2015 ACOP: Relishing the Battle Against the Best

Sometimes I visualize poker like video games such as Defense of the Ancients (DOTA) and League of Legends (LOL). My good hands are my heroes; my chips are my weapons; and, my soldiers are used to establish my base, protect my home, and attack the villain's base. Once you enter into a poker tournament, we are faced with decisions on how best to utilize our good hands and our chips.

What's my strategy at this stage of the tournament and on this particular table? Farm or Gank?

Do I use them to strengthen my defense or am I going to use them offensively? There are always multiple options plus many different skills and strategies to learn from battle to battle - especially from those big wars.

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When I think about some most tough wars I've ever experienced I think about the Asia Championship of Poker (ACOP). Last year I had my first ACOP experience in Macau and luckily had a deep run in the HK$100,000 Main Event. It's the biggest tournament in Asia with the best structure. It also attracted the most talented players from the world where many are experienced and fully equipped to handle the challenge. I got a chance to play deep structure against those big names I saw on TV and interviews.

Human beings naturally copy what everyone else is doing. You tend to mirror your friends as well as your opponents. At the time I still worked at a consulting firm and considered myself as a relative new player. The best thing about the trip to PokerStars LIVE Macau was all the good role models surrounding me. I told myself, the longer I last on the table, the more I could learn. The deeper I went in the tournament, the more experience I would get!

It was an amazing opportunity for me and something I really cherished.

Yaxi Zhu at 2014ACOP Main Event.jpg

I can recognized a lot names and faces on my table and although I had plenty of online poker experience it felt remarkably different playing live. There's a different sense of pressure from the good players in a live setting.

When there were 3 tables left, mine table had the likes of Mike McDonald (aka Timex), Sorel Mizzi, and Ami barer. PokerNews did an interview with me and asked if I was nervous amongst such poker giants? On the surface I think I was clam but there was definitely a sense of nervousness mixed in with excitement of the challenge.

Not everyone gets the opportunity to experience a deep run so I've used my time on the rail wisely as well to prepare for my next opportunity when it comes. Last year, I railed both the 250k High Roller and 500k Super High during the ACOP. I just wanted to study and learn what all the world class pros were doing.

It's not just about how they play their cards, it's about everything. How they control the table; how they pick up on spots on players; how they pound when they sense weakness; and, how they deal with ICM during the money bubble.

In particular, I want to mention live tells. Those good players are so unexploitable. They take the same time to act each hand and with the same poker face - it doesn't matter whether the bet is for a bluff or for value, the pros go through the same process even if they have come up with a decision. Most players tend to act quicker with middle strength hands but think harder and longer when bluffing.

Another good thing I want to talk about is the deep structure. In a deep structured tournament like the ACOP Main Event, you have the ability to battle for more pots. Having so much depth in your chip stack means you can be play more marginal hands and be more creative post flop. It allows you to play more marginal hands with equity, bluff later streets, and occasionally hit your outs which may very well tilt your opponents.

A deep structure also gives you the flexibility to change gears and slow down since blinding out becomes less of a factor. You can be patient and save your bullets for better opportunities. There were many moments I didn't have a big stack and just maintained 20-30bb for many levels. But I survived! Not by flipping to double up but by picking up good spots to steal (and re-steal) and maximizing value postflop when the opportunity arose.

I told myself, "You are not going to win the battle in one day, it's a long battle."

The other benefit of a deep structure is getting to play longer with the same players which means metagame becomes more important. This is where you should put away your phone game and be really focused on what's going on your table. Against tough players, you want to balance your range in different spots more because these players are observant and will beat you up pretty good if they can exploit a tendency of yours. You really want to identify the weaker players and pick them off for value because those are the ones who won't be paying attention to what's happening in the game.

Last year, just missed the final table and finished in 12th place. Many people felt sorry for me, but I relished the entire experience and saw it as a positive. In particular, I really noticed the dynamic change when were down to the last two to three tables. I got to see how the good players adjusted to the tournament relative to the early and middle stages and I learned a lot from it.

I can say that I used a lot of what I learned during the ACOP afterwards at EPT Prague one month later. I used my new found experience and won the 2k side. There's no doubt that ACOP helped me a lot.

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Poker for me is a long journey and so my growth will come step by step. I want to play well against novices and use any advantage I have. And if I play against more experiences pros I look at it as a way to gain more experience myself. I don't fear any situation and I think that outlook is one of the reasons I love poker and have made a career of it.

Reminiscing last year is really getting me excited to battle against the best once more. See you at the tables!


Yaxi Zhu is a member of Team PokerStars Pro Asia


Yaxi Zhu
@PokerStars in Asia Pacific Poker Tour