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Head Games: How Tournament Strategy Is Determined by Your Opponent’s Stack Size and Your Own

With Blair Hinkle, Chris “Fox” Wallace, and Matt Salsberg

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Apr 16, 2014

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Craig Tapscott: One of the biggest differences between cash games and tournaments is the wide variety of stack sizes that you have to deal with. Short and mid-stacked play can be the difference between a bubble and a deep finish. Share how do you deal with different stack sizes in tournament play.

Blair Hinkle: It can be very tough navigating the table having to worry about short stacks mixed in between some medium and big stacks. Short and medium stack play is a little bit simpler as you will usually have an all-in decision before the river card is even dealt. So I’ll try to focus more on deeper stacked play, as that can get very complicated.

I know that the argument between online and live players has a lot to do with three-betting and four-betting versus keeping pots smaller and playing to your postflop edge. I like to mix in both strategies when I play, but I definitely prefer the latter. The reason being, when you are deep stacked enough to five-bet preflop, and then still see a flop, the pot is extremely inflated and mostly increases the variance for yourself and the opponent you are battling with. This does result in a big stack for yourself when you win these battles which is very useful, but when you lose you are stuck playing short stacked or out of the tournament early.  

On the other hand, you can avoid the higher variance situations and pick your battles more wisely when avoiding a preflop raising war. You also receive a lot more information because you can play a lot more pots without risking a large percentage of your stack. I get to see all of the streets that my opponent makes a decision, and this allows me to see what betting patterns they like to use when they are strong or weak, as well as if they give off any live tells. This type of information can be crucial when you have a marginal decision to make when approaching the money bubble and the stack sizes are no longer deep enough for you to avoid risking most of your stack on one hand.

Chris Wallace: I’ll talk about mid-stacked play as 20-30 big blinds is one of my favorite stacks. It leaves you with enough options, but doesn’t play like a deep stack where you have to worry about the size of the pot. With 20 big blinds, I can almost always plan out the hand to get what I want. 

If I’m flatting a raise, and the pot is heads-up, then there will be around six big blinds (BBs) in the pot when we see the flop. If I flop a draw, even if it’s just two overcards, and I think I have enough fold equity, I can check and then shove over a raise and put the pressure on. With forty BBs I couldn’t do that. I would be betting too much to win too little. 

Starting the hand with 20 BBs, let’s assume I have 17 BBs left after calling the preflop raise. Then there are six BBs in the pot, so when my opponent bets four BBs on the flop, I can shove for 13 more and I have a shot at stealing a pot with 10 BBs in it as well as the chance to win if I’m called. If my stack size was a little bigger, like 30 BBs, I might want to lead at this pot to give myself better options. 

Matt Salsberg: Early on in a deep-stacked tourney, I tend to play pretty loose if I’m playing against players I’m confident that I can get a good postflop read on. I also want to establish myself as someone who can have any two cards in my hand and build a loose image. It keeps people guessing and they never give you credit when you do have it. The longer you’re in the tournament the harder it is to keep your stack above 60 BBs. I shift gears when I get below 40 BBs and play a little more straightforward.  

I’ll share my thoughts on short-stacked play. If it’s early in the tourney and I’m short stacked, I’ll get it in with a wider range because I want to have chips to play with to build a stack. If it’s very late in a tournament, there’s money jumps to consider, plus it’s not that hard to go from eight BBs to 75 in the late stages because the pots are so big.

When it is late in an event, I’m extremely selective when it comes to hand selection. It’s really difficult to do that early on in an event. I see a lot of players get in 20 BBs late in a tourney with really marginal holdings, which I think is a mistake in today’s environment when more people are calling wider and more correctly. I may overvalue my tourney life a little too much though.   

Craig Tapscott: What factors do you consider when you are planning out a hand based on stack size?

Blair Hinkle: You have to factor in whether a player is tight or loose, whether they like to have the lead or make a lot of calldowns, and most importantly if you are bluffing, how to be the first one to say all-in. 

In today’s game, the importance of “tournament life” has been downgraded quite a bit because of the amount of online players who are used to being able to fire up another tournament without any delay (myself included). Not being able to play online for the last three years has given me a new appreciation of the pressure you face when forced to call off the rest of your chips.

When playing an aggressive opponent, I factor in that we may both be bluffing, so I try to manipulate the betting according to their stack size. If the opportunity arises, I will announce all-in and this move works well in two ways. If they were bluffing, I have closed the action and they can’t call with a bad hand. If they had a marginal hand, I have just put them to an extremely tough decision for their tournament life. If they make a very tough call, I am not discouraged because I know that in the long run a big key to the game is putting your opponent to a tough decision, and there is no better way to do that than using their stack size against them. 

Chris Wallace: Like with any poker hand, you are considering your opponent and all the information that goes into putting them on a range and thinking about how they will react to different plays. In my answer above concerning 20 BBs, you may want to check/shove with a draw, or with a made hand on a draw-heavy board to force your opponent to get all-in. If you flop a monster, you may want to lead small to get called, and then check/shove the turn to trap your opponent in the pot. Whether you want to put the last chip in, whether you want fold equity, and how your opponent will react with different ranges are just a few of the things to consider. 

The most important thing to know at all times is your stack size and the stacks of your opponents. If you don’t know what the effective stack is, then you have to ask in the middle of a hand, which can give away a lot of information. It is so valuable that I’ve seen players ask to see an opponent’s stack when they already know, and I’ve also seen players hide their stack behind their hands to make people ask so that they know who is sharp enough to be considering their stack size. 

Preflop, you play different hands with different stack sizes because of the different options you will have. Most players do this naturally, but the great ones are also thinking about their plan for the hand, their opponents, and their position. If you are thinking about everything that might happen in the hand, and planning for all of the possibilities and how the hand will play out, then you have a set of powerful tools to start the hand. Everything gets easier if you are planning the hand out and thinking about all the ways that you can win the hand. 

Matt Salsberg: Pot control is important in good structured tourneys as compared to turbo events where you have to take a lot more spots. Every situation is unique. I don’t have too many rules of thumbs that I adhere to, but my experience has taught me some good lessons.

One that I will share is to be willing to go with certain hands versus certain players. A hand I played recently at the World Poker Tour’s Bay 101 event versus Antonio Esfandiari is a good example of having a plan based on stack size. I had 78 BBs in middle position. The player under the gun (UTG) plus two opened to 2,300 at 500-1000 blinds. I made it 6,100 in the hijack with AHeart Suit KHeart Suit. Antonio, who had me covered and had been actively three-betting me since I sat down, made it 11,500 from the cutoff. I typically don’t like to get in more than 50 BBs preflop with A-K, but in a situation like this, against an aggressive opponent where I’m out of position, I was ready to get in 80 BBs. The opener folded. I five-bet to 25,000 with the intention of inducing or calling off if he raised. I was surprised when he only flatted my five-bet. I ranged him on 9-9, J-J or A-J suited plus. Luckily, the flop came K-J-5 and I didn’t whiff out. I continuation bet very small and he mucked.  ♠

Blair Hinkle won the 2008 World Series of Poker NL event #23 for $507,613. In 2013 he won the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open for $1,745,000. Hinkle has more than $5,000,000 in combined live and online career tournament cashes.

Chris “Fox” Wallace is a professional poker player, a club pro at Running Aces in Columbus Minnesota, Golden Nugget Player of the Year 2013, and the author of No Limits: The Fundamentals of No-Limit Hold’em. He is currently a featured instructor at GrinderU.com and the ambassador for the Pocket Fives Poker Tour.

Matt Salsberg is a television writer and producer, which include the hit series Weeds and Entourage. In 2013 he won the World Poker Tour Player of the Year award. In 2012 he won the WPT Grand Prix de Paris main event. Salsberg grew up in Montreal and currently lives in Los Angeles.