Value judgement

How stack size is intrinsically linked to any decision you make

Blinding off is never a good strategy as the more you blind off, the worse your mathematical and psychological situations

As with all variants of the game, pot-limit Omaha tournaments play very differently than pot-limit Omaha cash games. There are two main reasons for this, one mathematical and one psychological.

For most people, the psychological differences are transparent. Players are playing for their tournament life most hands and this creates huge differences in the way that they will react to your bets. The mathematical differences, on the other hand, are often overlooked and not well understood by most players, but these facts also change the way you play. And the beauty of the mathematical and psychological differences is that they both converge to the same answer on the variations that are demanded of your play from live games to tournament games.

In tournament play, every player is playing for the same prize pool. There are a certain number of chips in play and everyone has a different percentage of those chips, but all players are playing for the same prize regardless of how many chips they have at a given time. What this means is that each individual chip in a player’s stack is valued differently than an individual chip in another player’s stack.

Equitable rights

Here’s how this works: let’s say, for example, that you have 100,000 in chips and your opponent is short stacked with 10,000 in chips. In a cash game, each 1,000 chip is obviously worth 1,000 no matter whose stack it is in. Both of you can walk up to the cage and receive 1,000 for each chip. But this is not the case in a tournament. Both of you are playing for the prize. Let’s say the total prize pool is $1 million. Your opponent’s ten chips are playing for the same prize pool that your 100 chips are playing for. What does this mean? Each chip in his stack is worth ten times more than each chip in your stack. That’s what players mean when they say there is extra equity in the short stack. Obviously, you have the best chance of winning, but he has chips that are valued individually higher.

So what does this do to each player’s strategy? Well, if your individual chips are valued lower, then you can play faster and looser with your chips. If they are valued higher, then you need to be more careful with your chips. Why? Because the price you are getting from the pot is not the same for both players. The pot is always laying the over-valued chips a higher price than the highervalued chips.

There are a couple of aphorisms in poker that apply here. One is that the big stack is supposed to play faster and can afford to take more flops and draws. Notice that the maths here tells you that; it gives you an underlying reason for that strategy. If your chips are each valued lower, then you’re getting a better price than your opponents from the pot every time you play, so draws go up in value a little for you and opening the pot is a better play mathematically because you’re laying a smaller price on the open than your opponents.

The value of drawing hands

In PLO, this means that you can play a wider variety of hands when you’re opening the pot and you can take more looks at draws when you flop them. Drawing hands go up in value when you are big stacked in tournaments. On the reverse side, drawing hands go down in value when you are short-stacked because the pot is offering you a worse price when your chips are valued individually higher.

Here is the second aphorism: don’t get knocked out of a tournament on a weak draw. Well, if you are in danger of getting knocked out, then you must be short stacked and that makes it much harder to get a good price on those draws. This means that you need to be playing hands that are more likely to be favoured in order to be getting the right price. Those 5-high wrap hands? Out the window. Flush hands with nothing backing them up? Those should go too. You’re not a favourite to win with those hands and you are getting a bad price from the pot when you’re short stacked with them.

The maths of chip value in tournaments is obfuscating to most opponents you’ll come up against. If you can grasp a deep understanding of what happens to chip value when you are playing for a finite prize, then you’ll have a huge edge on your opponents. Notice that the maths belies the commonly propagated strategies of playing loose with a big stack and tighter with a short stack. Thus the big stack bully.

Selling yourself short

As with many strategies in poker, it’s not just the maths that gives you the right answer about how to play bigstack poker versus small-stack poker. It’s also the psychology. In a tournament, everyone is playing for the chips in front of them (assuming there are no rebuys or that we’re after the rebuy period). This means that it’s easier to pressure your opponents in tournaments, especially when your stack is big enough to put them at risk of getting knocked out.

So when you’re big stacked, you should be playing more pressure poker, playing your good draws faster, taking into account the fact that you can protect your made hands more easily and really pressuring your opponents with those. If you flop a set, it’s going to be much harder for your opponents to call you with a baby wrap-draw or a dry flush-draw when they know their tournament life is at stake. On the flip side, when you have a huge hand, you want to lighten up on the pot because you know your opponents are going to be much more likely to fold to you. So you should play your big, big hands a little slower.

When you’re short stacked, the reverse happens. You’re not at all scary to your opponents since they are at no risk of getting knocked out by you. Because of this, opponents will be, in some sense, gunning for you. They want to pick up the equity of knocking you out, plus your chips can’t knock them out. Hand protection becomes much more difficult in this situation, so you have to be a little choosier in what you play – you lose your bluffing ability to a large extent because you can apply no psychological pressure to your opponents. Notice that in both cases, large or short stack, the maths of the equation and psychology of the situation both give you the same answer. When multiple factors converge on the same answer you know you are on the right track.

The key here is to do everything in your power to avoid ever getting short stacked. It’s important always in tournament poker to get your money in at a time when your chips are still scary to your opponents. Blinding off is never a good strategy as the more you blind off, the worse your mathematical and psychological situations become. Get your chips in play when the psychology and maths are working in your favour, not against you.

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