Do Live Tournaments and Drinking Mix Well Together?

Having spent last week at the Wynn Handicapping Challenge and then the Saratoga Challenge, I was reminded of one of the truly omnipresent—yet almost entirely unspoken—factors in contest play: drinking.

When I play poker—either in a tournament or a cash game—I know my limit when it comes to drinks: Zero.

If there is a better example of how alcohol can dull my powers of concentration even before I feel the least bit intoxicated, I am not aware of it. Close friends of mine will know my mind tends to wander sometimes even under the best of circumstances. One drink, though, and remembering things like who raised and who re-raised pre-flop have a way of escaping me post-flop. Two drinks, and I find myself having to recheck my hole cards at an embarrassingly high frequency.

With horse racing contests, I find things are a little black-and-white.

The nature of the decision-making involved in an onsite handicapping tournament is very different compared to poker. For horseplayers, many of the most important decisions may take place the night before or early that morning during the handicapping process. For those using specialized software or otherwise playing race-to-race, the decision-making process perhaps more closely resembles that of poker with key decisions having to be made pretty quickly between the post parade and off time…several times during the day.

Even if you are the type who has a feel the night before of exactly who you will be playing the next day, however, there are still plenty of “game time” decisions to be made—after scratches, after unexpected odds drops, or when faced with end-game strategies.

“I’d do much better at these things,” one handicapping contest regular confided to me not long ago, “if I only had a chaperone.”

The Breeze Bar at Treasure Island

It’s easy to feel pulled from both sides at an onsite tournament. On one hand, big money is at stake, and good judgments can be rewarded handsomely. On the other hand, there is a distinct vacation feel when playing in a contest. Part of this is the travel to a hotel (often in Vegas!). And being around lots of fun, friendly people is certainly more conducive to socializing than sitting around a poker table with eight strangers. Last but certainly not least, there’s the existence at handicapping contests of plentiful (and in many cases, free) booze.

Having worked at every NHC ever held, I fully understand and appreciate that the social aspect of a tournament is extremely important for a great many there. Some will party hard and delay the evening’s horse study until the next morning or even the next afternoon.

Others might allow themselves a couple of cocktails—but not until the night’s handicapping work is done.

Others, still, won’t allow themselves anything (often for fear one drink will lead to two, three or four) until the entire competition is over.

The funny thing is—any of the above three broad approaches can work just fine for people. But what works for one can be a killer for another.

Whether you choose to treat a handicapping contest like a business trip, or a fun journey for which the destination is its own reward, is up to you. Personally, I don’t feel that there is any higher moral ground for choosing the former over the latter—any more than I feel that an educational vacation is morally superior to a beach getaway. Free will is a wonderful thing. So is the option to cut loose a little on your free time and do things that you might not do when you’re “on the job.”

For many, though, the ability to effectively manage distractions can be a key factor in their success—at handicapping contests and at other things in life.

(And not all distractions at a tournament involve drinking. Sometimes it’s easy to fall victim to what I call “The Three-Hour Dinner.” Sometimes they are delightful…and sometimes they are unavoidable for various reasons (and, yes, there are often cocktails or bottles of wine involved). But more than anything, they can be a real time suck when there are other things to do—like handicap. Again, this is just me. Your mileage may vary.)

There are many factors that affect one’s performance at—and enjoyment of—an onsite handicapping tournament. Sometimes, just deciding ahead of time which sort of experience you want to have can make the difference between a pleasant and a frustrating trip.

“Pleasant” is in the eye of the beholder, of course. But if you sometimes leave a tournament feeling as though you were your own worst enemy, then it also means that your game may actually have a lot of upside to it. And that can be a very exciting thing.