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Head Games: How Stack Size Affects Everything You Do in Cash Games

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: May 29, 2013


The Pros: Jay Rosenkrantz, David Benefield, Dan Meyers, and Paul Otto

Craig Tapscott: How do you approach playing different stack sizes, deep stacked — 150 big blinds or more — as opposed to 100 big blinds or less, in cash games? 

Jay Rosenkrantz: With 100 big blinds or less, generally speaking, I’m not afraid to get all-in with top pair or a good draw during an aggressive pot, because my opponents aren’t afraid to get in with a worse pair or weaker draw. When stacks get larger, hands like top pair or middle of the road flush draws get progressively weaker — if you put a lot of money in there, you run the risk of overplaying your hand and making a big mistake against the same opponents who, because of the growing stack sizes, now only put lots of money in with a very strong range of hands.

David Benefield: Understanding how to play a variety of stack sizes is crucial for success playing no-limit hold’em and pot-limit Omaha. When playing a short stack, say 40 big blinds, the value of stealing preflop goes up considerably. Most opponents at the higher stakes will not call many three-bets preflop, so the value of three-bet bluffing increases. Because most opponents will either fold or reraise, rarely call, your actual cards don’t matter if you don’t plan to go all-in. This means 7-2 offsuit and Q-10 offsuit are essentially the same hand. I often try to take advantage of players that fold a lot to three-bets in situations like this. With deeper stacks, say 200 big blinds or more, things start to get really interesting. Three-betting with deceptive hands like 7-6 suited goes up in value, while getting really aggressive with big cards can be disastrous. The power of position comes into play more often and gives you the ability to put enormous pressure on your opponent. In general, my poker philosophy is to figure out which things make my life really difficult at the table, then use these techniques against my opponents. Aggressive opponents that raise a lot of flops in position and continue with bets on the turn and the river are very tough to play well against. You are left guessing about their hand, and have to either be a hero and call, or concede the pot. 

Dan Meyers: When stacks get deeper than 150 big blinds, I definitely try to play more hands in position. The informational advantage that comes from seeing what your opponent does first on every street increases greatly when stacks are deep relative to the pot size. There is a lot more room to maneuver post flop. When I raise an out of position player, he knows that I’m threatening significantly more of his money, so it often forces him to play much more cautiously. This enables me to profitably play weaker hands, due to the fact that I can control the size of the pot more often when I have a marginal hand and bluff aggressively when I have a hand that can improve on a lot of board run-outs. Another adjustment I make is I really focus on adapting the range of hands that I am willing to put a lot of money in with. In general, I know that the more money that goes into the pot, the stronger the hands I will be up against. Often, hands I might be fine three-betting and going all-in with preflop like 9-9, 10-10, and A-Q, are hands that will run into bigger pocket pairs and A-K too often when going all-in with deeper stacks. In the same manner, when playing postflop, a hand like top pair/good kicker might be an easy hand to stack off with when stacks are shallow, but will be up against a better hand very often when putting in 150-200 big blinds.

Paul Otto: The effective stack size impacts every decision from preflop hand selection to river bet sizing. The more money you put into the pot, or even the threat thereof, the stronger your hand needs to be. Going from 100 big blinds to 150 big blinds, this effect is most notable when reraising preflop with hands like K-Q and A-K. At 100 big blinds, flopping top pair is a hand you happily put all your money in with. But an extra 50 big blinds and you often don’t get action from enough worse hands anymore. This not only means you need to be careful on those last 50 big blinds, but plan several bets and perhaps even forgo a three-bet. On the flip side, a hand like 5-5, when flopping a third five, will not mind having extra money behind. Similarly, suited aces or suited connectors that tend to make nut hands play much better at deeper stacks. The general idea to take away is to think about the likely hands you can hit and what pot size you prefer with those. A-K offsuit rarely has the best of it in a very large pot.

Craig Tapscott: For cash players who are new to deeper stacks and want to transition to deeper-stacked play, what are the key things they need to be aware of?

Jay Rosenkrantz: I’d say key things to be aware of: unless your opponent is psychotic, he’s not running big bluffs just for the hell of it. If he is bluffing he usually has good equity in the pot; in general the value of one pair hands go down and the value of good drawing hands like open-ended straight draws or nut-flush draws go way up; having position is even more important, both because you can control the size of the pot more easily and because you can put more pressure on your opponent, jeopardizing a larger percentage of his stack.

David Benefield: These newer players need to understand the importance of position. Learn to pot control out of position and aggressively apply pressure in position; these are the keys to success in deep-stack no-limit hold’em. 

Dan Meyers: They need to be aware that as stacks get deeper, hands that can make the nuts or near nuts often become much more important. Hands like suited aces and suited connectors can become more playable in many cases than hands like offsuit broadways like K-J or A-10. While those hands can make big pairs, they often run into problems when a lot of money goes into the pot being dominated or even drawing dead. Hands with flush and straight possibilities not only can make great hands, but will often make great draws as well and can be very good hands to semibluff with. Also when deep stacked, it is important to avoid having a “capped” range as much as possible. By a capped range, I mean that there is a limit to how strong of a hand you can possibly hold in a given situation, when your opponent can hold several stronger hands. For example, this might happen if you raise all your flush draws on the flop. If your opponent sees you flat call a flop that contains a flush draw and the draw hits on the turn, he will know you never have a flush. When that happens to be the case, an observant opponent will start to utilize overbetting, where he bets greater than the size of the pot with both his very strong hands and bluffs. This can lead to huge pots when there is a lot of money behind. With a medium-strength made hand, you might not be able to realize any of your equity in the pot when your opponent balances his value bets and bluffs properly. Therefore, mixing up your play and occasionally slow playing big hands becomes much more important.

Paul Otto: When switching games, it is important to not change too many things at once. Developing a completely new poker style for the slightly altered structure is a recipe for disaster. The key is one small adjustment at a time, of which there are many. Typically the bet sizing should be increased slightly. When making a continuation bet, it can be a tad larger. Especially turn raises, which are often all-in or close to commitment threshold in shorter-stacked play, will now leave room to play and need to be larger.  

Overall you want to put more emphasis on position. When deep stacked, three-betting and four-betting in position is much more powerful, where the opponent cannot end the hand by going all-in with A-K or J-J, or by check-raising the flop all-in with a draw. On the flip side, you need to be more careful playing out of position. Playing too many hands from up front or the blinds can bleed money in a way you don’t notice. You find yourself facing big bets on the river, thinking you should have called when you folded, or folded when you called and lost. But the mistake won’t be there, the mistake will be having made a decision to engage in the hand earlier, deep stacked, and out of position. ♠