Poker Specialists

One-Dimensional Players

Poker Tournament Specialists“It’s the job that’s never started [that] takes longest to finish.” -- J.R.R Tolkien

A failing of some successful poker players is an inability to recognize that they are truly great at one thing but truly ordinary (or even bad) at others. I say "successful" players because it is possible to make a lot of money in poker doing one specialty while being mediocre or worse at the majority of things.

Tournament poker and ring game poker are different animals. Marginal mistakes are far more deadly in tournaments than live games. Every decision in a tournament is more critical than in a live game. Tournaments have a strictly limited bankroll. In live games you do not have that restriction, or at least you are far less restricted. In live games large-ish fluctuations don't much matter if you do play within your bankroll. Edges of 51/49 should be exploited repeatedly in live games, but given the death sentence of going broke in a tournament, trivial edges like that should be avoided as best you can, unless...

There are a handful of tournament players who excel when they have a big stack (and only then). If a player is mediocre or worse with an average stack, but Superman when holding a large stack, it makes sense for that person to play in such a way as to often bust out early but occasionally build a big, dominating stack. More sensibly that person should learn to be a better all-around player, but absent doing that, if occasionally accumulating a big stack is the most profitable way for this person to play, then it can be correct to make what on the surface appear to be “bad” plays in a quest to win big pots.

A small group of winning tournament players falls into this category, and since this strategy has no parallel in the ring game world, this group of players tends to suck in ring games. But that does not mean that how they win in tournaments is some fluke or weirdness. Wielding a big tournament stack against a field of smaller stacks in a way far superior way to the mass of players is a powerful skill. These players are of limited ability, but their limited ability has a place where it can be applied -- and they then (sometimes even accidentally) play in early rounds in a way (shoot for big pots even if somewhat of an underdog) so that they can apply their limited/Superman ability as best as possible.

The most complete players are ones who deliver peak performance regardless of the game or the venue, but “incomplete” players can still be greatly successful. Some ring game players who have excellent patience don't adapt well at all to the limited asset universe in a tournament, because in ring games you simply wait for good situations, no matter how long that takes. In tournaments you sometimes need to make appropriate desperation plays (like maybe playing a 40/60 dog) because you will simply run out of chips if you wait too long.

On the other hand, some hotheads are temperamentally suited for tournaments only because not only can't they tilt (for long); they also have the artificial inhibitor of seeing their puny stack of chips that they can't replenish. In ring games these tilters can just dig for more money. But almost any tilt-prone person can exert some self-control when confronted with the key money situations in tournaments. These situations are plainly obvious. In a ring game, all hands (and stupid actions) are created equal. In tournaments, even the most tilt-prone looney can manage reasonable self-control when down to the final four or three players in an event. They control their looniness because it is plainly obvious they need to. In ring games that plainly obvious need for self-control is virtually non-existent.

Two skills valuable in limit tournaments that have zero application in limit ring games are "playing from a big stack" and "moving your chips". These skills could be the cornerstone of a player’s tournament success, but if that player tries to rely on these inappropriate, unimportant skills in ring games, he is likely to do poorly.

A poker player’s true ability depends an awful lot on the specific circumstances. We all need to challenge ourselves to play our best in whatever situations we are in. What works great in some situations is no use at all in others, even if the task at hand is a somewhat similar one. A chainsaw is a great tool for trimming hedges, but no darn good at all for trimming sideburns.

More on ring games versus tournaments and playing hands differently