You hear the expression bandied around in all walks of the sporting life; football, tennis, golf, you name it, all the experts will tell you they’re just taking it “one match/point/shot at a time.” So it dictates that to win a poker tournament you just have to take it one hand at a time, right?
It’s lucky that tournament poker players don’t have to give press conferences or we might hear the same cliché misused and mistaught by many a professional in this field as well. One of the big differences between the elite players and their competition is that the elite players play the tournament while the others are playing hands.
In its purest definition the expression, “one match at a time” means to block out all future matches, competition implications and external pressures to just focus on playing the present match as well as possible. In tournament poker, the overall tournament conditions are everything. So much of today’s tournament poker strategy teachings are incomplete and often misguided that it can be just as easy for the new player to be molded into a narrow-minded, mechanical player as it is for them to accelerate their poker development.
The first thing the modern day tournament player thinks about when they look down at ten-eight suited with twelve big blinds on the button is, “can I move all-in profitably here?” Adopting this kind of thought process, which is preached monotonously on forums and in training videos alike, is a one way ticket to mediocrity and frustration when results don’t go your way. There are so many more important factors to consider – “Is the field too weak to be accepting marginal value at risk of busting here,” “What would my resultant stack size mean for my hand-by-hand profitability should I win or lose this pot,” “Am I in the right mental state to play my best game with a below average stack or do I need to take a chance here,” just to name a few.
Just as your route to your nearest exit on an airplane is usually different for every flight, so is your tournament situation different after every hand in every tournament. You think you’ve been there a million times before but the differences must be appreciated. Perhaps you are struggling to accumulate chips as a short stack on the bubble so you decide to take a chance, perhaps the payout structure is particularly flat so you decide taking a chance isn’t necessary, or perhaps the players on your table are opening an unusually wide range of hands meaning you could play a short stack profitably if you lost this coin flip.
The “one hand at a time” expression in its truest meaning is not applicable to tournament poker since the most accurate play mathematically in a hand in isolation can often be a sizeable mistake under tournament conditions. Tournament poker requires feel that has been lost on the modern player; train your brain to think situation-first and you’re already ahead of the curve.
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