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Sealing the Win in Poker

If you don't think poker is a competitive sport, chances are you've never made it to the late stages of a major tournament where the only thing higher than the blinds is the pressure of playing for thousands - or even millions - of dollars in prize money.

As a former basketball player, I can compare the pressure of a WSOP final table to the final minutes of a playoff game where every play is crucial and any mistake can mean the difference between walking away a champion or a runner-up. From the crowds on the rails to the lights, TV cameras and reporters running around the floor, everything around you is amplified. Let the pressure and the circus atmosphere distract you, and you can easily watch your tournament slip away.

Pros who have been in these situations before - whether they're athletes on the court or players on the felt - understand the key to wining in this atmosphere is to maintain focus on the task at hand and to block out everything else that doesn't matter. TV cameras? Forget 'em. Railbirds? Block them out. Bear down and play, and let the rest take care of itself.

Unlike other sports, poker has one more X factor that you have to learn to deal with - the money ladder where finishing just one spot higher can mean thousands or even hundreds of thousands of additional dollars in prize money. For players who haven't gone deep in major tournaments, thinking about the short-term money jumps can be just as distracting as any TV camera. Succeeding at this stage takes focus on a single goal. For me, that goal is winning.

In my experience, tournaments can be divided into two distinct parts; in the money and out of the money. Before the bubble, my goal is to make the money. I want to cash and, hopefully, put myself in a position to win. After the bubble breaks, I aim to win. For me, and many other pros, the real tournament doesn't start until after we've reached the money and its here where I really try to concentrate on making the smartest long-term strategic decisions I can in order to secure a win.

A hand from Event #1 of this year's WSOP illustrates my point. We had reached four-handed play where the difference in finishing first and fourth was more than $500,000 when I got involved in a pot with Andy Bloch. I was holding pocket 7s and led out at a flop of Q-Q-3 only to have Andy make a pot-sized raise behind me. Though I don't know what Andy was holding, I'm guessing that he may have had over-cards and, possibly, a flush draw. While my two pair of 7s and Queens may have very well been good, it would cost me my entire stack on what was essentially a coin flip in order to find out. In the end, I laid my hand down and looked for a better spot.

Why, you may ask. Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, I had a big enough stack at this point that I wasn't committed to continuing with the hand and, while folding to Andy cost me some chips, I could still fold and sit comfortably in second chip position at the table. Secondly, and even more importantly, even if I was ahead of Andy on the flop, my read gave him 13 outs (approximately, a 40% chance) to make his hand. With my tournament life on the line if I called, I just wasn't getting the odds to gamble.

While making the tough hero call in front of friends, family and the ESPN cameras may have been a great poker moment that earned me a few minutes of glory, I did my best to block all of that out of my mind and concentrate on the task at hand - winning the tournament. By focusing on the game plan I devised earlier, I was able to walk away from a marginal situation with only a small loss and move onto the next hand.

In the end, my decision to pass on the possible short-term gain I could have realized in this hand paid off, as I went on to defeat Andy after we reached heads-up play. I'll take a WSOP bracelet over a few minutes of television glory any day.

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