WSOP First-Timer: Playing the Main Event

Players registration

With over 6,300 players in 2007 and over 8,900 the year before, the big show is unlike anything you will have played before. For a first-timer, it can all feel a bit surreal.

A significant number of players in the WSOP Main Event earn their seats through online qualifiers and satellites each year. This means thousands of the players in the big show are there for their first time.

The Atmosphere

Especially if you never play live tourneys, the atmosphere at the Main Event is going to be hard for you to deal with: thousands of people, photographers, reporters, celebrities and a roar of noise.

That's just inside the Amazon room; outside you have trade shows, more noise, free drinks, flashing lights, free stuff, girlies in lingerie having pillow fights, and to top it all off, you're in the middle of Vegas.

If you ever have a hard time focusing on poker when you're alone in your room, imagine trying to do that in the middle of this zoo. You might want to hope you're not seated at a table with a notable celebrity, poker or otherwise. Having hundreds of people rail your table can make for a strange play dynamic.

Rio at Night
The middle of Vegas.

The Play

Depending on the type and size of tourneys you've played in the past, you might be shocked at the amount of play there is in the WSOP Main Event. Think back to the tournaments you've played, the starting stacks, blind intervals and rate of blind increase. On average for smaller tourneys it's usually something like:

  • $3,000 stacks
  • 30-minute intervals
  • Blinds $25/$50 and doubling

The larger the tournament buy-in the more lenient the makeup will become, allowing for more play. The WSOP Main Event runs at 120-minute intervals, with $10,000 starting chip stacks.

Not only that, the structure is relaxed, meaning instead of it going from $200/$400 to $400/$800, it goes to $250/$500 instead.

What this translates into for you: The first day is scheduled to last for 10 hours. If you play yourself to a final table, you'll play a total of seven days, possibly all in a row. Many of the days will last much longer than 10 hours. The Main Event is a true marathon of poker.

You have to be able to sit down and keep your head in the game for 10+ hours of poker, every day for the duration of the event. That in itself is no simple feat.

I've seen a few exclusively online players sit in this event as their first foray into live poker. These players are used to multiple tables dealing 60 hands per hour. It can be painfully slow to play this event for these people.

Depending on your players, and if you have chronic "tankers," you can slow down to as few as 15 hands per hour at some points.

The final thing to know about the play is that there is a good chance you're going to lose to a ridiculous hand, miss a big draw, get sucked out on or make a mistake. Accept it now that these things can and will happen to you.

If you can accept it before you get there, you can hopefully avoid fretting over it when it happens, allowing you to use the remainder of your chips to rebuild, and play optimal poker.

Gaming arena
The Amazon Room at the Rio is a zoo... or a jungle may be more accurate?

The Players

The Main Event will be filled with poker players of every type and skill. This includes a huge base of players who won their seats in online satellites.

Many starting tables will have 5-7 inexperienced players at the felt. The opening days of poker will be against inexperienced players, which greatly changes the way the game will play out compared to at a table of professionals.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, no player wants to get into the Main Event - a seat worth $10,000 - and get knocked out quickly.

Some players will fold pocket aces early against an all-in bet. Their tournament life is not worth them taking any risk so early on. Even some pros will make such a lay-down in the first few rounds of a major event. The best chance you have is to use your time to get inside the head of the players you sit with and play them accordingly.

Before you go in, you want to accept the fact that you're going to run into very bad, very good and very rude players. Accept it all now, so you don't have to deal with it then.

Some players are going to be outright offensive and ill-mannered; others are going to be gracious and forgiving. Accept all potential opposition so nothing will shock you. Assume you're going to be on Phil Ivey's right, with a lingerie-wearing supermodel across the table.

Your Style

Most pros teach to play tight in the beginning and loosen up as the blinds heighten. Other pros teach the opposite, saying to play loose and aggressive early when everyone else is playing tight. This way you'll build a big stack to be able to play a stronger game as the blinds start getting high.

Before you start playing, you'll want to figure out your style. You can always change your style if you feel the need to, but you want to sit at your table with a game plan rather than trying to wing it.

Before You Take Your Seat

Before you walk into the room, before you even leave your own bedroom back home, you should start thinking about your plan for the event. Unless going to Las Vegas is a regular thing for you, it's going to be hard not to have a classic Vegas experience.

We're talking lots of booze, lots of partying, lots of gambling and little sleep.

This is fine if you just want to go down for a good time, but with the WSOP Main Event seat being worth $10,000, most of you will want to take it more seriously. Plan your WSOP trip accordingly. You need to be well rested, acclimatized (it's more than a little bit warm over there), and used to the grandeur.

You'll want to have a couple of days before your Day 1 to just relax and get used to the city. I don't recommend playing any poker on these days. Spend your time by the pool, go to some shows. The last thing you need going into the tourney is a serious cash-game loss on your mind from the night before.

There are lots of players who feel it's best to stay away from cash games entirely while playing serious tournament poker. The games are very different, and it's really up to you if you feel able to adjust between the two of them.

But more importantly, with 10+ hour days of poker in the tournaments, you just don't want to let yourself get burnt out. Any chance you have to rest away from the game you should take.


This might seem odd, but it's actually very important. If you're not healthy, you're not going to play at your fullest potential - simple as that.

Las Vegas is a desert. You'll be spending your time in absurd dry heat, or air-conditioned environments. Both of these conditions translate into you needing to drink much more water than you might be used to.

On top of that, if you are going out at night, drinks are free in the casinos. Being dehydrated will affect your game. Not only will you feel like crap, but it's been proven that your brain functions better or worse depending on certain health conditions.

This is easy to understand with extremes like being drunk or having a very high fever. Being dehydrated, malnourished or exhausted will affect how well, and quickly, you can process information. To play optimal poker, you're going to need all the computing power you can get.

Eat well, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep. This is some of the best advice I can give you, but perhaps the hardest to follow.


Just like being healthy, to play optimal poker, you need to be comfortable. If you're rocking the pool in the days preceding your event, there is no limit to how much is too much sunscreen. I don't know about you, but having a bad sunburn makes my life miserable. I can't imagine trying to sit and play for 10 hours in this condition.

Make sure you bring lip balm, especially if you're from a more humid climate. The combination of climate and air conditioning does quite a number on most people's lips when they visit Vegas. Blistex is a traveler's best friend.

Matthew Gianetti
Learn from Matthew Gianetti: bring a sweater, jumper, hoodie or jacket.

It's horrifically hot outside and cold inside. It can be very damn cold inside of the poker room, especially at the beginning of the day. With over 3,000 bodies in the room, they crank up the AC in the mornings so the room can be cold as ice. Even though it's 115 degrees outside, you'll still want to bring a sweater with you.

If you win a satellite, your contract will probably require you to wear branded clothes for the site that got you into the event. Judging by the contracts I've read and my limited legal knowledge, the branded clothing is only in agreement for them paying for your hotel room.

Personally, I'm only comfortable in my own clothing. I'd rather wear my own clothes that I like, and feel good in, than unfamiliar branded clothes (not to mention the danger of ordering the wrong size somehow).

If you have to wear the clothing they supply, try to find a way to get comfortable in it. Wear it before the first day, wash it a few times to get it feeling less "new" -whatever you can do, get it done.

Think about every aspect of being comfortable. It's better to bring your slippers than to wear new shoes that hurt your feet. If the noise of the room will bug you, bring headphones and a music player. Make sure to bring extra batteries or multiple iPods. I don't know of any music players that last for 10 hours of constant use.

Have a good breakfast. Nothing is worse than trying to play hungry from square one. I'm sure I'm not alone in not being able to play my best poker when I'm hungry.

If you're the type of person who feels bad when they don't tip servers, bring a wad of $1 bills with you. You're going to be ordering plenty of free little bottles of water, and if you're the tipping sort (and I hope you are) bring some bills - servers don't accept tourney chips.

Finally, whether you're thirsty or not, you should order a bottle of water every time the server drops by. The room is huge; it can take a while for a server to come back to your table. They do a fine job, but it's better to have too much water than too little.

Wrapping It All Up

The goal in this guide was to get you thinking about more than what you're going to do with the money you win. You want to make sure you can play your best game when you get there. It's a horrible feeling to know that you could have played better poker, if only...

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