Sometimes, you just can’t win. I played in the Chicagoland area for the entirety of the beginning of my poker career, and had immense difficulty winning tournaments. The problem was that, in a major city in the United States, we had heavy amounts of really good players. The regulars sitting in our poker rooms were the kinds of guys who would travel out to two or three WSOP events each year, and, as you can imagine, that didn’t leave too much room for a beginner to make any waves or get involved in some of those demanding and high stress situations where you really learn how to turn it up a notch. With this many highly respected and incredibly good players, it became a nightmare for any of the amateur players to break into the ranks of the top ten or twenty. So we looked elsewhere.
We soon learned that many of those players lived, but often didn’t play, in the Madison area, where there were a few smaller casinos that offered less demanding tournaments. It was a bit of a drive for us, but one week where there was no tournament in Chicago, we decided to make the trip. It was a major tournament for the casino that weekend, and there ended up being a very large number of players there. However, in that one trip, the three of us finished 4th, 8th, and 10th of 200-something players. Getting all three of us to the final table was the breakthrough that we had felt that we’d deserved for a long time. The reason: We were really good, but we couldn’t break through a thick layer of professionals, who saw Chicago’s better prizes as the key to their success.
It worked once, so we assumed it might work again. Rightly so, we decided to make an effort that year to hit up all of the medium scale tournaments taking place around the Midwest. We went to Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Madison, Grand Rapids, Des Moines, and Milwaukee. These sites offered smaller tournaments, which meant less competition, and of course, smaller prizes, but you take the good with the bad. We had a total of 20 entries in these tournaments, with 11 final table finishes (and a total of 3 wins) just over the summer, and we learned a lot on how to travel successfully.
First, you need to assess whether traveling is a good idea in the first place. Is there a convenient place to play nearby where you think you could do better? Obviously, if you live in Hawaii, the answer is no, but in densely populated areas like the east and west coast, you can certainly make it happen. Do you have legitimate excuses for losing a lot of tournaments at your home venue? Do you have the money and other resources which allow you to do it? Traveling is a lot of fun, but it can be expensive if you don’t have enough people who are willing to go. It often means a night in a hotel, and you’ll be buying all your meals for two to three days while doing it.
Make sure that you do some research online, and before you make the trip, look for some kind of special event, a guaranteed prize pool, and call up the poker room and ask about the number of people they expect. Look in metropolitan areas as opposed to those Indian Casinos in the middle of nowhere, although sometimes you need to make do with what you have. Finding a good tournament to join shouldn’t be too difficult, especially given the popularity of poker for the past few years.
Getting your friends together, you first need to decide when you’re going to go. I suggest bringing up a date when there is no local tournament, and especially right after a particularly poor showing. After you figure out when, you need to figure out where to go, and I suggest looking for relatively nearby venues. Had I suggested that we go on a six hour trip to St. Louis for our first tournament, I have no doubts that it wouldn’t have gone over well with my friends, but a two hour trip to Madison sounded quite reasonable. Of course, not everyone will probably want to go, but you should get two or three takers before finalizing plans. Leave as early as you can on the day before the tournament to ensure that you have as much time at your destination you can.
If there is a tournament at the venue the night before, which is typical, make sure that you’re there. You’re not going to play necessarily, but to get comfortable with the venue’s location, and to meet some of the people there. You want to confirm the time for the start of registration, as well as the time the seating begins. After making a few inquiries, you should make your exit fairly early that night. If you’re unprepared, you need to get a room for the night and I suggest that you ask at the casino for a price, and then try to beat it elsewhere. Some of those hotels are terribly expensive, especially on the weekend of one of their biggest weekends. There’s also plenty to do in the city too. After all, you’re on a trip, you might as well see some of the sights while you’re there.
Hotels are often preferable to people’s houses, because you’ll want to get plenty of sleep. Driving all day doesn’t seem like a lot of work, but it is very mentally draining for the driver, and you’ll want to ensure that you’re ready to go in the morning. When staying with people, you’ll often be forced into staying up late and ruining a lot of chances for success in the morning. If you’re staying with someone you know and you feel obliged to entertain your hosts, try to make it clear that you need your sleep after a long drive. For the most part, they’ll understand.
The next day, wake up early, eat a big breakfast, and get to the venue early. If you were able to get a registration sheet, fill it out the night beforehand to save yourself some stress in the morning. You can spend the rest of the time you’re there networking and building your image (see my articles on Intimidation for some tips.
Bring extra clothes with you. You never know if you’ll spill something on yourself, or need a change of clothes. I went to a tournament in Indianapolis which was held in the basement of a casino in the middle of summer. The air conditioning was on and it was extremely cold. Nobody there planned ahead but myself, and I was very glad I put an extra sweater in my supplies. I think it was one of the primary factors contributing to my fourth place finish there.
I also suggest bringing some non-perishable food with you. It’s impossible to determine what kinds of neighborhood resources there are in an area unless you’ve been there before, and if there’s no convenient places to get food, you’re in trouble. Sometimes those Indian Casinos are located so far from the rest of the world that it can be a twenty minute drive to the “local” Taco Bell. There was a 30-minute break period for lunch at a tournament in Milwaukee, but since there was only one fast food place within driving distance, the entire tournament descended upon it for lunch, and there was no way they could have served everyone there that day in the timeframe allowed. We didn’t have any granola bars or sandwiches that day, but we sure would have appreciated them.
If you or your friends end up doing well, and playing long into the day, consider staying the night before driving home, especially if you’re not switching drivers. Make sure that as a passenger you understand that part of your responsibility lies in making sure the driver stays awake, which means you’re staying awake too. There’s nothing worse than a car full of people who convince you to drive home instead of staying overnight and then having them fall asleep halfway home. Take frequent breaks for gas and coffee, and remember too that your friends are not insured to drive your car unless you pay the insurance company for that privilege, so any accidents or tickets they get into will be reflected on your insurance bills.
Traveling was the first step for me and my friends in making it big. Instead of disappointing top 30 finishes with no prize money, we finally broke through with a bunch of final tables and outright wins, all the while making new friends, picking up on some helpful tips, and most importantly, getting a lot of playing experience. When we all came back to playing locally after that summer, our successes were immediate, and we proved ourselves to be among the top players in the area within a few weeks. If you don’t have any experience playing in a tournament you feel like you have a chance in, there is no way you’ll handle it right when your time comes. If it’s traveling that makes the difference, it is definitely something I recommend to anyone who thinks that they have the talent to pull through with a big victory, but who haven’t gotten it yet.