How to Prep for Poker’s Biggest (or Any) Final Table, Fast

As one of poker's preeminent mental coaches, Jared Tendler has worked with three former Nov. 9ers to prep them for the biggest moment of their careers.

Working with Jorryt van HoofMax Steinberg and Kenny Hallaert has given Tendler a crash course in what poker players need to perform their best in a high-pressure environment like the World Series of Poker Main Event.

And while strong poker strategy is essential, he says, it's also very important to be able to stay calm and not let your ability to think clearly get derailed.

With van Hoof finishing third in 2014 for $3.8 million, Steinberg fourth in 2015 for $2.6 million and Hallaert sixth for almost $1.5 million last year, he clearly knows of what he speaks.

Jared Tendler on Final Table Prep

We grilled Tendler on a few key points this year's Main Event final-tablists should focus on on their days off but his advice also applies to anyone who makes a big final table and wants to make sure the pressure doesn't interfere with making the best decisions possible.

Jorryt van Hoof sought Tendler's counsel.

PokerListings: How valuable was the previous November Nine break for players to be able to work with coaches to prepare?

Jared Tendler: For some players it was massive. Both from a mental and tactical perspective they were able to make some significant improvements.

They also got to intensively study their opponents and run simulations for many different scenarios they could face. It’s impossible to know how much that translated at the table vs how they would have performed had they done nothing.

But at the end of the day, it’s important for peace of mind knowing they did everything they could to prepare.

The three players I worked with over the last three years can say that and I know it made a big difference for how they felt going in and how they performed. 

On the other side, the 4-month break was a huge grind and responsibility. Their lives effectively stopped as everything they did was in preparation for the final table.

The players this year won’t get the benefit of preparing, but they won’t have to wait either.  

PL: Given that there's now only a two-day break what are some things you'd suggest the players focus on to prepare?

JT: For the amateurs, rest up and enjoy the experience. For the pros, fine tune and game plan.

The amateurs don’t have time to improve and the biggest mistake is to try to cram a bunch of info into their heads. Go relax and maybe spend some of the $1m you just made.

John Hesp2
Better to relax than cram.

The pros can make the same mistake in overloading themselves. But since they’ll have a much clearer understanding of their game and their opponents, it’s important to get some work done.

I’d suggest a mix of resting up and prepping by shoring up their biggest tactical and mental leaks—typically the easiest things for pros to fix—and reviewing the coverage to get a stronger sense of their opponents’ game. 

PL: What common pitfalls do you see when people are in high-pressure situations like the WSOP Main Event final table?

JT: Under pressure players fall back to their bad habits. The intense pressure shuts down a player’s ability to think through the hand normally and they make mistakes—sometime massive mistakes.

When the pressure is particularly high, thinking disappears entirely and they’re either like a deer in headlights or they just make a snap decision to get it over with.

Pressure affects people differently but each person tends to have a distinct pattern of how they react to it. It’s important to pay close attention to how your decision-making changes and that’s one thing I recommend the pros focus on. This way they can fight against the pressure and make a better decision.

Steinberg and Rail
Pressure affects everyone differently.

PL: Can you give us an example of a technique that would help players focus, relax and be able to make good decisions in the moment at the final table?

JT: It’s tough to give an example of something simple that would have such a profound effect to help players handle the intense pressure of a final table as if it were nothing.

Listening to the coverage tonight during Day 7 I heard Antonio mention that the players just need to treat the event like it was a $10 buy-in, or like any other tournament, and not let the money or the title get to them.

On the surface that sounds like decent advice but I doubt players can embrace that idea enough to have it ease their nerves.

Mental trickery like that rarely works under intense pressure. The reality is that the pressure can be a great thing. It can be a motivator to play their very best.

And the key to making that more likely is to make sure you’re clear on the corrections to your biggest weaknesses. When you know that the pressure can’t make you play that bad, it tends to give players a big confidence boost.

Some players will also benefit from a simple breathing technique. It may sound a little hokey but taking deep breaths where you breathe into your stomach, rather than your chest, gives the body a physiological signal to relax.

It’s easy to test this even when you’re relaxed—take several deep breaths in through your mouth. You’ll notice the air goes right into your chest and that’s how we automatically breath when under intense pressure.

If you instead breathe into your stomach, you can at least physically get your emotions in a better place. Then, push/force yourself to focus and think through each factor in the hand, and you’ll make better decisions. Maybe not perfect, but better is better than terrible.

Kenny Hallaert 2
Hallaert still reaping benefits.

PL: You worked with Kenny Hallaert last year and he had a tremendous summer in 2017. What kind of things did you work on with him?

JT: Unfortunately, I can't go into the specifics about what we worked on. It's all confidential. But what I can say is that I've essentially done the same kind of work with all my final table clients.

Obviously the details differ for each player but the major areas that we worked on include:

1) Figuring out their biggest mental leaks and come up with in-game solutions for each one.

2) Finding ways to optimize their mental warm-up and cool-down to make it more likely for them to be in the zone.

3) Helping them to structure their learning so they absorb more, and avoid getting overwhelmed.

4) Minimizing any off the table distractions.

5) Strengthening/training their decision-making process.

With Kenny, I can say that he brought a lot to the table before we started. There wasn't a lot that he and I needed to do to help get him ready. And it's great to see him doing well.

He's a guy who truly loves poker and it's always fun for me to work someone with that kind of passion.

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