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Head Games: Awkward Stack Sizes and Crucial Spots in Tournament Play

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Dec 26, 2012


Craig Tapscott: What’s the most awkward stack size to play and when during tournaments?

Elio Fox: I have found the most awkward stack size to be between 10-15 big blinds pre-ante. In order to effectively accumulate chips with this stack size, it is important to not make the mistake of open shoving all of your hands preflop when first into the pot. Many players see this stack size as an all-in or fold situation, but because optimal preflop shoving ranges pre-ante are extremely tight, an all-in or fold strategy will be far tighter than what is optimal. A better approach is to open shove some of your middle strength hands, raise/fold most of your weaker high card hands, and raise/call hands that do well versus your opponents re-shoving ranges. If you elect to have an extremely aggressive raise/folding strategy it becomes extremely important to have good reads on your table. Some opponents will adjust by re-shoving extremely wide, while others will not divert from their standard preflop strategy. Versus opponents who are re-shoving frequently, you will be forced to adjust by adding some very marginal raise/calls to protect the large block of hands you have elected to raise/fold.

Jason Wheeler: The most awkward stack size for me to play is the 30-40 big blind stack because it is somewhat in between a medium and a big stack, or as I like to call it, the stack size with an identity crisis. However, because the 30-40 big blind stack size is so awkward to play, it also makes it an ideal stack size to try to chip up with because it is awkward for everyone to play. In the middle to late stages of the tournament, I try to identify both the blinds and stack sizes where I can apply the most pressure as well as keep an eye on the most aggressive players at the table. This is where you have to weigh all of the information you have gathered collectively to look for spots to help take advantage of your opponents. There are a ton of potential spots during the course of a tournament, but what differentiates the best and most successful tournament players is the ability to utilize all the available information to take the best spots, and avoid the rest. The one thing I try to pay attention to the most is the frequencies of their actions and the positions where those actions took place. I observe the hands that went to showdown to better define their ranges and I weigh and analyze how often they are opening, three-betting, four-betting, willingness to defend or float, and that information helps me develop a game plan to best take advantage of each individual situation or opponent. 

Sorel Mizzi: For sure, the most difficult stack I’ve had to play in tournaments is around the 25-35 big blind mark. When I’m at this point, oftentimes, I open/three-bet more frequently until I get to about the 40 big blind mark or below 20 big blinds. It may seem strange and unconventional to look at it like this, but, if you run through enough situations in that awkward stack range you’ll notice how many weird spots present themselves. The reason I feel justified in doing this, is because there’s a specific goal when you’re in the 12-24 big blind range (i.e., look for a spot to open shove or three-bet all-in). When you get to the 25-35 big blind range, decisions become considerably tougher. After you’re over 40 big blinds you basically have flexibility to do whatever creative maneuvering you like in order to accumulate chips.

Craig Tapscott: What are a few crucial spots that you see players drop the ball too often when it should have been an apparent situation for them to take advantage of?

Elio Fox: A lot of people fail to take advantage of their tight preflop image to amp up the aggression postflop. One of the biggest advantages of playing fewer hands preflop, is that you tend to get a lot of credit when you put a lot of money in the pot on later streets. While it is true that by playing a tighter range preflop you will have a stronger range on all later streets then some of your more loose aggressive opponents, this will allow you to get a lot of credit on your big river bluffs. Be aware that in spots where your opponent has a capped range on the river and do not be afraid to overbet. If the other player in the hand perceives you as tight, they will very rarely look up a three-barrel river overbet with a bluff catcher. Keep your eyes peeled for spots where your opponent fast plays the strong portions of their range on the flop.

Jason Wheeler: The times where I see players drop the ball the most in tournaments are at what I refer to as the “pressure or inflection points.” These are points within the tournament (such as the money bubble, final table bubble, big pay jumps on the final table, etcetera) where the hard battles are fought among the players who are trying to apply pressure on the players whose stack size limits their options and on the players who overvalue their tourney life during these stages. During these pressure points, players try to find a delicate balance between trying to put themselves in position to win the tournament while also avoiding an ICM (Independent Chip Model) disaster. This is the time of the tournament when you want to be playing your best, and mistakes usually fall into one of two categories. The overvaluing player is playing way too tight during these pressure points and not taking enough risks, and the aggressive player is playing way too loose and not taking enough steps to mitigate risk. The tight player is presented with several opportunities to take a spot or play back at an opponent, but they pass on almost all of them, clinging to their tournament life like a newborn to a blanket. They tend to play their big hands too hard and push opponents out of pots instead of maximizing value. There are tremendous opportunities for a tight player to chip up during these pressure points if they are willing to play back at their aggressive opponents, especially from late position. On the other side of the coin is the overly aggressive player who doesn’t adjust to the current environment at the table. This player’s greatest asset is that they take risks, but if they don’t manage and mitigate that risk, it becomes their greatest liability. The biggest mistake they make is their inability to realize when they are taking an unnecessary risk versus when they are legitimately applying pressure. 

Sorel Mizzi: In live tournaments, one of the things I notice players not doing enough is making decisions to either shove or fold when they need to. People are way too keen to try to see a flop when they don’t have implied odds. As a general rule of thumb (emphasis on general), I don’t like to call for more than around 7 percent of my stack. This means when I’m in a spot where I’m thinking about calling more than 7 percent, I should either fold or reraise. Way too often you see people with under 30 big blind stacks call three-bets trying to flop a set, top pair, or maybe they have a pair and “put you on A-K,” and decide to check/shove or even worse, open shove if an ace or a king doesn’t come out. This is flawed mentality. Stop putting people on A-K preflop. They have a range, and yes, A-K falls into that range but you can’t keep putting people on a single hand preflop. I think most of us remember the times we’re right when they did have exactly A-K, but quickly forget when they have a higher pair and we bust.