“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” -Seneca
When we think about how to gain an edge at the table, mental state and physical endurance may not always come to mind. However, these factors are vital if one is looking to optimize his performance and maximize his profits.
Sitting at a poker table for hours on end can be grueling. Most seasoned pros spend time mentally and physically preparing themselves to do it. Those who fail to prepare risk making more impulsive, irrational and tilt-induced decisions — disastrous traits in a game with so much variance.
I’m going to go into detail about general preparation and how I prepare for long days of sitting at the poker table. I’ll also share insights from 4 pros that have a ton of experience on the live circuit.
My intention is for you to take away something valuable from this article — maybe a nice little boost to your energy levels and/or hourly win-rate.
Preparing for a Tournament with Ideal Conditions
I don’t always (see: rarely) stick to the same routine when traveling, but I believe that my solid home routine better prepares me for the instances when I can’t make my coffee, find a green juice, or muster the energy workout before the tournament starts.
When I’m home and in a normal rhythm, I dedicate the first hour or two of every day to taking care of my mind and body. Starting off the day with morning rituals like these are an essential part of a healthy and empowering lifestyle, and many of the world’s most successful people agree.
Here is my routine for tournament preparation with ideal conditions:
- Meditate for ~10 minutes
- Make coffee and cook breakfast to get some energy in my system for…
- …30 minutes of intense physical activity — stuff like yoga, swimming, cycling, and lifting weights
- Temperature therapy — alternating between ice cold and hot water. (I use a cold plunge pool and steam room, but a cold/hot shower will do.)
- Spend 15-20 minutes in sunlight (when available) in order to get a sufficient amount of vitamin D
This is the foundation of my day, and I notice a significant decrease in energy if I slip out of it for too long. By starting the day off in an intentional, active, and productive manner, I’m setting a precedent for that day. Even if I were to sit around and watch Netflix the rest of the day (which does happen from time to time), I can feel good about the fact that I at least spent some time taking care of myself first.
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Preparing for a Tournament On the Road
Things are a little different when I’m on the road playing poker tournaments. New places, different sleep schedules/time zones, and long days in casinos can make it a real challenge to maintain habits that contribute to an optimized mental and physical state.
Ironically, maintaining a healthy physical and mental state is most vital during poker trips, where decisions can be worth thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
You are already one step ahead if you have a balanced and nourishing daily routine during your down time, but you can minimize the impact of being on the road in a few different ways:
Find Time for Exercise
Exercise is one of the best ways to keep the mind sharp for long periods of time, as well as counteract the effects of sitting (in a super uncomfortable chair) for too long.
If you want to optimize your performance at the tables, I think it is mandatory to implement some type of physical activity into your morning. (My preferred method of exercise when on the road is simple calisthenics.)
There are numerous movements/routines you can find on the internet, so I won’t go into detail there, but you might be surprised by how good of a workout you can do with just a floor and a chair.
Hunt for Healthy Food
Just as important as physical activity, maybe even more so, is being properly nourished.
Some tournaments are held in rural cities that unfortunately don’t have many healthy food options, and many are in casinos that mostly serve high-calorie, low-nutrient cuisine.
If I know I’ll be traveling to a place lacking good food, I make sure to load my suitcase with a variety of snacks and health foods that will add a lot of value to my otherwise nutritionally weak “poker diet”. Things like protein bars, canned tuna/sardines, beef jerky, nuts, and protein powder are easy to carry in your luggage, and will go a long way in helping you stay energized.
I also carry tea and coffee whenever I travel, but these are obviously less important than the stuff that your body truly needs to function. Proper exercise and nutrition are easily the most fundamental aspects of preparation, but there are things we can do to take it a step further.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways to strengthen our brain muscles, so anyone competing in the mental marathon of a poker tournament should see meditation as a valuable asset.
Like calisthenics, no equipment is needed for this practice. All you need is a few minutes of time and a quiet place to sit — and even the quiet part is debatably necessary.
There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding meditation, probably because many people don’t know where to begin. Some think that you have to sit a certain way and “think about nothing” — not true.
I would recommend that beginners take advantage of one of the many guided meditation mobile apps on the market. I really enjoyed Headspace and had good results with it, but there are several alternatives. (Fedor Holz and mental coach/hypnotist Elliot Roe recently released Primed Mind, and while I’ve yet to use it myself, it looks very promising.)
I make sure to meditate before any live tournament, and I would strongly advise you to do so as well.
Visualize Your Optimal Result
As an extension of meditation, one of the ways I prepare for a big day is to visualize my desired results. For instance:
- If I’m playing a day 1, I visualize myself bagging a huge stack
- If I’m playing a final table, I visualize each player getting knocked out until I’m the only one left
This might sound like new age woo-woo bullshit to some of you (and I certainly can’t prove otherwise), but I am certain that there’s no downside. As a big believer in the power of positive thinking, I am confident that our thoughts have a direct impact on how our reality unfolds. Why not focus on the exact things we want to see happen?
Even if you don’t want to get down with something like manifesting your thoughts into reality, I’m sure you’d admit that a positive attitude has very real benefits.
Insights from Other Pros
I reached out to a few players — all of whom have a ton of live tournament experience — to ask how they prepare themselves for live tournaments away from home. Here is what they said:
- Mike McDonald — High stakes tournament pro with over $16,000,000 in cashes and co-founder of PokerShares
I generally try to get on a good sleep schedule. I never drink coffee but often will make exceptions the day before or day of a live tourney to limit jet lag.
I also like to get a huge breakfast day 1 since casino food is always terrible and then also try to fit a workout in.
- Jamie Kerstetter — Tournament pro and an absolute must-follow on Twitter
Making sure to get enough sleep is the most important thing. Without it, I notice myself making more impulsive/irrational decisions and seem to be more prone to tilting over inevitable tourney swings.
Before bigger events, I try to get a morning workout in, or at least pack a bag to hit the gym on 90 minute dinner breaks.
Almost forgot, I also sacrifice a live chicken at the alter of Jobu.
- Pratyush Buddiga — Super High Roller regular with over $6.3 million in live earnings
I like to get a workout in the morning before I play, helps clear my head and get my mind in the right frame. Definitely try to stay on my normal eating plan — the temptation to eat worse is higher on the road but I always end up feeling lower in energy and in an fuzzy mental state if I do so.
I think it’s important to just try to create a good routine that you can stick to.
- Joey Weissman — Vegas-based tournament pro and WSOP bracelet winner
I usually do some sort of cardio like biking, running or yoga and a 20 minute sauna when available. Plus a high fat breakfast and bulletproof coffee.
So there you have it, MTT preparation blueprints.
I am supremely confident that if you incorporate some or all of these practices into your life, you will eventually see improved results, both at the table and in your personal life.
I think we should strive to be prepared for poker tournaments, social interactions, or whatever life throws at us in between. I hope that by having read this, you’ll be that much more prepared in the future.
On that note, I’ll be spending the next two weeks (from the time I’m writing this) preparing for the biggest grind of them all; the WSOP!
(Note: Access a wealth of information, including strategies from Doug Polk, in The Poker Lab. Designed to be consumed in a linear path, you can learn the right way, from A to Z.)
Read more from Darryll and Upswing Poker:
- Darryll breaks down the Top 4 Must-Visit Tournament Destinations in the US
- Make sure you don’t believe any of these 5 Tournament Myths Way Too Many Players Believe
- Plan your next trip to Sin City with this list of the Best Poker Tournaments in Las Vegas