With the November Nine getting close and this year's WSOP Main Event finally coming to an end, I am reminded of a few years ago when I had a deep run in the Main Event, finishing 27th back in 2009. It's such a long, challenging tournament to play, and in fact there are a lot of similarities between playing the Main Event and running a marathon (a 42-kilometer or 26.2 mile run) -- something else with which I also have some experience.
Back in 2009 when I played the WSOP Main Event, it was my very first time playing it. By then I had already run three marathons, but I didn't realize at the time how much playing the Main Event really was like running a marathon. But afterwards it became very apparent to me, and in fact realizing the similarities has helped me with later tournaments.
Pacing yourself at the start
During the first levels of a tournament -- or during the first 15 kilometers (about nine miles) of a marathon -- there isn't a lot to think about, really. A lot of what you do during the early stages is mostly a formality. You can mess things up (e.g., you can bust from the tournament), but mostly you're just moving through and trying to get to the next stage of the event. And of course you have to get through the early part to get to the middle and beyond.
With the Main Event, Day 1 is not really a day to get too crazy. You can't win the tournament on Day 1, but you can lose, just as you can ruin your chances of finishing a marathon if you go out too fast early on. So you just push forward and kind of "pace" yourself so you can get through to the next stage.
Being mentally and physically strong
Poker tournaments and marathons require both mental stamina and physical stamina. People don't always appreciate how poker can be a physical game, but I think many are coming to realize how your physical shape really can affect your mental game, and of course in a long tournament like the WSOP Main Event that connection is even more apparent.
By the same token, people might not realize how running marathons requires a lot of mental strength, too. I'd put it at about 20% mental and 80% physical, actually, in terms of the effort needed to run a marathon.
Trying not to hit "the wall"
Another parallel between the Main Event and a marathon is what might be called "the wall" people sometimes hit just before the end.
In marathons we talk about there being kind of a "wall" at the 30-kilometer mark (about 18-and-a-half miles), and if you can just get over that you know you'll probably be able to finish. There's also a kind of "wall" in the Main Event -- or any big tournament, really -- that you have to be mentally ready to cross in order to get to the final table and perhaps win.
Journeys of self-discovery
Both playing in the Main Event (or any long poker tournament) and running a marathon can teach you a lot about yourself. They can both work as a kind of "mind therapy," you might say, with the experience being very educational. They can both be very emotional, too, although in a poker tournament emotion can have a more negative effect than is the case in a marathon, in my opinion.
When I made it to the final 27 of the Main Event in 2009, I wasn't really aware of the significance of getting that far. We bagged up that night and had one more day left to play (when it went from 27 to 9), and that's when I spoke to some of my friends for the first time. Up to then I hadn't really been focused on the money or anything else, but after talking to my friends I couldn't help but get a little emotional about it all.
I kind of think it was a mistake to have talked to my friends at that point who were all telling me how important it was to be in the final 27 of the biggest poker tournament in the world. By the time I went to play the next day I was really affected and much more nervous than was the case any other day. As it happened, I was very short-stacked and I busted early on that day to finish 27th.
In fact at that point my biggest cash ever had only been for $5K -- less than the buy-in of the Main! -- so it was all kind of overwhelming for a lot of reasons. But what a learning experience!
Playing to win
Of course when I busted, everyone was congratulating me. But again the emotions were pretty strong. I just wanted to cry, really, because as a competitor I still wanted it to continue.
A lot of people run marathons just to finish, and I have a lot of respect for those who do. By the same token, I admire and have respect for people who come to play the Main Event as a kind of "lifetime experience" or to complete a "bucket list" item. Perhaps they qualified for it or bought in, but it's really just the experience of playing that matters most to them, and not necessarily winning the tournament.
For me, though, it's different -- both in marathons and in poker tournaments. I'm a serious runner, and so for me I'm always trying to improve when I run marathons. In other words, just finishing is not the goal for me.
Skill games, but luck matters, too
I've run eight marathons now, and as it happened the first one I ran in 3:30, then for the next six I ran I could not beat that time. It was a little like with the WSOP when I went so far the very first time I played and established a "personal best."
After each of those next six marathons it was a little like the 2009 WSOP Main Event. I would finish and people congratulated me, but I was disappointed because I'd come up short of my goal.
Of course, like in poker, luck was involved in some of those marathons, too. For example, during one the weather was bad (it was very cold), which no doubt affected my time. Just like bad beats in poker, there are elements in running marathons that are out of your control.
The race continues
This year I ran my eighth marathon, and this time I went to the starting line with a different attitude. I knew I had trained well and that 90% of the job was done, so I was already somewhat satisfied though I still wanted to follow through with a good race.
And I did! I finally beat my time from that first marathon.
Doing so gives me hope to go back to the Main Event and improve on my best finish there, too. I'm a better runner now, and a better poker player. And I think the experience of running marathons and playing tournaments -- and recognizing all of the similarities between both -- will help me moving forward.
Leo Margets is a member of Team PokerStars Pro