Size matters

In just one hand in any given tournament, the balance of power at a table can change markedly

Of the many things consider before entering a pot, stack sizes are one of the most important. The obvious one is your own stack and how many chips you have in absolute terms, and what the relationship is between your stack and the current blind level.

Assuming you have a comfortable stack and are under no pressure from the blinds and antes, you need then to consider your stack in relation to those of the people still to act behind you in the hand.

Common thinking suggests a stack size hierarchy where you should avoid confrontations with the big stacks as they are the only ones at the table who can bust you. Instead you should target the medium stacks as they won’t want to risk becoming a short stack; and isolate the short stacks who are trying to survive and will hang on until they can find a hand.


BIG STACK:Common perception is that you should avoid confrontation with stacks much larger than your own for fear of going broke. The logic behind this is sound. If we only have one life in any given tournament, surely we are better to play most pots against those players who we have covered?

When we make large bluffs, surely we are better to target those people looking to conserve chips rather than those with enough chips to ‘keep us honest’? Whilst I would agree with the logic that we are better making these moves against shorter stacks, it is not the same as saying we should ‘avoid’ playing pots with big stacks.

Poker is largely a game of position. What if on our current table the only short stacks are to our immediate right, and those players to our left all have large stacks?

This means that the only time we can target the blinds of the shorter stacks is when we’re under the gun, and when we are looking to raise from late position we are attacking the larger stacks. Are we going to shut up shop and wait for the table to break?

I’m certainly not. Playing pots with big stacks has its own set of dynamics. The big stack knows they can knock you out. You can use this psychology and the common perception of ‘trying to avoid the large stacks’ to your advantage. Michael Mizrachi said in a recent interview: ‘A lot of books say don’t play against the big stacks. I do, so in their head, they’re thinking, “I can’t believe he’s playing against me”, so sometimes they’re going to fold and play a little cautiously.’

As long as your table image is right, and you’re not looking to play every pot against them, you should be able to successfully play and win pots without too many problems. You can make plays against them (ideally not risking your whole stack) and a lot of the time they will assume you must have the hand you are representing for fear of facing elimination against them.

If you show a willingness to play pots with them, this will help you stay out of their way when they are looking for likely victims to target.

MEDIUM STACK: Your ideal opponent is one with a medium stack. By medium stack I am referring to someone with around average chips (preferably slightly below), who is under no immediate threat from the level of the blinds. A medium stack is the most difficult to play in tournament poker because you are attempting to become a big stack whilst at the same time desperately trying to avoid becoming a short stack.

Therefore, it is often the case that a medium stacked player will be less inclined to gamble – or play back at you with a marginal hand – than a larger stack with enough chips to gamble with, or a shorter stack looking to make a final stand.

It stands to reason that you should be looking for opportunities to put pressure on these medium stacks, be it by raising more often when these players are in the blinds, or when the majority of people left to act behind you in a hand fit this criteria. If you are called pre-flop by a medium stacked opponent, it should be easier for you to put them on a tight range of hands.

You should be able to make a decent sized bet into them on the flop in the knowledge that most of the time they will not want to give you action, and you will be able to pick up the pot. If you do get action and you haven’t connected with the flop, it is an easy pass as it’s highly likely that they have you beat.

SHORT STACK: If you were to ask many new players which opponents they should target, it is likely they would say the short stacks. Whilst it is true that larger stacks can afford to apply pressure to the shorter stacked players, this must be done with slightly more caution than when playing against the medium stacks. As a short stack, you have two thoughts at the front of your mind.

Firstly, you are aware that you do not have enough chips to be playing marginal hands. You cannot afford to call and see flops, and neither can you attempt elaborate bluffs against people because the threat you pose to their stack is marginal.

However, the second thought is the need to make a stand to try to double up. It is for this reason that you need to consider your starting hand requirements carefully before targeting a short stack. This adjustment will be more or less dependent on the amount of chips the short stack has and the relationship of this amount to your own stack.

In general terms, if a short-stacked player is on the blinds or there are a couple of short-stacked players to act behind you (especially if you are raising from late position) the more ‘creative hands’ that you may raise with, such as small suited connectors, are best not to be played. In the likely event that one of the short stacks makes a stand against you, you are likely to be behind.

With this said, providing that you have a large stack and the amount they have is not going to damage you (as you are likely pot committed if they move all-in) you should still be applying the pressure on them with all above average hands. The times that you are forced to call their all-in – and you’re behind – are made-up for by all the times that they do not find a hand and you win the pot uncontested. On top of this, when you do go to showdown with them you are allowed to suck out occasionally!


So, does the importance of stack sizes remain constant throughout the tournament? Well, if the ultimate goal in a tournament is to acquire all of the chips in play, that answer has to be no. The importance of stack sizes therefore must increase as play goes on and we should keep this in mind as we progress through the tournament.

At the start of a major tournament, players often start with 10,000 chips and the blinds begin at 25/50. At this stage it is often suggested that stack sizes are irrelevant. This does have an element of truth, but I don’t think it is quite correct. Whilst I would concur that stack sizes are least important at the start of the tournament, this is not because they are irrelevant, but because the stack sizes are less defined.

The presence of large and short stacks are not felt so much because of the relationship between the stack sizes and the blinds. If someone loses half of their starting stack early on, they may be considered a short stack at that table. But whilst this may be true in relation to the average chips and opponent’s stacks, the pressure that a short stack is usually faced with from the blinds is not so apparent.

This ‘short stack’ still has 100 times the big blind and so play will not necessarily follow the expected pattern of a short stack as it would later on in the tournament.

Of more importance than the stack is the person sitting behind it. A tight player with a big stack can be a great source of chips as they are usually content to sit back and allow their newly accumulated stack to carry them through to the latter stages of the tournament.

Likewise, a good, aggressive player with a short- medium stack is not going to be easily pushed around and is probably better avoided with marginal hands as he will play back with a much wider range of hands. He is more focused on growing his stack. Combine your knowledge of the dynamics of chips stacks with your profiling of the players at the table and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a big stack yourself.

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