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(Stack) Size Matters

by Adam Schoenfeld |  Published: May 16, 2012

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Adam SchoenfeldWhen playing poker, it’s important to size up your opponents as quickly as possible. A fast way to do this is by simply checking on their stack sizes. Winners have been accumulating chips while losers have seen their stacks dwindle. This much is obvious.

But what do stack sizes really mean? Even at a brand new game, there’s information to be gleaned from the stacks. Better players tend to buy in for the table maximum at no-limit hold’em. They want to be able to use their superior skill to win the maximum when they are against inferior opponents. So, for example, at $2-$5 no-limit in Las Vegas, the buy-in is often capped at 100-150 big blinds. The minimum buy in will usually be $200.

So when you are at a new no-limit game, you’ll see a range of stacks from $200 to $1500. A rule of thumb would be that you should be wary of the full stacks and seek to play against the smaller stacks. Of course, like everything else in poker, this is hardly an absolute. There are always balancing considerations. For example, there are some of the best players in the world who like to begin with the minimum buy-in until they get a feel for the day’s game. Barry Greenstein is a notable example of this type of player. You’d be making a big mistake seeking to isolate a world-class player simply because he has bought in for the minimum.

What about the stacks once the game is running? Now you can start to draw conclusions. Someone who has more than the table maximum is winning. There is no way to have more than a $1500 in a $2-$5 game that’s capped at 150 BBs without having won some money or having topped up at some point. And that’s the crux of it. Good players almost always top up their stacks when they’ve dipped down. Online, the software would allow automatic top-ups, so good players would never start a hand without a full stack, even when they were on 24 tables at once.

This is why, when you see someone with half a stack in a no-limit game, you can cautiously begin to draw conclusions that they are not winning, and further, are probably not among the elite players at that limit. One exception to this line of thinking is that professional short-stackers are often very good players, and they are intentionally using effective stack sizes to gain an edge on their deeper-stacked opponents. In live poker, however, the minimum buy-in is somewhat larger in relation to the cap, and the advantage of the short-stack is lessened.

In limit games, there is never a cap on the buy-in. You can buy in for $10,000 in a $10/20 limit hold’em game, and nobody would object, although they might think you’re crazy. So, even though clocking the stacks is still a good thing to do, and provides some insight into who’s winning and losing, it’s much more hazy. I’ve noticed that many of the good players in limit games tend to buy in for large stacks, and they mix in some larger denomination chips and even $100 bills, just to avoid being clocked specifically, and to give off a winning image at all times.

I’ve been playing a lot of $10-$20 limit in Las Vegas, especially since the government took away online poker and ruined my life, and I’ve examined stack sizes carefully. I buy in for 25 big blinds ($500). In limit, you really only need enough to play the next hand to its conclusion without being all-in. You’d never anticipate a normal hand going more than 5-10 big bets deep, so I don’t usually top up unless I’m somewhere around the $200 mark. If I get down there, however, I have to be aware that other players will notice that I have been losing, and I have to be prepared to counter plays that they might make based on that observation.

Most people keep their chips in neat stacks of 20 $5 chips each. So five stacks equals $500. A quick glance can give you most players’ exact (or nearly exact) stack size. Some players, however, build their stacks in non-standard heights, sometimes 25 chips, sometimes 30 or 40. These players are either intentionally obfuscating their stacks, which may be a clever thing to do, or are just building stacks differently, at random.
Since I keep my stacks in the standard configuration, and I always buy in for $500, it’s easy for the other players to clock me.

Even though I never tilt (at least I like to think that), just as I assume someone that is losing may be playing weakly or tilting, I have to adjust to others’ perceptions of me, especially if I’m down at the moment. I have to adjust to my opponents’ adjustments to me, whether they are right or wrong in their assessment of my mental state.

I recently noticed that a player that I consider to be extremely weak, with consistent, huge and easily spotted leaks in his game, always seemed to have a large stack, and never left loser (based solely on stack size observations). This was puzzling to me. Extremely puzzling.

I asked another regular what he thought. He said that he made my subject to be a marginal loser.

Then I chanced upon the explanation. He goes north. After many hours of losing, I watched him quietly sidle up to the cage and then return with a full rack of $5 chips (the game is played with red $5 chips), and unobtrusively add them to his stack.
Either for ego, or for image, he keeps his stack topped up. It’s either brilliant, or sad. I’m not sure which. ♠

Adam Schoenfeld is a professional poker player, writer and analyst. He has commentated upon the Monte Carlo Millions, the World Series of Poker, and other poker TV shows. Follow him on Twitter @adamschoenfeld.