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Tips From the Full Tilt Pros

Learning to Win at Final Tables by John Phan

Anyone who’s ever come close to winning a poker tournament – only to fall short – can tell you how much it hurts. It’s disappointing. It’s painful. In 2006, I finished 2nd in a $1,000 No-Limit Hold ’em event at the World Series of Poker, and then in 2007, I was the runner-up in a $2,500 Hold ’em event at the WSOP. So I came into 2008 particularly determined to win my first bracelet – not just to reach a final table, but to finish in 1st place.

Well, I achieved my goal – and then some. I won the $3K No-Limit Hold ’em tournament at the World Series of Poker, then one week later I won another bracelet in $2,500 Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw. And to top it all off, I won my first WPT title in August at the Legends of Poker at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles.

Now that I’ve gotten over the hump and won some major tournaments, I’m going to share two important tips that made all the difference for me.

1. Make the tough laydowns when your tournament life is at stake.

It’s a situation I’ve been in many times: a short stack raises, I re-raise enough to put the short stack all in, and then a big stack behind me raises enough to put me all in. I’m in a tough spot because I’m fairly certain my hand is better than the short stack’s hand, but I also have a strong feeling that the big stack has me in bad shape. There are a lot of chips in the pot, and I’m tempted to call, knowing that I need to suck out to win. Many times in the past, I made that call and went home in 7th or 8th place.

What I’ve learned is that the right play, if you believe you’re beat, is to lay it down and live to play another hand. Even if the pot odds narrowly favor a call, you’re better off letting the hand go. Obviously, if the pot odds heavily favor a call, if you’ve committed, say, 80 percent of your chips, then that’s another story.

But that brings up an important strategic point: When you re-raise that short stack, consider raising a smaller amount that doesn’t completely commit you to the hand and makes it easier to fold if the big stack comes over the top. I’ve learned the hard way that you want to leave yourself room to fold your hand if there are other players left to act behind you. Some players, especially amateurs, put in half their stack, and then just can’t lay down hands. They fall in love with the hand no matter what they have, and that’s a recipe for losing all of your chips.

2. Never give up, no matter how short stacked you are.

In the Triple Draw event that I won, I was desperately short stacked at the final table. I had about enough chips for two big blinds, there was multi-way action and I was getting a ridiculous amount of value to play and try to make the best hand, so I called off my last chips. I won the hand, then I went on a rush, tripling up a couple of times, and I never looked back.

The point of the story is that you should never give up, even when you’re on a short stack. You can be too patient, obviously, but you usually have room to show some patience. I see a lot of players who become short stacks and they stop playing smart and stop trying to win. This is especially the case if they have a big stack, lose a lot of chips and become a short stack. They get depressed, lose focus, and start playing really badly. Another player moves in, and they call him with A-2 or A-5, or even K-J – basically any hand with a high card.

I’ve even seen some people lose a big pot, have a couple of chips left, and just walk away from the table! Imagine if I had done that in the Triple Draw event – I would have been walking away from a World Series of Poker bracelet.

My victory provides the best possible proof that you should never give up. Your luck might turn around at any moment – I’ve seen many people go from short stack to chip leader. If you want to win at the final table, you have to keep on believing that that person can be you.

John Phan

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