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Stack Management in Limit Hold’em Tournaments Part One – Avoiding Variance

by Ben Yu |  Published: Nov 13, 2013


In the first article I ever wrote, I introduced “L” — the amount of chips required to play a hand of limit poker from start to finish — and claimed it would be a pivotal tool in tournament stack management.

Now we move on to the fun stuff — strategy in specific games, starting with limit hold’em. Many of the ideas here apply to other games as well, but I begin here as it has the fewest variables to analyze. In limit hold’em, L is 3.5 big bets, or seven big blinds.

In somewhat backwards fashion, I’m waiting until next time to discuss more general limit hold’em tournament concepts. Today, I want to write about avoiding variance deep in tournaments. Variance can be a vague word, so for this article, I would define it as “bets and raises with little edge and no fold equity, especially when for a significant portion of your stack.”

When to Minimize Variance

The two most crucial points to minimize variance are on the bubble and at the final table. It’s also relevant to a lesser degree as the bubble approaches and shortly after it bursts. These are where the pay jumps are the largest, so coin flips are the most painful.

In addition to what stage of the tournament it is, it’s also pivotal to consider how many L you have. In no-limit hold’em tournaments, you are concerned with relative stack size — your stack compared to others at the table. Even with above average chips, it is unprofitable to get in marginal confrontations when covered. In limit hold’em tournaments, what matters is actual stack size. With more than five L, it’s not dangerous to battle a big stack, as losing a hand will only cost one of those Ls.

How to Minimize Variance

Fold the bottom of your open-raising range.

When I am looking to negate variance, I open fold minimally profitable hands such as A-7 offsuit in the hijack or K-9 suited in early position. Raising a hand returning one percent return on investment (ROI) in chips loses money because of the fluctuation undertaken to squeeze it out.

This is a basic tournament idea, but deserves emphasis in limit hold’em because of the game’s structure. In no-limit hold’em, a preflop raise is a low cost way to acquire chips; you can elect to fold to a three-bet. In limit hold’em, because of the immense odds you are getting, you must see a flop, often have to peel it, and sometimes have to make turn and river calls. If we consider limit and no-limit hold’em hands having the same return, the limit hold’em one is exposed to extra variance.

For these reasons, when evaluating marginal situations in a tournament, my friends and I often refer to the Brenden Taylor rule of limit poker, named after the 2010 World Series of Poker limit hold’em bracelet winner — “It’s OK to fold preflop, it’s not OK to fold postflop.”

If opponents notice tight play, they may make an attempt to raise lighter through you, especially on your big blind. Therefore, your three-betting and blind defense ranges have to account for this. If opponents are playing particularly savage, you may end up playing even looser than your normal standards, despite not wanting to gamble. These considerations mean you still have “play poker,” but be aware that opening a hand with a small win rate is not profitable.

Don’t Bet Without Fold Equity

Several years ago, the limit hold’em landscape changed. Players stopped reraising when their range was too small, such as when facing a three-bet as a preflop raiser. The primary reason was for balance. With so few hands which could be reraised for value, it was superior to call everything and be more difficult to read postflop.

In tournaments, this serves an additional purpose — minimizing the percentage of your stack at risk. Since opponents never fold for another bet in limit, a raise increases the amount you have riding on a hand. This increased gamble dwarfs the additional equity that could be eeked out of an extra bet. Calling also creates smaller pots postflop, incentivizing all players to bluff and call down less. The smaller the pot is, the less it is worth fighting over, leading to reduced stack fluctuation for everyone involved.
An Example from my 2013 World Series of Poker

I applied these principles during three days of battle at the $5,000 WSOP limit hold’em event this year. With 18 players cashing, I had an above average stack with almost seven L (116,000 at 2,500-5,000 blinds) with 27 remaining. I proceeded to lose six sizeable pots, but saved a bet on four of them, leaving me the shortest stack, but not eliminated on the bubble.

Once in the money, I navigated my way to the final table despite never having more than seven L. My tools were conservative preflop folds, bluffs to capitalize on a tight image, and some all-in luck. The most notable fold was passing on A-Q offsuit versus an under-the-gun raise on the hand which eliminated Steve Landfish in tenth place, and punched my ticket to the final table. There, I was seated to the right of Domenico de Notaristefani, a loose, tough player who entered among the leaders in chips.

I estimated he would not fold more than ten percent of his big blinds if I raised the small blind and would not be surprised if he was never folding. As such, I was completing small blinds instead of raising. If he was never folding, I was unnecessarily risking a small bet and inflating the pot by two small bets, a one hundred percent increase that I’d be forced to zealously fight over.

There are certainly tradeoffs to this strategy. I am not getting value from my strong hands, whereas Notaristefani still has the option to do so. Also, the times my opponent would have folded, my limp allows him to play a free hand I could’ve picked up for free.

Negating variance does not always result in taking a conservative line. When opponents fold, there is zero variance, you take down what is in the pot. If your opponent is capable of folding, it is better to raise, both for value and to avoid the variance that comes when the opponent would have gotten a free look.

My tournament run ended in seventh place for $31,264. The last leg of the tournament was utterly an exercise in limit hold’em stack management. I never had more than ten times starting stack, so felt fortunate to not only cash, but sneak into my second WSOP final table. I hadn’t been in the Thunderdome for two years — it was good to be back. ♠

Ben Yu attended Stanford University but knew even before finishing that he wanted to embark on a journey to become a one of the finest professional mixed-game players. He made his debut onto the tournament scene in 2010 with a second-place finish in the World Series of Poker $1,500 limit hold’em shootout and followed it up in 2011 by leading the WSOP with seven cashes across six different games. In 2012, he moved to Rosarito, Mexico in order to continue playing online and was enthralled to perform well at the World Championship of Online Poker, including a final table appearance at the $10,300 poker 8-Game High Roller, and a cash in the main event.