How to Prepare for a Poker Tournament: A 14-Step Routine

If you are playing just to pass the time and have fun, it’s completely okay. Sit at the table and enjoy yourself. But if you are in it to win it – and not just at that one particular tournament, you will have to take poker seriously and invest time in it even before the play starts.

As said by many, you win competitions in the gym, not on the field. And with poker is the same. There’s a lot of work to be done away from the tables, but in this post, we will give you advice on how to prepare for a poker tournament.

You could say that some of the professionals brought preparation to scientific levels. It’s one of the reasons they are at the top of the food chain. Before the tournament starts, they invest time in preparation for healthy food; they exercise, meditate, and much more. And you should do the same.

how to prepare for the poker tournament
Follow the steps below and you will definitely improve your tournament results.

Don’t try everything you learn here at once; it can be too much.

Try a few techniques and add new ones before the next tournament you play. Also, some of the methods listed below might not suit you, but for sure, most will benefit your game. After some time, every single listed step will become a routine, and without realizing, you will develop a habit of always preparing in the best way possible for the tournament you are about to play. Together with off table work, results will soon follow.

Some of the advice is so-called no brainer, but still, a lot of new players skip them, so make sure you don’t do the same. And maybe the greatest thing is that implementing described approaches will significantly improve your day to day life too.

1. Be sure you can play the whole tournament and clear your plans

clear your plans
Make sure you don’t have any appointments when you are about to play a poker tourney.

Let’s start with the one that is easy to understand, implement. It also should always be on top of your mind when you are planning to play in a poker tournament. Imagine being in the chipleader after two days, but you have either already booked a flight back home or have a scheduled meeting with an important client.

Don’t be one of those players that register a tournament just for the sake of playing, without having your plans cleared for the duration of the whole thing.

2. Important things in »real life« have to be in order

This is one of the first things you should do before entering poker tournaments or playing any form of poker in that matter.

You won’t be able to play your A-game or even B or C game if you have unresolved problems in other departments of your life.

You should always be focused and concentrated as much as you can be, so you can notice leaks and mistakes other players are making, so you can exploit them correctly. If you have deadlines at the job, take care of them. If you need to take your better half to the shopping spree, do that.

Probably every one of us heard the saying, » if you can’t spot the sucker in the first half-hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker. « If things are bothering you, you won’t be able to focus for more then 5 minutes, and every unwanted event will easily allow tilt to creep in. And all of a sudden, you become a sucker. So talk to your friend, girlfriend, mother, father, or boss and clear your mind of unnecessary baggage.

3. Be sure that tournament you are about to enter fits into your financial abilities

tournament bankroll management
Enter only the tournaments that don’t have too big of a financial impact on you. more often than not you will end up empty-handed.

Scared money makes no money. You probably heard of this one too, and you should write it down.

Bankroll management is one of the essential things in poker if you’re aiming to survive in the long run.

There are heaps of talented poker players that never made it just because they didn’t follow the basic rules of managing a bankroll. Never play in a tournament that will have a significant impact on your bankroll or your life in general. It’s irresponsible, and it will end badly – period.

Now that we crossed pure fundamentals out of the list, we can start with a bit more in-depth preparation. Remember, in the end; the little things can make a huge difference.

4. Eat Healthy

There are countless benefits of eating healthy. In poker, basically, everything comes down to being able to concentrate for more extended periods than your opponents. And it is what it is – eating too much or too little can also interfere with your focus. A heavy meal may make you feel tired. Too few calories will result in distracting hunger and, again, low energy levels.  So make smart choices when selecting food before entering the tournament.

healthy food for a tournament poker player
Healthy food is essential in any profession if you want to perform to the best of your potential.
  • Fish: a protein source linked to a great brain boost is fish – rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are key for brain health. So instead of having a burger, pizza, or spaghetti bolognese before the tournament starts, prepare yourself a salmon, for example. It will benefit you in the long run too.
  • Caffeine: it energizes you and helps you concentrate. It can give you that well-known wake-up buzz, but the effects are short-term. But you should be careful – overdo it, and it can make you edgy and uncomfortable.
  • Fruits and juices: sugar is your brain’s preferred fuel source – not regular table sugar, but glucose found in fruits, for example. That is why a glass of orange juice can offer a short-term boost to memory, thinking, and mental ability. But same as caffeine, having too much can affect your mind and your body in a negative way, so find your optimal input quantity and stick with it.
  • Nuts and seeds: good sources of the antioxidant vitamin E, which improves your cognitive functions. It will get you the benefits you need with a minimum of excess calories, fat, and sugar. So having a little snack made from nuts and seeds during the tournament is also a good idea as metabolizing it won’t make you feel sleepy, and hunger will go away.
  • Avocados and whole grains: every organ depends on blood flow, especially the heart and brain. A diet high in whole grains and fruit like avocados can cut the risk of heart disease and lower bad cholesterol. With enhanced blood flow, avocado offers a simple, tasty way to fire up brain cells.
  • Blueberries: they are super nutritious. Studies show that diets rich in blueberries improve both learning and muscle function. Also, they are easy to get, delicious and straightforward to add to your smoothie.

At first, it seems like there is a bunch of food on the list, but everything is thought through and easy to fuse.

So you can make yourself a smoothie with oranges, apples or bananas and add some blueberries. For the main dish, you can have a salmon sandwich with wholegrain bread and avocados. And after that or just before the tournament starts, enjoy a cup of coffee. Like mentioned before, during the breaks, you can fill yourself up with seeds and nuts.

Of course, don’t forget the basics – drink water and be hydrated at all times.

5. Sleep well

good sleep for a poker player
Many poker players struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Your tournament performance will suffer because of it.

Again, as eating unhealthy food, erratic sleeping patterns will mess up your ability to be focused and fresh. Almost every professional poker player that is playing tournaments for a living is suffering in this area. And it all comes down to little details in the end.

If you are fresher then your opponents at the final table, your chances of making fewer mistakes are going through the roof. So if you are playing to win, especially at those few day-long live tournaments, you should skip parties and stuff beforehand, so you are rested and prepared to grind. In the long run, there will be significant benefits if you sleep well on your poker free days too.

As said above, tournament players especially suffer from crazy sleeping hours, because most of the major tournaments are played during night time, so learn to cherish the moments when you can go to bed at reasonable hours.

6. No alcohol and no drugs before and during tournament

no alcohol before playing poker
it is a of no surprise that playing intoxicated will hurt your game.

We need to be focused as much as we can, right? We all agree on that. Needless to say, alcohol and drugs won’t help you with that. It’s okay to have a beer or do tequila shots in a friend’s home game, so everyone, including you, is having a good time. You can’t be the only one at the table playing seriously and be sober, because it can quickly happen that you won’t be invited again. But when playing tournaments, bring your bottle of water and avoid doing things that will mess up with your ability to be focused, alert, and consequently make incorrect moves.

7. Set the Strategy

If you have already played in a tournament before, think about how you played. Think about the spots you encountered, what mistakes you have done, and of course, think about the spots you have played perfectly. Make the plan on how you are about to play in this one, so you can avoid mistakes you have done in the past and be in a good spot when an opportunity arises. Parts of your strategy will, of course, deviate a little bit as a lot depends on table draw and opponents you are seated with, but you can still make a general plan and stick to it as much as you can.

So you can decide between playing:

–         TAG – Tight Aggressive

–         LAG – Loose Aggressive

There are more ways to play like loose-passive (LP), for example, but we advise you to play either TAG or LAG. If you are a beginner, however, you should focus solely on playing solid TAG poker.

So if you decided to play tight aggressive, you should still sometimes diverge from that and make a loose call while defending your big blind against someone who is stealing every orbit.

You should set yourself a goal that this time, you are going to focus on these few things:

  • How many hands are opponents playing?
  • Which hands are they playing, and from which positions (be aware of showdowns)?
  • How much 3-betting is going on at the table?

When you are noticing and remembering things like that, you can exploit opponents mistakes:

  • If the villain is calling too much preflop, so you can raise bigger and get more chips into play
  • opponent is calling too much post-flop with weak hands so that you can go straight for value on every street

After a while, with training and more tournaments, you will detect and notice things like that automatically with less energy and you will be able to focus more in-depth and punish your opponents even if they are making small mistakes that no one else at the table benefits from.

But at the beginning, force yourself to continually be aware of what is going on at the table and follow at least simple fundamental things. To recognize preflop mistakes and to get to know how other players are playing, you need to prepare at least preflop ranges for different stack sizes. A range is a combination of hands a player might have at a given time.

So here is the example for UTG preflop range at start of the tournament:

early MTT preflop open range
If early in the tournament or deep stacked, this is the standard UTG opening range.

Once you figured out and constructed ranges, you know you should open-raise around 13% of hands from the UTG position. Also, when you understand how the preflop range from UTG looks like, you’ll be able to recognize when someone plays differently. If your range is optimal, it means that someone who open-raises more from UTG is making a mistake, and you can punish him for that.

When you master basic open-raising ranges, you can construct further in-depth and decide which starting hands are profitable to continue with when facing 3-bets and so on.

8. Exercise

It’s crucial to be in good shape both physically and psychically. To improve or at least maintain your physical endurance, you need to exercise. Playing for five days straight with every day, taking 10-12 hours can be hard for your body, especially if you are in bad shape. So, avoid being the one with the worst conditioning. As mentioned numerous times before in this text, it all comes down to who can concentrate for more extended periods. A player who is in good shape, who slept well, ate well, and hydrated himself properly will make the least mistakes. So don’t be lazy and go for a run.

9. Go outside

running outside before poker tournament
Exercise outside on the sun will not only help you remain fit, but will also keep your sanity.

As mentioned above, you should try a couple of things at the beginning, why not combine going outside with exercise.

It is super important no only for your poker game, but for your health in general to get some sunlight and fresh air.

Long tournaments can be grueling as you are sitting for hours in a closed room filled with hundreds of people with nothing but artificial lighting. Running for a couple of miles, sweating, breathing, and exposing yourself to the sun will do wonders for your well being.

Of course, don’t take your shirt off for six hours and risk sunburns. Still, moderate exposure will help you develop vitamin D. Research shows that the most efficient way to get vitamin D is via exposing your skin around midday, when basically no important tournaments are taking place, so no excuses there.

Until now, a lot has been written about preparing your physical part. From this point on,  we will focus more on developing your mind by introducing techniques used by a lot of successful people.

10. Visualization

More and more poker players are mastering visualization to improve every department of their game. You should act in the same manner.

For example, the more you can visualize handling bad hands and coolers in a way that is calm and controlled instead of nervous, the more your brain will force you to act that same way at the poker table

Don’t forget to visualize good things that can happen too. Visualize your self winning the tournament and imagine yourself enjoying the reward. To achieve the goal, you have to see yourself as the player you want to be.

The great thing about visualization is that you can do it while you are on the way to play the tournament or while you are doing your daily run. No excuses here!

11. Cold showers and ice baths

There are plenty of benefits of cold showers and ice baths. They will ease sore and aching muscles, and it will help your central nervous system and limit the inflammatory response. But the most important thing connected to poker might be that it trains your vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, and training it can help you face stressful situations more adequately. We have to agree that poker can be nerve-wracking at times, and making a correct decision while 9 players are watching every move you make can be stressful. So prepare yourself!

It only takes a few minutes, it’s healthy, and a lot of professional poker players are doing it. It will do wonders for your state of mind too. Not only will it make you think more rationally, but it will also help you deal with bad beats and not tilt, so you can continue to play your A-game even when the biggest fish at the table sucks out on you and hits that two outers on the river.

12. Breathing exercises

breathing exercise
Practice proper breathing.

There are numerous benefits from breathing exercises, and a lot of professional poker players are betting their money on the » Wim Hof Method. « It helps your immune system, improves your mental health, relieves stress, increases performance, gives you more energy, boosts concentration, and much more.

Here are steps on how to approach it:

–         STEP 1: Get comfortable – sit or lie down, whichever is most convenient for you. Just make sure you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction.

–         STEP 2: Do 30-40 deep breaths. Close your eyes and try to clear your mind. Be conscious of your breath and try to connect with it fully. Inhale deeply through the nose or mouth and exhale unforced through the mouth. Fully inhale through the belly, then chest, and then let go unforced. Repeat this 30 to 40 times in short, powerful bursts. You may experience light-headedness and tingling sensations in your fingers and feet. These side effects are entirely harmless.

–         STEP 3: The Hold. After the last exhalation, inhale one final time, as deeply as you can. Then let the air out and stop breathing. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again.

–         STEP 4: Recovery of breath. When you feel the urge to breathe again, draw one big breath to fill your lungs. Feel your belly and chest expanding. When you are at full capacity, hold the breath for around 15 seconds, then let go. That completes round number one.

This cycle can be repeated 3-4 times without interval. After having completed the breathing exercise, take your time to bask in the bliss. This calm state is highly conductive to meditation – don’t hesitate to combine the two.

You can look at guided Wim Hof method breathing in the following video:

There is a lot of useful information on the official web site:

13. Meditation

If you have done some research about meditation before, you probably already heard the saying: »You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.«

With meditating, we are lowering our stress levels and improve our focus, among other things.

And the beautiful thing is that meditation is easy and hard at once, same as the card game we all love.

We won’t go into details, but here are simple steps you can use to start meditating:

meditation poker
Follow simple steps below each day. You will be more focused and calm at poker tables.
  1. Take a seat and find a place that feels calm and quiet.
  2. Set a time limit. In the beginning, start with five or ten minutes and make it longer as you gain experience.
  3. Be aware and notice your body
  4. Feel your breath and follow the sensation of it, in and out.
  5. Notice when your mind wanders away from breathing and simply return your attention to the breath.
  6. Don’t obsess over the content of your thoughts. Just come back and think about breathing.
  7. You end the process with kindness. Open your eyes and take a moment to notice sounds in the environment. Think about how your body feels right now.

And that’s it. That’s how you practice meditation. It sounds easy, but in the beginning, you will find your mind wandering away after 10-20 seconds. But with repetition, you should get better at calming your mind, and it will show at the poker table too.

You can read more about meditation here:

Being calm and rational at the table while facing a lot of pressure is one of the most significant differences between regular winners and losing players. Embrace everything that helps you stay in the »zen mode. «

And now the final step, but just as important. It’s divided into two categories, depending on the type of poker you are playing – live or online.

14. Final details

A) If you are playing in a live tournament, always dress normally, smell nice and use bubble gum

crazily dressed poker player
Try to wear normal clothes to the tourney. It is never good if you stand out too much.

The last thing you should do before leaving your house is to take care of how you look. This doesn’t mean you need to wear your most fancy sunglasses or headphones like other players do.

Even tho you are going to encounter everything imaginable at the table, try not to be the table weirdo. So after you have done your exercise and took a cold shower, use deodorant. I can’t describe enough how annoying it is to sit next to a guy that smells like a dump. The same goes for your dental hygiene. Brush your teeth and use bubble gum.

Dress in a standard, casual wardrobe so that you won’t stick out, and you’ll feel comfortable throughout the tournament.

Make sure you have a hoodie or something with long sleeves with you, as it can get cold with airconditioning working all the time.

You can find pictures of the one and only poker brat, Phil Helmuth, wearing different types of uncomfortable apparel in tournaments he played. Can’t imagine sitting in one of those outfits for days and be cozy, right?!

There is no better way to improve at poker, then making connections and surrounding yourself with people with the same interests. You can debate hands and share advice. If you look neat, approachable, and easy to talk to, it will be simpler for you to make new friends with the same passion – poker.

B) If you are playing in an online tournament, always be sure you have a back-up internet connection ready

You have done your daily run, took a cold shower, ate perfectly, and cleared both your schedule and your mind. You feel amazing even tho it’s 3 AM, and you have been playing for 10 hours straight. It’s the final table time. And all of a sudden, the internet goes down.

It can’t be emphasized enough; there is nothing worse when it comes to online poker. Bad beats, coolers, and downswings can be cruel, but disconnecting while thousand of dollars are on the line will stay with you for the rest of your poker career.  So make sure you have some sort of back-up internet prepared when your first choice lets you down.

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