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(Stack) Size Matters

When playing poker, it’s easy to forget that the size of your stack is often just as important as the quality of your cards. Fortunately, Gambling’s Duncan Wilkie is on hand to refresh your memories

There is perhaps no poker mistake that is more prevalent within the amateur scene than players failing to understand the significance of stack sizes and how they ultimately dictate the ways in which we can profitably play a given hand. Time and time again we see players who have hardly two chips left to rub together limping into pots only to fold to a raise when they are – by all reasonable definitions – totally committed to the hand by the percentage of their stack that they have already carelessly invested.

In this month’s article we’ll take a detailed look at how the size of your stack controls the range of options that are available to you and how a proper understanding of these limitations can keep you out of hot water at the tables. We will consider the implications of committing a significant portion of your chips to a pot and how to play accordingly as well as looking at how to avoid becoming tangled up in the marginal situations that arise as a result of over-committing yourself when you don’t have enough chips to fold. First up, let’s have a look at how a healthy stack leaves the full range of options open.

Example 1: Comfortable Stack (50-30bb)

With a stack of 50-30 big blinds (bb) in a no-limit Hold’em tournament, you are afforded the luxury of being able to limp, raise or re-raise without leaving yourself committed to a pot and, as such, you have a lot more room for manoeuvre. This in turn means that you can experiment with techniques that would not be advisable with a smaller stack such as re-raising without much of a hand pre-flop or check-raise bluffing on the flop. The key here is that you have enough chips to fall back on should your move backfire, so you can comfortably fold knowing that you will be under no immediate pressure to rebuild your stack.

As a result, you can afford to open pots frequently for 2.5x or 3x bb pre-flop with non-premium holdings in attempt to steal the blinds and antes, only backing down when someone eventually stands up to you with a re-raise. What you should be mindful of when employing such an approach, however, is the smaller stacks at the table, who will be waiting to capitalise on your aggression by moving all-in over the top of your raises whenever they pick up a decent hand. The problem with this is that after raising 3x bb, if a short stack moves all-in for 8 bb you may find yourself in a position where you are obliged to call due to the lucrative pot odds.

In this scenario, you would have to put in 5 bb to win 12.5 bb (your initial 3, plus their 8, plus the big and small blinds) meaning that you would be getting pot odds of 2.5 to 1 on your call. Here it would still be profitable to continue with a lot of hands that your opponent has beat, meaning that you’ve needlessly priced yourself in to calling their re-raise with what is likely to be an inferior holding. This is a sure-fire way to burn through your chips when you have a big stack, so be sure to always think one step ahead and be clear on what you’re trying to achieve with your opening raise.

Example 2: Medium Stack (30-10bb)

One step down the ladder is the medium stack of 30-10 big blinds. Here things become a little more precarious as it only takes a couple of ill-timed plays to drag you down into the murky waters of the short stack. While you can still afford to open pots without committing yourself, if you’re continually raising for 2.5x or 3x bb only to fold to a re-raise, you will soon bleed off enough chips to put yourself under pressure. Even more worryingly, your stack is only really big enough to execute one or two unsuccessful ‘big’ plays (such as re-raising or check-raising) before you are right down in the mire and in serious need of a double up.

Let’s look at the maths. If a bigger-stacked opponent enters the pot for 3x bb in late position and you re-raise to a total of 9 bb with pocket sixes in the big blind, you will be left facing a nasty decision if they decide to move all-in. If you started the pot with 30 bb, you will have now put in almost a third of your stack only to be put to a decision for your remaining 21 bb. Of course, you will be hard pushed to call knowing that there is a high probability that you are dominated by a bigger pair, but folding has also just cost you 30 percent of your stack. Furthermore, if your opponent simply calls your re-raise you will essentially be contesting a pot of 18 bb with a stack of 21 bb, meaning any significant bet on your part post-flop will leave you committed to the hand anyway – can you really fold sixes on a K-5-3 flop under these circumstances?

As you can see, the medium stack is not one that plays particularly well post-flop and should you reach this stage of play, you will more often than not be aiming to get it all-in after the first three cards. Its main strength derives from the fact that you still have enough ammo to make a similarly-stacked player fold after they have raised, and this stack-type lends itself particularly well to re-raising all-in pre-flop to steal an opponent’s opening bet plus the blinds and antes.

Example 3: Short Stack (10bb or less)

The short stack is arguably the easiest of the three chip amounts to play, but it is certainly the one that is most misunderstood by inexperienced players. With 10 bb or less, the key thing is not to delude yourself into thinking that you have any play left because you don’t. The reality is that you have just one weapon remaining in your arsenal, but fortunately for you it is a potent one – the pre-flop all-in. However, knowing that and putting it into practice are two different things entirely and beginners frequently come unstuck as a result of misinterpreting how much clout their move actually has under various circumstances.

The important thing to remember is that it is better to be the first person into the pot with a weaker hand than to call for all of your chips with a stronger one. This is because moving all-in gives you two ways to win the pot – everyone can fold allowing you to pick up the blinds and antes (which at this stage will represent 10-20 percent of your stack) or you can be called and may successfully double-up. Calling, on the other hand, only gives you one way to win as there is already a player certain to be in the pot. If you call a raise for all of your chips with K-J, you may have the best hand or you many not, but either way you’ll need it to hold up or improve to win. As such, it is often better to move all-in yourself with a weaker hand like 10-9 and try and get your opponents to fold than it is to take on a raiser with a better one.

This does not, however, mean that you should be open-shoving from early position with rubbish just because you’re first to enter the pot. The more players that there are to act behind you, the less likely your raise is to successfully get through and, as such, folding a hand like A-7 under the gun only to move in three hands later with a random 8-6 after it has folded round is actually the correct way to play. It is important not to panic as you can afford to let the blinds go through you once while waiting for a good spot to move all-in, but do bear in mind that the more you allow your stack to dwindle, the less likely your shove is to successfully force opponents out of the pot.
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