Playing Your Stack Size

July 18, 2012 Change100 Poker psychology

Tournament conditions are constantly changing and successful players understand that their tactics need to change depending on their stack size. While accumulating chips should be at the front of every player’s mind in a tournament, the best method to go about it changes along with your chip count. In this article, we’ll take a look at strategies for playing short stacks and big stacks, and show you the best ways to exploit your opponents, whether you have ten big blinds or a hundred.

Playing a short stack

Whether you’ve gone card-dead for a long stretch or just lost a huge pot, everyone finds themselves short-stacked from time to time. The key to playing a short stack is to stay patient in a situation that might naturally lead you to panic or go on tilt. In no-limit hold’em, everything can turn around on a dime, so even if you’re down to ten big blinds or even less, don’t give up hope. I’ve seen players crippled to half a small blind that have gone on to win the tournament. You know the old adage—all you need is a chip and a chair. “Treetop” Jack Straus coined that phrase when he was down to a single ante and went on to win the 1982 WSOP Main Event.

With a stack of ten big blinds or less, you’re looking to find the best possible spot to move all-in pre-flop, hoping to either (a) take down the pot right there or (b) get called and double up. Ideally, you’ll want to make that all-in move when you’re the one opening the pot. However, with a super-strong hand like aces, kings, queens, jacks, or ace-king, it’s a no-brainer to reraise all-in behind an opening raiser. With other playable hands like medium pocket pairs, ace-queen, ace-jack and king-queen, think carefully about the opponent who made the raise. Has he been playing tight or loose? Did she raise from early position or late position? How big is his stack? Is he sitting comfortably with fifty big blinds or is he approaching the danger zone himself? For example, say a medium stack opens for a standard pre-flop raise from early position and you look down at [Ac][Tc] in the cutoff. If that player hasn’t played a pot for twenty minutes, you’re probably better off folding and waiting for a better spot. If he’s been raising a wide range of hands and playing a lot of pots, your shove might give him pause and lead him to fold. Consider your own image as well. Did you just get caught bluffing in a huge pot or have people seen you show down good hands?

Things change dramatically when you’re short stacked and the action is folded to you in late position. From the cutoff or the button, you can shove a much wider range of hands since you need to fold out fewer opponents. Any pair, any Broadway cards, any suited connectors above 7-8, any ace and most king-high hands are worthy of a late position shove for ten big blinds or less. If you happen to have a strong hand, well great! Shove that A-Q and hope someone calls you with a worse hand. Perceptive players in the blinds will notice how little you have left and call you down with a lighter range—small pocket pairs, suited connectors, even big unsuited gappers like K-9.

Although the situation may seem grim when you are short-stacked, relax, take a breath and focus on finding the best spot to double up. Don’t just shove any two good-looking cards without carefully considering the situation. As long as you still have chips, you still have a chance to win.

Playing a big stack

Wielding a big stack can be some of the most fun you will ever have in a tournament. Free of the constant worry that the next hand you play could be your last, there is a ton of room for you to open up your range and put pressure on your smaller-stacked opponents. A common mistake many players make is to tighten up once they’ve acquired a large stack. They are afraid of losing those hard-earned chips and think more about how to preserve their stack rather than grow it further. Instead of tightening up, big-stacked players should be stealing the blinds and re-stealing from late position raisers even more.

Aside from weak/tight players that will fold to a three-bet a high percentage of the time, the best targets for re-steals will be the middle-stacked players at your table. While the short stacks will be more desperate to move all-in and double up, the middle stacks are more likely to fold to aggression from a big stack. Getting involved with a fellow big stack, especially one who has you covered, can be a dangerous proposition—these players can potentially bust you, even though you’re in a strong chip position. Don’t go to war with a big stack without a strong hand, and be prepared to commit a lot of chips to the pot.

Playing a big stack also gives you more freedom to re-steal from late position raisers. Most players (as they should) widen their opening range the closer they get to the button. Therefore, if a late position player opens and you pick up a hand like [As][Tc] in the small blind, a three-bet might be in order. There’s a very strong chance your reraise will fold out hands like [Ks][Td], [Qh][9h] or [4h][4d]. Consider your opponent, however, when planning a re-steal. While this move works well against average stacks and tight players, it can easily backfire against a short stack (who could shove over your three-bet) or a very aggressive big stack (who could put you to the test with a four-bet).

A big stack also allows you to open up your calling range a bit more. This is not an invitation to get involved with junk hands out of position in hope of hitting a miracle flop, but should you face a raise and find yourself with a hand like [7c][8c] on the button, calling to see a flop is a perfectly fine option. Not only will you have position after the flop and could take a stab at the pot if your opponent checks, but a suited connector like [7c][8c] has the potential to hit some juicy draws on the flop that could end up yielding you a huge pot against a hand like top pair or an overpair.

So, if you’ve amassed a big stack, use it! Leverage your position and keep the pressure on. You just might have a shot at the final table.


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