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How to Play

Poker chips stack: tips to manage your stack

Here, we discuss how stack size affects your play, including:

Why stack size is important

In poker tournaments, your stack – the number of chips you have – is a crucial part of your play. It tells your opponents whether you’re strong or vulnerable and defines what sort of risks you can take – and when.

A big stack puts you in control. People will tend not to take you on with cheeky bluffs or raises as it could be too big a risk. Even other big-stacked players will avoid you in the early rounds, preferring to pick off the smaller, easier targets first. But because you have more to lose, you need to be careful how you play.

A smaller stack makes life simple. You’ll play more aggressively before or on the flop if you know you can’t afford to see all the community cards. In fact, a quick all-in, or ‘push and pray’, is sometimes your only chance against larger-stacked opponents playing a longer game.

Deep-stack and short-stack games

As well as your personal stack, there’s also the type of game to consider.

In restricted buy-in games, players can only bring a certain number of chips to the table. So you’ll see a lot more short-stack play, like players going all-in straight off, even if their cards aren’t all that great.

This doesn’t happen so much in deep-stacked games. Here, you want to wait for a strong hand, then trap other players over several rounds of betting rather than jam everything in upfront and risk your whole stack.

How much should you buy in for?

So, when you buy in to a tournament, how much should you spend? Clearly, the more chips you have, the bigger your betting (and winning) potential. On the other hand, in a no-limit game, you could lose them all.

You need to look at the big picture. How big is your bankroll? How much can you afford to risk in one go? How good are you compared to everyone else here? How many chips do they have?

If in doubt, the restricted buy-in option is a good place to start. That way, you get the buzz of no-limit betting, without going up against super-stacked players who can steal your entire bankroll at the turn of a card.

How to play with a short-stack

If you’ve got a short stack of chips then unfortunately it’s our job to inform you that you’re the hunted, not the hunter. The hunters in question are those with large stacks who will see you as an easy elimination target because there’s less between you and a knockout from the tournament than there is for them. Luckily, we’re here to teach you how to turn that around completely and turn your modest pile of chips into something a tad more formidable.

The people with the most chips know that ultimately their main obstacles to the big stack will be anyone else with a big stack – first at their table, and then in the tournament as a whole. Often, though, the big stacks will try and delay confrontation with each other. Instead, they gang up on the smaller stacked players to try and eliminate them and move themselves closer to a guaranteed money finish.

The best way to play the small stack often depends on just how small you are. If you are really small and cannot survive more than one more round of blinds then, when you get a passable hand, you have to go all-in, whatever position you’re playing. If you find yourself in the big blind and the compulsory posting is half your stack, then you are locked into playing at that point, and have little alternative but to go all-in. You will not survive another round of blinds and even if you do double up, you will only be in the same position again one round later.

It is true tournaments are about survival, but there is no point being blinded away.

Whatever two cards you have are unlikely to be that much of an underdog against any other two cards. Under different circumstances you may have mucked the hand but here you go all-in, just remember that 8-5 off-suit is less than a 2/1 underdog against A-K.

Short but not that short

If your stack is short but not so short that you're hanging on for dear life, you're in a relatively safe place as there's no imminent threat of being knocked out. However, you do need to consider a variety of situations in which you're still more vulnerable than those with big stacks. For example, by being one of the first players at the table to act (also known as being in an early position), you will have to be more careful as the way you play will give those following you time to predict your cards and anticipate you in a way that gives them an advantage.

However, there are ways to work around this. Firstly, don't raise unless you're fairly confident in your hand. If you're holding strong hands such as A-K or Q-Q, you're in a far safer position as the chances of your raise risking your small stack are significantly smaller. However, it's also worth waiting for the flop before you commit, as you're still lacking the safety net a big-stack player has.

If you're sat in mid-position with only one big stack at your table, you may want to raise with any ace or jack kicker – any card that may not determine your hand's rank, but may tip the balance if there's a tie with another player. Late-position players with small stacks have the largest advantage, as not only is it going to cost you less to raise the pot, you'll also get a better idea of what approach other players are taking before making your move.

If you've got a small stack and you're thinking of stealing the blind, you need to be very careful. If you're going against a big stack, there's a far higher chance of you being challenged and seeing your chip pile dwindle as a result, whereas small stacked players aren't worth stealing from given they're unlikely to pass up on the same opportunities you see before you. However, medium-stack players are ideal targets, as you'll find that they will back off their blinds if a small-stack player raises given the inherent risk in them making such a confident play with so little standing between them and being knocked out – especially as medium-stack players can't afford to challenge them as they don't have a big-stack insurance policy.

Some players may try to hang in there for as long as possible, but this is only the best strategy if you are near (or in) the tournament prize money and there are other short-stacked players. Being short stacked not only makes you a target for others, it bars you from many important aspects of a successful game such as seeing flops, playing drawing hands and picking up the blinds. It is vital to get out of the position as soon as possible, so work that table, steal the blinds you can get away with, and build that stack.

How to play with a medium-stack

Having a medium stack in tournaments is always an uncomfortable situation.

It's uncomfortable because you'll often be put in tough spots and need to make decisions over whether to hold back and conserve chips or try and build your middling chip stack into a big one.

First, let's define what a medium stack is.

Your view of this is going to vary hugely depending on the amount of chips in the tournaments you usually play. In terms of the number of big blinds, you usually stop being short-stacked when you have more than 12 big blinds. For the purposes of this article we'll focus on roughly 12 to 14 big blinds up to about 25 big blinds.

At 25 big blinds you'll have a lot of chips in most lower stakes tournaments. But it could be argued that you're still quite short-stacked in a bigger buy-in tournament where there are most likely some mammoth stacks around you and your manoeuvrability is restricted; however, for the purpose of this article, let's keep it within the 12-25 big blinds range.

Let's play

The tournament's structure will have a big effect on how you play your medium stack.

In faster structures, there's more pressure on you - and your chips will soon reach emergency levels. This should make you more inclined to take on 50/50-type situations (eg, playing for all your chips with hands like A-Q or 8-8 against an underpair or overcards).

In slower structures, medium stacks have more room to breathe. You might be able to chip away at your opponents' stacks, but you can still get away from hands - as you will have longer before the blind pressure becomes intolerable.

The mistake many players make when they have a medium stack is feeling too comfortable.

If you have chips towards the top of the middle stack range (say, 20-25 big blinds) it's still easy for all your chips to end up in the middle in one hand. Almost any re-raised pot pre-flop will be all-in by the flop. 

It could be argued that having between 12 and 16 big blinds is the hardest situation to be in.

This is because you're not under immediate threat from the blinds (or may not feel so) but if you do enter a pot you can very quickly become committed to it. This can lead to difficult spots with semi-strong hands and if you're called when attempting to steal the blinds.

Players often make the mistake of folding when it's correct for them to call.

  • For instance, let's say the blinds are 100/200 and you have 2,400 in chips (12 big blinds)
  • If you raise to 600 and the big blind calls there is now 1,300 in the pot and you have 1,800 left. It's now not possible to make a bet that doesn't commit you to the pot
  • You'll either have to get all your chips in or fold. You cannot bet and then fold to a raise as the odds you'll be getting to call are too great

The solution to this situation is to steal less and to re-steal and re-raise more. Any time you open a pot with a standard raise you should know what you'll do if you're re-raised. Although this is true at all times in No-Limit Hold'em, it's particularly important as a medium stack when you can be pot-committed so easily.

If you're going to make a standard raise as a blind steal with a medium stack (especially at the lower end of the range) you should choose your spots very carefully. If you get action from a tight player you'll very often have to shut down after the flop.

Applying pressure

Re-raising and re-stealing are very important weapons to have when possessing a medium stack.

Both moves can be used to put a lot of pressure on your opponents and maximise your ways to win, by either forcing your opponents to fold or by having the best hand at showdown if called. As a medium stack you restrict your opponents' options when you re-steal - they can only call or fold.

Re-raising pre-flop is generally a better option than calling in No-Limit Hold'em, and with a medium stack it's almost always the better option. This is due to a combination of it being better to commit your chips as the aggressor, particularly in a situation where you may well end up committed later in the hand, but crucially because you're putting pressure on your opponents to fold. Other medium stacks will often fold too much in tournaments giving your re-raises great equity.

Re-stealing is valuable for the same reasons and if you pick the correct spot it greatly increases your equity in the tournament - as you're winning more chips than your fair share.

With more and more players opening pots with marginal hands to steal the blinds it's vital you have it in your armoury. When looking to re-steal from an opening raiser you need to consider the range of hands he will bet with and the range of hands he'll call a re-raise with. Obviously the more likely the raiser is to be stealing the more often you should re-steal. You can do this with a very high frequency if the player doesn't call re-raises often enough (most players you'll encounter).

So, for example, you're in the big blind with blinds of 100/200 and you have 3,000 chips. An aggressive player with 4,000 chips raises to 600 from the button. You should be looking to move in here reasonably often. If he's a typical player he'll be opening with a huge number of hands that can't call your all-in. If they fold you pick up 900 chips, increasing your stack by 30 percent. If you're called and double-through you're well on your way to becoming a big stack again. Any time you find a hand with some value (especially hands that play well against an opener's calling range, eg, suited connectors) you have an opportunity to push your medium stack.

Battling the shorties

The final note to leave you with is about playing against short stacks when you have a medium stack. When raising a short stack you have to think about what kind of player they are. If they have the kind of stack that's likely to make a stand you should tighten up your opening and stealing standards.

On the other hand many players don't call enough when a short stack moves in. This is because you've correctly been taught to be the aggressor in pots. However, if the short stack is moving in with a substandard hand this can be a great opportunity to get some chips in positive equity situations. Just remember to consider which stacks are left to act after you.

Medium stacks can be difficult to play and greater experience at spotting the right situations to commit chips is the key to improving your play of them. Just remember to always be an active player and look for opportunities to put pressure on your opponents.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

It's no fun when you're stuck in the wrong place...

Being sandwiched between a big stack and a short stack is a typical situation for a medium stack and can often force you to make tournament-defining decisions. Imagine you have an aggressive chip leader to your left on the button and an aggressive short stack to your immediate right who keeps shoving all-in. You are in the cut-off when the short stack shoves all-in. How should you play the following hands from the cut-off?

  • Blinds: 100/200
  • Big stack: 19,000
  • You: 5,500
  • Short stack: 1,400

With K? Q?

Usually pass. Calling is dodgy as it invites a raise from the players behind or others may enter the pot giving you a tricky post-flop situation. Moving in is an option but the hand is not very strong, and if another player calls you're almost always behind and often dominated.

With 8? 8?

Move in or occasionally pass. Calling isn't an option because it invites others into the pot and the hand plays badly post-flop. Moving in is a good option, as you'll often isolate the all-in player who you are usually ahead of. However, there is the risk that the big stack could find a hand and put your tournament life in jeopardy too, so passing is also fine.

With A? A?

Move in or call - both options have their merits. Moving in is fine with any big hand in this spot. However, calling is also an option as the weak-looking call may induce a squeeze play from the big stack or another aggressive player in the blinds, putting you in a great position to double up.

Balancing act

Whatever stage you're at in a tournament make sure you've got a plan of how to build your tower.

Early stages

Vary your play according to the structure. If it's a slow structure, try and steal your way to a big stack. If the structure is fast, look to get your chips in even when you're marginally ahead - taking a 50/50 race if necessary, especially if you're getting better odds on the call. Build that stack for the big blinds to come.

Middle stages

This is where it's vital not to sit on your medium stack. Use it to make plays and take calculated risks to give yourself a shot at the big prizes. Don't sit on your stack or the blinds will turn your medium stack into a small one.

Late stages

Balance aggression with avoiding unnecessary confrontations. Keep the pressure on your tight opponents who are looking to move up in the money with re-raises and re-steals. Try to avoid playing hands that you're not willing to be completely committed to.

How to play with a big-stack

If you're fortunate enough to have a big stack, then learning how to make the most of it will help.

When you’re at the table with a considerable stack, the game will change around you. The rest of the table – especially in tournaments – become very intimidated, and are unlikely to raise into you or attempt to steal your blind. The reason for this is that you’ve got a huge insurance policy in the form of a big stack, and if they lose their smaller one, they’re out.

Something to remember when you’re starting off a hand as a big stack owner is how your position at the table will affect how you should make use of all your chips. If you’re in an early position – that is, one of the first to fold, bet and so on as the game goes around the table – then you need to have a genuinely good hand if you’re going to raise.

If you don’t, you’re risking your chips to the larger number of people behind you. It’s always easy to strategise when everyone else has made their plays – be careful when they haven’t. You’ll also need to sustain your stack to survive until the final table of the tournament, so careful play is essential, especially in the early stages.

It’s also worth thinking about what hands you should be betting with. For example, if you’ve got a pair of sixes or 7♣-8♣, these are solid medium hands, but if you’re playing it extremely safe, you’re going to want to hold out. The reason for this is that after a couple of hours at the table, the blinds required to participate will be so large that you’ll simply be whittling down your stack on hands that aren’t as likely to win as a pair of kings.

However, the further back you are in position, the greater your advantage becomes, as you can start stealing blinds – also known as waiting until the blinds have been paid, then raising immediately to attempt to force everyone to fold and award you a small pile of chips. Some players will fold whenever someone raises before the flop are dealt – take advantage of them and build that stack even higher.

Of course, if you’re given a great hand, it’s always worth betting as you traditionally would, but don’t be caught out with a medium-ranked pair of cards if you’re playing before the rest of the table. However, it’s when you’re at the back with the big stack that the advantage is truly yours.

The reason for this is that the rest of the table knows two things – that you’ve got a big stack of chips, and that you’ve got the best idea of what to do next. Bet aggressively, and keep on stealing blinds – don’t even worry about what cards you’ve got as the chances of someone going against you are far lower than they would be had you been in an earlier position at the table. If you do face off against someone who’s happy to take you on, use your late position to figure out how good their hand is, and play accordingly.

You also need to play smart, as many players will see your big stack as a target painted on your forehead. If you keep stealing the blind and raising aggressively, eventually other players will realise and begin to take advantage of your considerable wealth by playing back at you. While it’s easy to take blinds in a late position at the table, don’t be too cheeky – know when you’re being obvious.

It’s also worth considering that when you’re playing in a tournament, you’ve got the time at a table to develop a reputation with those you play with. Playing smart throughout while maintaining a large stack is an intimidating image to carry across to other players. You have what they don’t – a hefty amount of chips between you and the point you’re knocked out. Make it clear you’ve built it up through skill, rather than playing in an aggressive manner.