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Head Games - Paying Attention to Stack Sizes in Tournament Play

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Dec 24, 2010


The Pros: Tom Marchese, Andrew Lichtenberger, and Jeff Madsen

Craig Tapscott: What are you paying attention to the most in regard to the stack sizes of your opponents when you open-raise preflop?

Tom Marchese: I think you should break down opponents’ stacks into one of three categories:  

Extremely short stacks (5-12 big blinds): These stacks are going to be looking to get all in a lot. Unless they are very tight players, you don’t want to raise with very many hands that will be unable to call a shove, mainly because you will rarely get a fold.

Short stacks (15-25 big blinds): These stacks are forced to either go all in against your preflop raise or fold. Because of this, you should have a hand that can call a shove versus all or some of your opponents.

So, while you might look down at a hand such as J-10 suited in middle position, you sometimes will have to fold it. This is because in that specific spot, it has the same value as 9-3 offsuit. Generally, opponents with short stacks are easy to play against, as you simply raise with your good hands, and with any two cards when you think your opponents are folding often enough for it to be profitable.

Large stacks: A stack of 30 or more big blinds is a bit more difficult to play against. When your opponents have this many big blinds, it gives them a few more options. They can call or reraise as a bluff without committing their entire stack. Because of this, your preflop hands become way more relevant when deciding to open-raise. Against tight-passive players, you are able to open a wide variety of hands that play reasonably well post-flop. These opponents just don’t play back often enough, and they will often call you and play straightforwardly post-flop. Raising with hands that play well post-flop — such as suited connectors, suited aces, and Broadway cards — tends to be a must. When playing against looser and more aggressive players — who may attempt to make your life difficult by reraising or calling and playing actively post-flop — you may be forced to either (a) raise with a tight range of hands or (b) be put into difficult situations in which you may have to four-bet all in as a bluff or call down with a weak holding post-flop.

Andrew Lichtenberger: There are countless factors you need to be aware of when deciding how light you can raise. I’m concerned mostly with who can reraise all in, in which case I won’t get to see a flop. But let’s say the stacks are deeper; then, there is far less concern, because I feel very comfortable with playing post-flop. There still are issues with getting three-bet light, but there are counters to that — which could be calling or four-betting — as opposed to when being reraised all in and you don’t have a hand, there is no immediate counterstrategy.

Jeff Madsen: I’ll be looking at a few things. First, I will take note of who is big-stacked, short-stacked, and medium-stacked, because this will often dictate who is more likely to make a certain action. If there are a lot of big stacks behind me, I’m already in somewhat of a vulnerable spot, because I’m going to be out of position against one or more players who may decide to call or three-bet me. Also, my entire stack could be at risk at some point during the hand. If the majority is shorter stacks behind me, I am less worried about getting outplayed. But I now have to keep in mind that depending on how short the stacks are, I may be committed to calling if one of them shoves all in preflop; or, at some point in the hand, the shorter stack I am playing against could be pushing all in or calling all in, so my hand value is important — compared to other times when I can get to a showdown without all of the chips getting into the pot. Also, I have to note which kind of stack sizes behind me have position on the others, because this dictates how they will react to me and to each other.

Craig Tapscott: Deep in a tournament, what kind of stack size is the most awkward one to maneuver?

Tom Marchese: The most awkward stack to play deep in a tournament is one that is difficult to three-bet fold, but still big enough to shove over an open-raise; I would say a stack that is 23-27 big blinds. When deciding to go with a hand, I do my best to consider my previous actions at the table and how my opponents might view me.  A generic example would be that if you haven’t three-bet at all and are dealt A-A with 30 big blinds, chances are that you are best off flat-calling an open-raise. But if you have been three-betting a lot and have an active image, you will usually be better off reraising, hoping that your opponent makes an all-in bluff. A second thing to consider is your opponent’s preflop range. Against a wider range, you generally will be more likely to trap with a strong hand, while against a tighter range, there is no reason to trap, as it’s likely that you have “coolered” your opponent.  

Andrew Lichtenberger: A stack of 20-30 big blinds is always the most difficult size to manage, mainly because if you open too light, smart opponents will catch on and three-bet a wide range for value, with the intention of getting all in. Lots of interesting decisions occur in late position with hands that are generally playable but become confusing when it’s unlikely that you’ll get flat-called. For example, when raising into short stacks or when having one yourself, it often will be very unlikely that you’ll get flat-called and much more likely that you’ll win when everyone folds — or, someone will reraise all in. To best maximize your EV [expected value] in these situations, you have to choose wisely which hands to raise, and be disciplined enough to fold some hands that are normally strong if you decide that you are very likely to get reraised.

Jeff Madsen: The only real awkward stack size to play is when you are fairly short-stacked but not short enough that you have only one move, such as pushing all in with about 10-14 big blinds. Once you get to around 15-25 big blinds, things are less clear-cut, because you have more options but your decisions are crucial. Let’s take a situation in which you have A-A in middle position with 16 big blinds. You want to get full value, and based on the players behind you, this sometimes means making a standard raise of two-and-a-half times the big blind and sometimes pushing all in. You just want to be careful that you don’t telegraph your hand by making the same choice only when you are strong. If someone has raised behind you, pushing all in looks standard, but flat-calling may be more effective in getting value, particularly if the raiser is weak and would fold to your push. It’s tough with this kind of stack size when you have a decision to make with a marginal hand like 5-5 or A-10 suited and are facing a raise. If you have, for example, 21 big blinds, you might not want to risk that many chips just yet, unless you have a good read on your opponent. So, sometimes flat-calling might be the best option in order to see what your opponent does on the flop, and sometimes folding might be the best option when you feel that your opponent is strong. This type of stack is the trickiest because of the possibilities of how you can play your strong or marginal hands, and how crucial each decision is in getting the optimal reaction from your opponents. ♠

Tom Marchese is a high-stakes cash-game player who made the transition to tournaments with great success. This year, he won the PokerStars North American Poker Tour Venetian main event. He also has made seven other final tables in major events this year. He has more than $2.3 million in career tournament cashes.

Andrew Lichtenberger began his poker career in online medium-stakes cash games, and then in 2009, he entered the tournament arena with quite a splash. He finished 18th in the World Series of Poker main event, and second in the no-limit hold’em $5,000 shootout event. He is a video coach at Leggo Poker, and plays as a red pro at Full Tilt Poker.

Jeff Madsen has more than $3.5 million in career tournament earnings. In 2006, he captured two WSOP bracelets; he won the $2,000 no-limit hold’em event and the $5,000 six-max no-limit hold’em event. In 2010, he won the Borgata Winter Open main event, for $625,006. He is sponsored by Full Tilt Poker.