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What it's like to run deep in the WSOP Main Event (Part 1)
The Main Event isn't just another poker tournament. Here's some help with the right mindset.
You’ll sometimes hear it said that the $10,000 Main Event at the World Series of Poker is “just another poker tournament”. It’s a cliché designed to minimize the psychological stakes of the event — which might be helpful for some players.
But it’s a total lie. The Main Event is vastly different from any other poker tournament, and this profoundly affects play from the first hand through the final table. And if you treat it otherwise, you’re probably going to lose.
Take it from me: I’ve learned this the hard way. I’d played the Main Event six times before: In 2009, 2011, 2013, 2019, 2021 and 2022, never having made the money. (Around 15 percent of players are paid out each year.) This year, I made it to Day 6, outlasting almost 10,000 other players and finished in 87th place for $92,600 — close enough that I saw the light and the end of the tunnel and dreamed of an even bigger finish.
Before we go any further: My strong finish this year was mostly luck. Any poker tournament is mostly luck. The precise ways in which I got lucky at this year’s Main Event were slightly weird — and I got profoundly unlucky in the hand that knocked me out of the tournament. But I was a very lucky boy for the first five-and-a-half days of the event.
Still, I was much more prepared for the Main Event than I ever had been before, and I thought it was worth relating that experience. Maybe it’s 2027, and you’ve happily found yourself waking up to a huge stack on Day 3 of the Main Event or another major poker tournament. If you stumble across this post, I hope it can help. We’ll take this in two parts. This, Part 1, is a general overview of the Main Event and what makes it special; then I’ll follow up with a day-by-day account of my experience this year.
What makes the Main Event different? It’s basically three things:
It’s an insanely long and deep event. At a typical major poker tournament, like the main event of a World Poker Tour series, the blinds1 increase once every 60 minutes. It’s also common to see turbo events where the blinds go up once every 40 minutes, 30 minutes, or even more quickly. At the Main Event, by contrast, the blinds increase only once every two hours. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. It’s as though an NFL game was played on a 200-yard field instead of the usual 100 yards. Sure, there’s going to be some correlation with a regular football game. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Donald are still going to be guys you want on your team. But the strategies and tactics will be profoundly different, and if you don’t adjust to them, you’ll be fighting a losing battle.
The player pool is insanely soft. In a previous post, I estimated that there are about 1,500 players who you wouldn’t want to see at your table in a live poker tournament — professionals or others who play at a near-professional level. This year’s Main Event had a record-breaking 10,043 entries.2 So do the math! The very large majority of the field is recreational players, everyone from the guy/gal who won a local bar or pub or home tournament where first prize was an entry to the Main Event, to the finance bro who dropped $10,000 like it was nothing because he thought it would make for a cool story at the office. Some of these players hold their own better than others. The pub tournament champ may play fairly well for the first couple days but will be scared shitless at later stages of the tournament, whereas the finance guy is a favorite to punt off his chips in some wild fashion but at least won’t be money-scared. But overall, the quality of play is more in line with a $1,000 or $1,500 tournament than a typical 10K.
The amount of money on the line is insane. This isn’t much of a factor at the start. But if you’re fortunate enough to make it to the late stages of the tournament, you’ll be playing in one of the highest-stakes poker games in history. When I busted in the middle of Day 6, for instance, a large pot was worth several hundred thousand dollars in expected value. And the stakes only went up from there: There was a $5.6 million difference between first place and second.
To level-set here: I played poker professionally from 2004 through 2006 — until the US government passed a law that basically destroyed my livelihood. It worked out fine in the end. The combination of having more time on my hands and becoming more interested in politics because I wanted to see the jerks who passed the law voted out of office helped inspire me to create FiveThirtyEight. But during that tenure, I was an online, limit hold-‘em, cash game pro. I’d never played much live poker, nor much no-limit poker, nor many tournaments.
Then in 2018 or 2019 I caught the bug again and started playing in a few tournaments up and down the East Coast. The pandemic further accelerated my interest in poker — my twice-weekly online home game3 was a real life-saver at a bleak time in American life. I also logged a ton of hours on the gray market online sites for lack of anything better to do. After that, I began working on my current book project, which is about gambling and risk and has a lot of material about poker. So basically, my Big Midlife Crisis Project has been trying to fashion myself into a pretty darn good tournament poker player. It’s worked out pretty well so far — since April 2021, I have about 30 cashes in live poker tournaments for aggregate winnings4 of around $750K.
But I came into this year’s WSOP with a melancholy, end-of-summer-break feeling. That’s because I’m not going to play nearly as much poker for the next 18 months as I have for the past couple years. I have to finish my book, figure out my other next steps, and then there’s an election coming up. I wanted to make this WSOP count, and particularly the Main Event. And so I put more of an emotional investment into it.
“Emotional investment” might sound wishy-washy, but it’s more important in the Main Event than in any other tournament. I think of live poker tournament skills as falling into basically three buckets:
Technical aptitude. For instance, understanding game-theory optimal (GTO) strategies and how to make adaptations from them against opponents who aren’t playing optimally, and knowing how to make adjustments for the prize structure of a tournament (ICM).
Live poker soft skills. Some of these fall into a category that I think of as “knowing where the bathrooms are”. Having more experience in live poker tournaments — and at the WSOP in particular — will produce umpteen microadvantages. You’ll know exactly which restaurants will reliably serve you a meal on a 75-minute dinner break and which will leave you tilted because your entrée comes five minutes before the restart. You’ll catch more errors made by the dealer and will make fewer errors yourself, like “misclicking” by throwing out the wrong-colored chips. However, the biggest payoff is in figuring out how to exploit weaker players, whether through their betting patterns or through verbal or physical tells. The Main Event is an absolute fucking bonanza of tells — amateur players are often too nervous to conceal them or won’t even bother to try.
Mentality, focus and discipline. It’s not quite right to say the Main Event is solely about survival. At some point, you’ll have to take on some risk. But it’s a long tournament. A very long tournament. You can’t control whether you get unlucky, but you can control whether you tilt or punt off a stack. And it only takes one punt to end your Main Event. You’re not always going to be able to play your A-game in a tournament that potentially lasts for 11 days, but you do have to at least consistently execute on your B-game.
That’s where emotional investment comes in. It’s easier than you’d think to mentally check out of the Main Event. Maybe you’ve reached some intermediate goal — you made it to Day 3 or cashed the tournament when you hadn’t before. And in the back of your head you start thinking: Y’know, I did pretty well. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if I got knocked out. I could sit by the pool, text my buddy and have a nice dinner somewhere, enter another tournament tomorrow. What you’re actually doing there is plotting an escape route away from stress. The mental and physical stress really builds over the course of the Main Event. Busting out of the tournament is a way to relieve the stress. But it’s also expensive — $10,000 can pay for a lot of good therapy. So you have to learn to put those thoughts out to pasture the moment they start welling up.5
My guess is that at a typical poker tournament, the breakdown of what leads to success is something like 60/20/20, with technical aptitude being considerably more important than the other buckets. At the Main Event, I’d expect them to be much more equal. It might even be something like 30/35/35, with the technical skills being the least important category.
If you think of me as “statistician Nate Silver”, you might assume that I rate highly in the technical category and poorly in the other ones. But that isn’t quite right. For one thing, the average capacity for statistical and analytical reasoning in the poker community is very high. In the real world I might be a weirdo but in the poker world I kind of slot right in. Conversely, having been a public figure who’s faced a lot of scrutiny for election forecasting and other reasons, I have a fair amount of life experience with performing under pressure. That’s helpful with the mentality bucket. Yeah, you want to be emotionally invested in poker, but you also can’t have too many fucks to give. I think I’m pretty well-calibrated in that department. I’m also fortunate enough to have the money to play in tournaments like the Main Event without having to rely on poker for income.
However, there’s really no substitute other than experience for developing live poker skills — so having played a lot of tournaments for the past couple years has been inordinately helpful. The only trick to accelerate your progress in this category is to be extra observant. Start building up a database of behaviors in your head — how long players take to act, how their hands and eyes are moving when they put their chips in, how comfortable they appear to be — and how it correlates with hand strength. Focus on the amateurs, not the professionals. It’s not easy, because while some behaviors are relatively universal across the player pool, others are player-specific. Trembling hands, for instance, might indicate an extremely strong hand from one player, a bluff from another player — and in a third player, just a sign that he skipped lunch and has low blood sugar. But over time, you’ll develop enough reads to push 50/50 situations to those where you can make the right play 55 or 60 percent of the time, and that adds a lot to your bottom line.
The other thing you’ll gain from experience is an understanding of how to pace yourself. Playing your C-game — spending most of the time on your phone, only perking up when you have a hand and then playing it as though you’re playing against a computer and ignoring any opponent-specific information — isn’t particularly tiring. But playing your best, most observant poker is hard work. A typical day at the Main Event lasts from roughly noon through 12:30 AM. Overall physical fitness helps, but unless you can find a fountain of youth, the next best thing is just to have a lot of muscle memory for playing poker back-to-back for days at a time.
So here’s my advice: Don’t play in the Main Event if you’re going to treat it as Just Another Poker Tournament.
No really, don’t. Do play in a poker tournament by all means. There are poker tournaments of all shapes, sizes and buy-in levels.6 Other than the Main Event, they pretty much all last between one and five days.
The Main Event is a potential two-week commitment, counting travel and off days. And you really do have to be sharp at the end. Of the $93 million prize pool this year, $52 million went to the top 100 finishers, and $34 million went to the top 10. Having an unbreakable commitment on Day 6 of the Main Event — or a semi-breakable commitment that’s going to add a lot of stress and substantially affect your play — will make the event hugely -EV (negative expected value) even if you’re playing excellent poker up to that point. Come mentally prepared to see the tournament all the way through.
Also, try not to flop a set when a player has a higher set. But we’ll get into that in Part 2.
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Blinds are mandatory bets that give players something to compete over. Without blinds or antes, poker is a broken game — the optimal strategy would just be to raise with the best possible hand (pocket aces) and fold everything else.
The Main Event is a freezeout — you can only enter once — so this truly is 10,043 unique players.
Shoutout to C3PC, IYKYK.
Note that this is gross winnings, not net winnings. My net winnings are also positive from live poker over this period, but by much less than the gross amount.
Or failing that, at least recognize these feelings so that you can go into a defensive shell and play a risk-averse C-game until they die down. This is very bad over extended periods. But it’s better than punting.
If you want to play in the WSOP, there are literally almost 100 other bracelet events on the schedule. If you want a tournament structure maximized for weekend warriors — minimizing the number of sick days you’ll need to take — the World Poker Tour events are good. If you’re looking for more of a high-roller experience, the PokerGo tournaments are worth considering.