Reverse Tells

In 2002 I was playing in a big No Omit tournament in Reno and had reached the middle levels with a slightly above-average stack. Young Pham, a very bright, fantastic player, sat on my left. Young was short stacked, having recently taken a very bad beat that left him with only five big blinds or so.

Everyone folded to me in the small blind, where I looked down to find J-7 suited. Not a great hand, but with my larger stack and the antes in play, I gave serious thought to putting Young all-in. He couldn't hurt me much, and even against a hand like A-T, I'd be getting just about the right pot odds to take the chance. But I don't like to double up the short stack with a trashy hand, especially with an opponent as dangerous as Young.

Unsure how to proceed, I reached for my chips to try to pick up a tell from Young. He instantly reached for his chips. "Aha!" I thought. "That's a classic tell. He doesn't want me to raise!" Hoping to disappoint him, I raised him all-in.

Young nearly beat me to the pot, flipping over K-K with an oh-so-polite wink.

Great players will, at times, reverse the traditional meaning of an action if they think I'm paying attention. The truly great players set up plays, revealing some tell for four or five pots, then reversing it to win a big one.

No Limit Hold'em tournaments are all the rage. The multimillion-dollar prize purses in professional poker far surpass those of any other sport. The World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour—these tournaments have captured the world's attention and driven millions of new players to the game.

I don't play many cash games. I focus primarily on tournaments, the biggest tournaments in the world. Just a few years ago there was only one $10,000 buy-in tournament: the World Series of Poker championship event. Now it seems like there's a $10,000 buy-in tournament every week. A big field used to include maybe 200 players.

Today's fields routinely exceed 1,000 players. The biggest tournament to date—the 200g World Series of Poker championship event—attracted a record 6,600 players, creating a prize purse in excess of $65»000,000. There is no doubt in my mind that very soon that number will again be eclipsed.

I prefer tournament play because it requires a constantly changing strategy. It's not unlike television's Survivor, where contestants are urged to "Outwit. Outplay. Outlast." Only, tournament poker requires "Outdraw" as well.

In cash games I'm never short stacked, never the big stack, never facing a "bubble," never holding on for dear life when looking at elimination. Tournaments require discipline. I can't get up and leave if things go badly, I can't change tables, and I can't magically materialize more chips in my stack if I make a bonehead play. Oh yeah, and then there are those multimillion dollar prizes. . . .

I find it very interesting that there are some absolutely terrific No Limit cash game players who suffer miserable results in tournaments. Likewise, there are some incredibly talented tournament players who are dead money in the cash games. The two styles of play, while similar, require very different sets of skills. Both can be very rewarding when played well, but for me, tournament poker is the nuts.

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