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Leaving Your Comfort Zone in HTs

Hyperturbo sit-and-go strategy

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Feb 01, 2011


“Nothing about winning poker is natural. It demands many
uncomfortable, unnatural actions.”

— Dr. Alan Schoonmaker

One of tournament poker’s conventional wisdoms is to avoid the chip leader. To a certain extent, it makes sense. You don’t want to confront a player who can bust you in one hand. Also, winning a pot against the chip leader is not as valuable as winning one against a smaller stack, since a given amount of chips has greater value to a short stack than to a large one.
On the other hand, that concept is often taken too far. Some players lay down surprisingly big hands to the chip leader, avoiding a confrontation with him at all costs. They do so because it is comfortable to dodge potential elimination. The problem is that they are hurting their chances of reaching the top spots, which should be any serious tournament player’s goal.
A similar situation occurs in hyperturbo sit-and-gos (HTs). Since first place and second place get an equal top prize of two and a half times their buy-in, (while third place gets roughly his money back), most players figure that it’s OK for an opponent to run away with the chip lead, as long as they can finish second. In certain cases, that logic makes sense, such as when one player is already a massive chip leader. But in most other cases, it is a passive, comfortable approach that sacrifices long-term EV [expected value]. To maximize profits, a more proactive strategy is needed, which often involves taking actions that feel unnatural.
To illustrate, let’s look at an example from the middle stages of an HT. The blinds are 50-100 with a 20 ante. The chip leader is in the big blind with 1,200. You are in the small blind with 800. The other two players have 500 each, and they both fold. You could limp in, but too often, the big blind will shove all in and force you to fold. Unless you are trapping with a big hand, limping is rarely your best option. Instead, let’s compare folding versus going all in.
Folding has three positives:
1. You avoid potential elimination.
2. The pot goes to the chip leader, which is better than having it go to one of the short stacks.
3. The short stacks will face the blinds next, so they will have to win a hand to outlast you.
Folding also has three negatives:
1. You pass up the potential to increase your stack.
2. Instead, you drop to 730, which brings you that much closer to the short stacks.
3. You allow the chip leader to start running away with the lead, making it much more likely that you’re competing with your two other opponents for the one remaining top prize.
Essentially, it’s a wash. Now let’s look at the virtues of raising all in:
1. If you win uncontested, you will climb to 960, increasing your stack by 20 percent.
2. The big blind will simultaneously fall to 1,080, bringing him that much closer to you.
3. With the other two stacks at 480, you will have created the situation of having two large stacks against two smaller ones, which opens up the potential for cooperation with the other large stack (as discussed in “Cooperative Play in HTs” in Vol. 23/No. 20, 2010).
4. If the big blind calls and you win, you will become the dominant chip leader.
Everything I’ve discussed to this point is the appetizer. Here’s the main course:
There is obviously only one reason not to raise all in — namely, you run the risk of having the big blind call and eliminate you. From an EV standpoint, that is disastrous, since you’d go from second place — where your immediate expectation was to realize a nice profit on your buy-in — to finishing fourth and losing your entire buy-in. It’s painful, in one hand, to go from expecting a significant profit to losing your buy-in. For HT players, it’s pretty much the most painful feeling there is. One of the main reasons that players fold their small blind is to avoid the risk of experiencing that pain.
Notice that I did not list avoidance of pain among the “positives of folding.” As a serious poker player, I don’t consider it a legitimate reason, and neither should you. If you regularly play HTs (or standard sit-and-gos, or multitable tournaments, or any form of poker, for that matter), your sole concern should be the action that maximizes your EV. And while going all in and losing is an EV crusher, it happens so infrequently that going all in with virtually any two cards is clearly the correct play.
Think about it. For the same reasons that most players avoid the chip leader, the chip leader in the big blind definitely doesn’t want to tangle with the second-largest stack, either. If he calls and loses, he immediately becomes the shortest stack. To risk that kind of reversal, most players won’t call without a very big hand. Sure, some players call with hands like A-8 and 5-5, but stronger players know better. They know that it’s not worth the risk to enter a confrontation in which they will most likely be a 60-40 favorite, at best. Their better play is to let the small blind win the small pot, and then look to cooperate with him to eliminate the two shorter stacks.
Let’s say that you push with a random hand from the small blind. I’ll make an educated estimate that a knowledgeable big blind will call with only the top 9 percent of his hands. Out of that 9 percent, you will win roughly one-third of the time, so you will suffer elimination only 6 percent of the time, and even that might be an overestimate.
Sure, it feels unnatural to attack the chip leader with a random hand, and getting called and losing can feel devastating, but as is often the case in poker, you need to step back and look at the bigger picture. You will more than make up for the 6 percent of the time you lose with the increased EV from the 91 percent of the time that you win uncontested, not to mention the 3 percent of the time that you become the dominating chip leader. In fact, it’s not even close.
The problem is that to make the correct play, you have to take an unnatural action that can then lead to a very painful result. The 6 percent of the time that you lose is much easier to remember than the 91 percent of the time that you win uncontested. That’s why many players find themselves taking the lower EV action to remain in their comfort zone.
If you want to separate yourself from the pack, you can’t fall into that trap. In the scenario I described, as well as many similar ones, you have to fight the impulse of making the comfortable fold, in favor of making the risky raise. You can make the safe play and stay comfortable, or you can make the strong, correct play and take a crucial step toward becoming a consistent winner. The choice is yours. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find other articles of his at