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How Home Court Advantage Works in Poker (& How to Get It)
It was December 2011 when I saw the switch move into the ‘on' position inside the mind of Marvin Rettenmaier.
He was sitting in the Casino Di Venezia in Venice; not the elegant, oldest casino in the world but the crappy little one next to the airport.
He had just exited the €3,300 buy-in World Poker Tour (WPT) Main Event in eighth place and was staring into space like a mannequin.
“I thought this was the one,” he told me.
It wasn't the one; that would come the following spring when he won the WPT World Championship in Las Vegas for $1.1m.
A few months later he became the first player in history to win back-to-back WPT Main Events when he won the WPT Merit Cyprus Classic.
He went on to make two more WPT Main Event final tables; won a WPT High Roller, and has run deep on several other occasions including an 18th-place finish at the recent WPT bestbet Bounty Scramble in Jacksonville.
All told he has earned over $6.2m playing live tournaments all over the world. At one time he was right up there with Dominik Nitsche as one of the hardest-traveling live tournament grinders in the business.
And yet the form he showed on the WPT circuit never followed him into the other tours with the same consistency. Why?
Is Home Court a Myth?
In 1996, while Huck Seed was becoming the sixth player to win a $1m prize at the World Series of Poker (WSOP), the English Premier League side Manchester United lost 1-0 at home to Fenerbahce in the Champions League.
56 teams had arrived at Old Trafford, spanning a 40-year period, and not one of them could beat the mighty Reds in front of their home crowd in European competition until the Turks upset the applecart.
In 2002 researchers Nick Neave and Sandy Wolfson analyzed the statistics of international football matches in 30 different countries and found that 60% of home games were won. The number of home goals scored averaging 19.17 compared to 13.27 away.
It's not a myth. If you're playing at home, you have a distinct advantage.
Something's Going On, Right?
Rettenmaier’s success on the WPT is by no means an isolated case. Cate Hall announced herself on the live tournament stage with a fifth-place finish at WPT Maryland Live! last year.
Since then she's made two more WPT Main Event final tables including another final-table appearance this year in Maryland where she finished sixth.
The most recent final table in Maryland contained Benjamin Zamani and Darren Elias. Zamani was making his third WPT final table of the season; Elias was trying to win his third WPT Main Event title.
And it's not just the WPT where people shine. Think about Steve O'Dwyer on the European Poker Tour (EPT) and Phil Hellmuth at the WSOP.
Something's going on, right?
"I think this is just an example of sampling bias," says multiple WSOP bracelet winner Dutch Boyd. "Maybe certain players do play differently, or more confidently, in certain venues.
"But I'm inclined to think it's more likely we are just examining players who have done well and trying to explain why. It's like how we have a multi-bracelet winner every Series.
"It's the same thing as that birthday phenomenon, where you get 11 people in a room, and there is a 50% likelihood two of them share a birthday. It means absolutely nothing."
I don’t agree with Dutch. And I'm not alone.
Confidence, Pride, Fearlessness
“In my home country the Netherlands you can see this same phenomenon,” says poker pro Rolf Slotboom.
“People from the Rotterdam area win the vast majority of major tournaments in Rotterdam, yet they perform significantly less in Amsterdam. (And the other way around). It's quite simple, actually: feeling well and feeling at home can boost a player's confidence.”
Professional poker players don't have a ‘home court' but Slotboom makes a valid point. A player can feel at home anywhere, and it doesn't have to be a brick and mortar venue.
Rettenmaier, Hall, Elias and Zamani feel at home on the WPT circuit playing at a wide variety of places. In Rettenmaier's case, that's all over the world.
Here's Roberto Romanello's view on home court advantage:
"I don't believe this phenomenon is inclusive to poker. I think having a big result in life - for example getting a new job, bringing a new life into this world, or people achieving life goals in general - brings out something special in us as people.
"It inspires confidence, pride, fearlessness, and gives us that special shine and natural momentum. That's why you often see players do well and go on a heater after a big result in poker or life.
"And this is why you often see people do well at a certain venue in poker even a year later after they have had a big result. For sure this brings out something special in us and brings back good memory's and makes us ravenous to recapture those special moments. That unique momentum naturally kicks in.
"I think going back to a certain venue even up to a year later after your big win it just feels like it only happened yesterday. I would say I always play well and feel that extra little special in Prague."
Former EPT Champion Zimnan Ziyard thinks something is going on but believes more research is necessary to figure it out.
“We as poker players are always trying to connect dots and trying to correlate as many factors as possible. Sometimes we do end up applying it to a sample of data and measuring parameters within it without actually weighing it against the pool of data it lies within.
"If we are to really to explore the significance of this correlation we should get some samples of people who have had at least one major success and start mapping out their other achievements in relation to the number of venues that person has competed at.
So for e.g. if an average pro has played at 30 different venues and has 3-4 major live scores during their career, chances of them having two major live scores in one venue is not improbable."
How Can You Get Home Court Advantage?
After gathering up feedback from a variety of professional poker players and doing some research, here are a few tips you can use to help manufacture that poker home court advantage.
1. Find a Home Court
Find a home court close to you and dominate it. Make sure you play there regularly and do everything in your power to make it comfortable for you.
Then, don't stray from the venue unless you have to.
“It’s all about comfort,” says Shane Schleger. “It contributes to being ‘present’ at the table.”
2. Be Friendly
Don't be a dick at the tables. Part of feeling at home is that vibe that you are part of the furniture. Get to know the dealers and the floor staff.
Read their name tags and address them accordingly. Do the same with the players. Talk to them and get to know them. All this friendly juice will serve you well.
“If you play in one place often you get to know the regs," says Seth Berger, "and even the casual players that frequent that venue.
"Also, you get to know the staff and you have no stress about getting there on time and what to do on breaks because it's second-hand nature."
3. Get to Know Everyone
There was a time when Marvin Rettenmaier was a part of the WPT DNA and it showed through his performances on the felt.
He was a star. He knew the dealers, the floor staff, the tournament directors, the camera crew, the writers and the people who organized the event behind the scenes.
Most of all he was humble and approachable. He was one of the family, and I believe this helped him play with more ease and enjoyment at the tables.
“Comfort level and familiarity with opponents can be a factor,” says Thayer Rasmussen.
4. Prepare in Advance
What and where are you going to eat? Where are you going to sleep?
I think it's vitally important to plan ahead so you feel more at ease when you start your tournament. Sports teams who play at home have these things nailed down more securely than they do when they play away.
I think this is especially important when it comes to food.
5. Defend Your Turf
When Antonio Esfandiari was thrown out of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) for urinating at the table, perhaps he was marking his territory.
Researchers have shown that testosterone levels in players preparing for home games are higher than when they play away. They believe it has a lot to do with defending one’s territory against intruders.
"Players are more likely to be playing in events that they have previously done well in," says former EPT Champion Zimnan Ziyard, "so more results expected from those venues.
"Nostalgia and possibly a bit of a bias feeling that they are particularly good against that type of field the event attracts might be a couple of reasons why this happens."
I know what you're thinking. Cate Hall? Testosterone? I think if you look at all the top female poker players in the world a high level of aggression will be found in all of them.
6. Bring a Crowd
If you get to a final table, do everything in your power to get your friends fired up on the rail.
It’s evident that the home crowd plays a huge role in the statistical advantage that home teams have, so create a home court feel through your self-made fans.
7. Be Friendly to Officials
In those football studies researchers found that referees handed out fewer penalties and yellow & red cards to the home sides than they did to the away sides.
The researchers also found that if you eliminated crowd noise under simulated conditions, the home bias was effectively ruled out.
With this in mind it's equally important to get your rail screaming your name at the top of their lungs.
But don't go too far; work hard at #2 and be friendly to the officials so they're more likely to cut you some slack.
8. Spatial Awareness
There is evidence to suggest that familiarity with a home venue related to spatial awareness gives home teams an edge.
Knowledge of a football pitch’s size and surface helps players re-orientate quicker when they fall or need to turn quickly on the ball.
Does the same thing happen in poker? Do poker players who play well on the same tour do so because of spatial awareness advantages?
Are the tables more familiar? The seats more comfortable? Do they play better because of familiarity and don't have to spare any brain power thinking where the toilets are?
9. Avoid Travel Fatigue
This is a big one for a professional or travelling poker player.
I played in the Grand Prix Poker Tour (GPPT) in Cardiff a few weeks ago. I was able to drive to the venue in five minutes and nip home for lunch and a 20-minute power nap at dinner.
I was sitting at a table of Irishmen who were complaining about their hotel and had been up all night. It's always sensible to get to the venue ahead of time and get into a routine to reduce travel fatigue.
"Travelling to a new place, on the other hand," says Seth Berger, "requires more preparing and making sure you get to your seat on time giving you less time to do other things you may want to do help you feel at your mental best."
So there you go. Nine tips you can implement to manufacture a home court advantage. What works for you?
Thanks to Roberto Romanello, Thayer Rasmussen, Shane Schleger, Dutch Boyd, Rolf Slotboom, Zimnan Ziyard, Steven van Zadelhoff and Seth Berger for their help with this article.