, moved all-in with A-10. It was torture when an ace came on the river and I lost the hand.

Only an hour later, in the big blind, I was again dealt pocket sixes when the player in the small blind moved me all-in. The blinds were $8,000/$16,000 and I only had $80,000 remaining. I called. He showed J-10 and the cards came down Q-4-2-K-A. Another ace on the river to beat me!

Ultimately, I was eliminated in 30th place at 1:45 a.m. with only five hands left to play in Day Two.

Playing only when you have a strong hand, also known as being a slave to the cards, is simply not the way to win tournaments. True, this super-tight strategy does give you a great chance to go deep, and that’s just what I did.

My goal, however, was to win. I should have tried a few more creative moves along the way, perhaps adding one additional tricky maneuver out of every 25 hands I played.

It would have been nice to win one of those coin flips with pocket sixes, too!

Mental and physical preparation is critical in tournament poker events like the WSOP. If I had just been able to make it until Day 3, with the benefit of a strenuous late-night workout and a good night’s sleep, maybe I would have been able to fold a hand like pocket sixes and stick around to claim another championship bracelet.

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