I've heard the term "tournament life" used one too many times, and it's time to put an end to it once and for all. Why? Because it doesn't actually mean anything. Take the following situation:
Blinds 100/200, 200 players left, 50 places pay
Player A: 10,000 chips
Player B: 1 chip
Both players still have their "tournament lives". One of those players has a 0.00001% chance to make anything of theirs. It's an extreme example, but I've seen enough nitty play based on the false ideal of tournament life to show that this thought process is doing harm. I was playing a small $16.50 MTT at UB, and it was around the bubble. Villain raises 1/5th his stack, I re-steal with 2 cards, he folds and shows me TT. I lol'd in the chat box. He didn't want to risk his precious "tournament life" with "just" a pair of tens.
A more useful term instead of tournament life is "tournament equity". It's how much you stand to win, on average, with the current stack you have. You can never really know your tournament equity exactly, but ICM is a good stepping stone for this [it's complicated and I'm not good enough with it to explain, but if you're curious, there's Google].
Like most things in poker, it's an estimation. Often, you know exactly what happens if you call a shove and lose: your tournament equity goes to 0 (like losing your "tournament life"). The difference is, you can use this concept to find out what you stand to gain; just take the stack you'd have if you won the pot and estimate your tournament equity then. Tournament play differs from cash play here, in that not every chip is worth the same amount (ICM again). Think about it: if you win all of the chips in the tournament, do you win the whole prize pool?
This also comes into play when you're deep into a tournament and the blinds are starting to get big. When your stack starts to dwindle, sometimes passing through another round of blinds will kill your tournament equity (by way of killing your folding equity), and you need to take action.
Thinking about your tournament life can put you in situations where you're either going to bubble or min-cash, and that's pretty much the easiest way to lose money playing tournaments. Thinking about what the play is going to do to your tournament equity can turn folds into profitable calls and marginal calls into better folds. In this game we call poker, it's all about the little things, added up over time.
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