The World Series of Poker (WSOP) begins today. Here’s how you should play it.


A poker table during the first day of the 41st annual World Series of Poker 2010 no-limit Texas Hold ‘em main event in Las Vegas. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) begins today at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas. For those who don’t know a flop from a turn and haven’t memorized dialogue from the 1998 movie “Rounders,” the WSOP is where poker’s elite meet each year to determine who is the best — often while wearing sweatpants. And the winners don’t get trophies, but bracelets.

Still, poker is a game of chance in which a novice can beat a pro if Lady Luck so decides. How can skilled players consistently beat hordes of fortunate newbies?

The Washington Post spoke to Matt Matros — Yale math major turned poker pro who, in 2012, beat a field that included Post political analyst Chris “the Fix” Cillizza to win the Outlook section’s election prediction contest — about how to play the WSOP. Here’s some of what he said.

1. Get a backer.

The best way not to lose your own money gambling is to play with someone else’s. Players trying to maximize their expected value (EV) at the tables love investors who, though they take some of their winnings, reduce risk.

“Most tournament pros find backers to bankroll their events,” Matros wrote in an e-mail. “It doesn’t matter how high your variance is if someone else is footing the bill. With backers, you can spend your lifetime earning out your EV (or close to it) with much less bankroll stress.”

2. Diversify.

The WSOP isn’t just one event — it’s a menu of more than 60 held in the next six weeks.

Some events attract a lot of players and have high variance — that is, are difficult to win consistently — but pay out a lot. Others attract fewer players and are easier to win, but pay out less.

Since it’s unlikely one player, no matter how good, will win every huge event he or she enters, smart poker players who want to maximize EV mix it up.

“Play the high variance/high value events, but also supplement those events with a lot more events that contain much smaller fields,” Matros wrote. “You can earn your EV a lot faster in an event with 600 people than in an event with 6,000 people.”

3. Don’t forget: You are not a machine.

Those who win poker tournaments must play dozens of hands in a row with limited breaks. This is a bad idea when hungry or tired.

“Lifestyle tips: Try to stretch during breaks,” Matros wrote. “Try to eat healthy at least occasionally. Try not to party too hard.”

4. If you’ve got the stomach for it, play one-on-one.

Real-life poker isn’t much like “The Cincinnati Kid“: Tables usually have more than two players.

But the WSOP has one $10,000 “heads-up” event. To win, you’ve got to beat other players one-on-one, just like in an NCAA tournament.

“The small field gives the competent heads-up player (and I consider myself competent) a realistic chance at a bracelet, and the high buy-in offers pretty good value,” Matros wrote. “Plus, heads-up is much more fun than the typical full-table event, and the enjoyment factor goes a long way during the brutal WSOP grind.”

5. Play the main event.

Going to the WSOP and not sitting down at the main event — a $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournament — is like going to Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day and not wagering on the big race. Even if you’re a likely loser, you can’t miss it.

“Yes, it’s a huge field,” Matros writes. “Yes, it’s insanely high variance, and yes no one who enters this tournament should reasonably expect to make money in it over the course of their lifetime. But we only get one lifetime, and if you want to be called The World Champion, you have to play this event. Besides, even for crusty veterans like me, the Main Event is still the most thrilling poker game around.”

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Justin Moyer is deputy editor of the Morning Mix.
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