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Ace Speaks Hold'em: No-Limit Versus Limit -- An In-Depth Analysis

Part XI: Play on the Later Streets; Strategies Based on Stack Size

by Rolf Slotboom |  Published: Dec 01, 2006


You should be able to make significant changes in your overall strategy based upon the size of your stack

While we already have established that good players should usually try to have the biggest stack at the table, in lots of no-limit hold'em games nowadays, you cannot buy in for as much as you want. Often, there is a cap on the buy-in. So, this means that even if you buy in for the maximum, most of the time you will not be able to cover everyone. If this is the case, there is something to be said for an interesting alternative: buying in for the minimum. This way, you can play multiple tables online, using a very simple system based mostly on two things: moving in with the best hand, and taking advantage of the fact that your opponents will not take your bets seriously, as your stack is so small in relation to others.

In fact, this is a strategy that I often recommend to people who come from a limit background. In general, limit players are not very comfortable with playing a big stack in no-limit, because this requires abilities that they have never acquired in limit. This strategy of playing a small stack and then moving in early with their good hands is actually a strategy that is not that far from the way they have always played in their limit games. Therefore, this is an excellent way for them to get used to the flow of no-limit play while still making money, because especially in the smaller and softer games, this strategy can be very profitable. Actually, this is exactly what I did when I first moved into big-bet play, and it paid off well for me – so I guess it might work for you, too. In fact, I still use this strategy quite often, especially when there are very experienced players in my game who have one exploitable weakness: playing their weak hands in a very loose-aggressive manner. By taking advantage of this fact, with a small stack and moving in early, I will make a lot of money off them – despite the fact that they may be world-class players and I may be just better than average.

Anyway, let's make a short list of these strategy changes, based on how much money you are playing. In general, things look like this:

Short-stack play (say, less than 25 times the big blind):

• Play for all of your money or don't play at all. (An exception may be calling from the button in a multiway pot.)

• Try to move in early in order to maximize your wins.

• Take advantage of the overaggression of some players by sitting to their immediate right. This way, you will get excellent opportunities to check-raise or limp-reraise them. You will usually be all in either before or on the flop with the best hand – which is a very profitable situation.

• You may get protection from the big stacks, making you an even bigger favorite than you already were. Being all in, you obviously welcome the fact that potential winning hands will be bet out of the pot. In the end, you could win three or even four times the amount of money that you have put in, and you may have to beat just one player to do it.

Medium-stack play (say, about 40-50 times the big blind):

• You can now play a few more speculative hands, like small pairs and suited connectors, especially in position.

• Focus a bit more on post-flop play, rather than the simple "move-in" approach of your short-stack play.

• You will usually want to come in with a call or a minimum raise, but not with a big raise, including with A-K. You don't want to invest 10 percent to 20 percent of your stack before the flop, making clear to your opponents the type of hand you probably hold. With a hand like A-K, you want to play for either a very small percentage of your stack or a very large one – say, more than 40 percent of your stack. This way, you know you are committed and the rest of the money will go in anyway – regardless of the flop. By the way, in online games, you can often make the strange play of making a big overbet with your A-K after a couple of limpers. In these games, even your huge raises often get called by hands like ace-rag, so this can be a rather unorthodox but very profitable play. Just make sure that this big raise accounts for a significant enough percentage of your stack.

• If you flop well from early position in an unraised pot, the size of your stack dictates that you are in perfect position for a check-raise. This is especially true when there are one or two very aggressive players sitting behind you.

Big-stack play (say, more than 80 times the big blind):

• You are playing "real" poker now, and can start to use the size of your stack as a weapon.

• Bluffs have a much higher chance of success, now that you can fire on all streets rather than just one or two.

• If you flop well in an unraised pot, the best play may be to bet out, hoping that one of your opponents will play back at you, so that you can then move in. Don't use the check-raise too often when playing a big stack, because you are likely to win lots of fairly small pots while losing the very big ones.

• Position is now of paramount importance – relative to not just the button, but, just as importantly, to the preflop raiser.

OK, that was a lot of information. To close things, I have picked one starting hand, and will analyze how you should play it under the circumstances described; that is, when holding either a short, medium, or big stack. The hand is the 2heart 2diamond.

2heart 2diamond with a short stack: With a short stack, two deuces is an easy fold, especially in early position. (On the button in an unraised pot, you could call though.) You don't want to invest a significant percentage of your stack with a call, hoping to hit the flop, and your hand is not strong enough for an all-in coup, either. What you would really hate is limping with this hand and then having to give it up when the pot gets raised behind you. While in some cases it may be correct to go all in with a small pair, you almost never want to call all in. Note that when heads up, two deuces are never a clear favorite, except in the unlikely case that your opponent holds a deuce, as well, but they may be a very big dog when you are up against another pair. And while a very small pair has at least some value when all in in a heads-up situation, in a three- or four-way pot, the hand is absolutely horrible.

2heart 2diamond with a medium stack: Here, you have a pretty good situation for your two deuces. You are hoping to get into the pot cheaply, and then if you flop a deuce, the rewards can be enormous. Let's say the flop comes something like Qheart 8spade 2club. This is a perfect situation to break someone with top pair. If you are in early position, this may be a good time to go for the check-raise, because once he has bet the flop, he is probably committed. And if you are in late position and the top pair bets out, an excellent strategy may be to just double his bet. He will then usually look at the size of your stack and say something like, "How much do you have left? Not much, huh? OK, let's just stick it all in", and you will be a very large favorite to win the pot. Again, don't wait until the turn to make a move, because if an overcard to the queen, a jack, 10 or a 9 falls, your opponent could get scared and you may lose your market.

So, why do I think it is OK to call the first bet with this hand with a medium stack and not with a short stack? The money I will lose when the pot gets raised behind me is the same, right? Well, yes, the money is the same, but in big-bet play, you always think in terms of percentage of your stack. You know that the odds of flopping a set are about 7.5-to-1. So, you know that you will have wasted that call before the flop about seven out of eight times. And when you can win a very large pot, it is worth it to take a chance, even at the risk of having to fold when the pot gets raised behind you. So, the two reasons why you can limp with deuces with a medium stack but usually not with a small stack are quite simple, actually:

• The costs are lower. The initial call amounts to a much smaller percentage of your stack.

• The upside is bigger. If you do reach the flop cheaply and flop a deuce, you could win a very large pot instead of just a good one.

2heart 2diamond with a large stack: You could now even call a raise with your deuces, and in fact when you do, you are hoping that the raiser has aces – so that you can break him when you manage to flop that deuce. With the same Qheart 8spade 2club flop, it now may be best to bet into him, so that he can raise and you can then reraise. This is usually a better way to get him committed than going for the obvious check-raise. And when you are in position, just make a decent raise on the flop. In a heads-up situation, with you being on or near the button, it will be hard for your opponent to give you credit for a set here – so play it fast. And if your opponent by chance has Q-Q for top set, well, good luck to him. You were going to lose your entire stack anyway, regardless of whether you play the hand fast or slow.

Here's one final thing: With very deep money, pairs like sevens and eights are actually much better than deuces, most of all because they can make middle set instead of bottom set. And if you happen to run into a set-over-set situation when the money is very deep, it can be very expensive, obviously. So, beware of this, and in borderline situations, call preflop with the sevens or eights, but fold the deuces. This is especially true if there has been quite a bit of action, and the hand has developed into a four- or five-way situation. If just two of your opponents have higher pocket pairs than yours, a set-over-set situation is suddenly not so remote anymore. So, take this into account before making that preflop call, because when you have a losing set-over-set hand, it will almost always cost you your entire stack.

Rolf's Rule No. 16:
Make sure that, at all times, you make the necessary strategic adjustments based upon the size of your stack. Deep-money play requires an entirely different approach than shallow-money play, in regard to hand selection, seat selection, and post-flop decisions. spade

This is Part XI in a XIV-part series on limit and no-limit hold'em. This series was created especially for Card Player Europe. The accompanying DVDs on this subject can be obtained through Rolf's site,