Playing Live Poker For The First Time
You’ve done it, you finally beat out a massive field and won a seat in an online satellite to one of the biggest live tournaments all year. The prize package includes everything from accommodation to spending money and you can’t wait to go play in your first live tournament. By now you must have played a thousand tournaments on your favourite poker site. You’re a tournament pro.
Then why do you feel so nervous?
It’s completely normal to get a bit uneasy before your first experience playing live. Live poker definitely has a different feeling than playing online but, it’s easy to prepare yourself for the differences and feel right at home in a Brick and Mortar (B&M) casino.
If you’re not staying at the casino where the tournament is being held it’s best to arrive early to make sure you can find your way around and locate your seat before the first hand is dealt. Make your way to the tournament tables (depending on the casino the tournament may not be held in the poker room but rather a separate area of the casino) and try to see how they are numbered. This is important because, if you are at a table that breaks, you will be on your own for finding the new one. Once you’ve done this, if you have time before the tournament begins, use it to relax. Walk around if it calms you down, or sit and listen to music, or find someone you know and chat with them. Put yourself at ease for when the action begins.
Once the tournament starts, there are a few crucial things to remember. Whilst rules will vary slightly among casinos, the following habits fall under the most widely used rules; you won’t go wrong acting accordingly. First of all, if you expose your hand in tournament play before you have been instructed to do so, your hand is dead. This includes showing it to a bystander, your neighbour, the dealer, flipping over just one card. Any premature exposure will risk your hand being ruled dead and forfeit your chances to win the pot. It’s best to just wait until the dealer instructs you to turn your cards up and avoid any misunderstandings.
One more common rule is that a player must be seated when the hand is dealt or their cards are dead. While the specifics may vary, to avoid the dealer mucking your cards without you even getting to look, make sure you’re seated when the deal begins. Seated is not standing up five feet from the table or even right behind your chair. I have dealt tournaments where a player was standing up with his knee on his chair talking with someone at another table. The tournament director instructed me to kill his hand. A little excessive? Perhaps. However, it happens, so be aware and stay seated unless you’re willing to give up your cards.
Cell phones at the table during tournaments are generally disallowed. Don’t get your phone out to answer it, check your text messages or the scores from the game. Most casinos will kill your hand regardless of your reason for pulling out your phone. Once again they will err on the side of ‘too strict’, which protects players more than it hurts them. Be aware of what will get your hand mucked.
Protect your cards. Bring a little something along (I use a silver dollar) to place on top of your cards. This is most important in the seats on the right and left of the dealer but, is still critical in any seat. Why? This prevents your cards from being mucked on accident by an errant dealer, or your hand from being fouled by someone folding their hand. Cards can fly in crazy directions and, if someone’s folded hand hits your unprotected cards, both hands are dead.
Announce your actions clearly before you begin them. One of the most common errors by new players in a live tournament goes something like this: the blinds are $75/$150, and a player wants to raise it to $500. They silently throw out a purple $500 chip – if they haven’t announced their intention to raise before acting, this is considered a call only. Exercise caution when betting with oversized chips and, to be safe, always state your intention and the amount you are raising.
Pay attention. If you bring an MP3 player along with you, keep the volume at a reasonable level. This allows you to still hear the other players and the dealer, and prevents you from being that obnoxious player who always screams “WHAT?” when it’s their turn to act. Nothing slows a game down or creates tension like a player who won’t pay attention. This also applies if you’re not listening to music. Make sure you’re watching the table and acting in turn. You won’t have many prompts when it’s your turn, and failing to follow the action closely can literally cost you your entire tournament. There are far too many sad stories out there about the player who didn’t know the pot had been raised, and said “I call”, only to find out they had just called all-in. Don’t let your first live tournament become one of those stories!
Be aware of your own actions and be watchful of giving away ‘tells’, behaviours that can give your opponents information on what cards you’re holding or what you’re intending to do when the action reaches you. It can be difficult to know if you exhibit tells, and even the best players are subject to them. The simplest way to avoid giving away free information is to make the same actions each time you enter a pot. The less variation your opponents see, the smaller their chances of reading you become.
The tournament will progress in a similar manner to an online tournament, with the blinds being raised at certain intervals. A key distinction between online tournaments and live tournaments, however, is the length and pace of these structures. In general, smaller live tournaments (buy-ins of $100 or under) will have worse structures than online, with higher starting blinds and quicker acceleration. Larger tournaments will generally have an equal or better structure, with the structure usually getting better (longer levels with slower blind increases) as the buy-in goes up.
When you cash in a live tournament, it is customary to leave a tip for the dealers and staff. The standard is 3 to 5 percent, but it is entirely up to the player to decide how much to leave, if anything. The house fee that is included in your buy-in will sometimes go to the dealers, sometimes it will not. You may want to ask tournament staff, if you desire, how the tournament fees are being distributed.
You should find after a level or two that you start to feel comfortable and most feelings of standing out from the crowd will have vanished.
Good luck in your first live tournament!