Poker Coverage: Poker Legislation Poker Tournaments U.S. Poker Markets Sports Betting

Head Games: Deep Thoughts on Deep Stack Play in Tournaments

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Nov 27, 2013


The Pros: David Benefield, Anthony Gregg, Chris Hunichen, and Chris Klodnicki

Craig Tapscott: If you are lucky enough to build a massive stack early on in a tournament, how do you take advantage of that situation?

David Benefield: Big stacks early in tournaments have a lot less value than big stacks late in the tournament. You aren’t really able to apply a ton of pressure to “shorter” stacks as everyone is still pretty deep in relation to the blinds. That said, there are still some things you can do to take advantage of having the big stack. If I am lucky enough to acquire chips early on, I try to just play solid poker like I would in a deeper stacked cash game. I tend to be very aggressive in position, three-betting some marginal suited hands like Q-7 suited or non-suited connected cards like 7-6 offsuit. Most players don’t four-bet very light early on, and it’s very difficult to play out of position against a solid, aggressive player. If I three-bet a hand like Q-7 suited in position and get called, I can usually win with a continuation bet on a flop like K-6-4. I can pick up a lot of chips applying pressure in the right situations. Some players can take this overboard and get into giant pots with pretty marginal hands, so it is good to pick your spots carefully.  

Anthony Gregg: The best advice I could give anyone fortunate enough to run up a big stack early on in a tournament is to just keep playing whatever game you are most comfortable with. Clearly, if you’ve run it up early on, you are playing well and a lot of things are going your way, so there’s no need to stray from whatever strategy you used to get you there. Tournaments are very situationally dependent, so it is probably best to take a bit of a step back and really try to assess what you’re able to do at the table you are at. Some tables are going to be on the softer side, in which case you should be trying to play as many pots as possible and really throwing the weight of your stack around. While other tables might be full of players who aren’t going to be putting up with any funny business and your best way to proceed should probably be to sit back, be patient, and try to play solid and make good hands. Make sure you stay aware of what your image is to your table and try to take advantage of however they perceive you. The best part about acquiring a ton of chips early is that it grants you the freedom and maneuverability to adjust your game to whatever the table conditions call for. 

Chris Hunichen: If I have a large stack at the beginning of the tournament, I try to actually tighten up a lot for a few different reasons.  First, I already have a comfortable stack in the early stages and we all know the tournament can’t be won in the beginning. It’s a marathon not a sprint. We already have a nice lead so it is better to just keep cruising along then trying to force anything.  A second reason is because when you have a large stack people tend to give you a lot less credit if you’re known to be an aggressive player, especially on your late position opens. This is because they tend to think you are just trying to bully people around with your big stack. 

Chris Klodnicki: In the beginning stages of the tournament, if I have a big stack I’m not going to play much different. Towards the middle stages, as the antes kick in, I will put my stack to work a bit. Generally, I like to put pressure on other big stacks that I have position on. Playing in position is an enormous advantage when stacks are deep, and I will be very willing to play in position with marginal holdings when I have a ton of chips. When I have a very large stack I’m more willing to push small edges that I would avoid with a smaller stack. I don’t have to worry about my tournament life and stack preservation as much. It’s important to not get too out of line with a large stack in early to middle stages of the tournament though. Just because you have more chips than everyone else doesn’t mean you can just bully everyone at the table. You have to pick and choose because many players are willing to gamble in the early stages. 

Craig Tapscott: What are some of the leaks you consistently see players make when possessing a deep stack?

David Benefield: I think the biggest mistake players make with a big stack early in a tournament is getting too careless with their chips. It is easy to get chip-drunk with a massive stack and start spewing, either by calling off too light on the river, putting in too much money preflop with marginal hands out of position, or bluffing in bad spots. I often see big stacks three-betting a lot out of position against other relatively deep stacks, which is usually a recipe for disaster. The out-of-position player is left guessing too often and will find it hard to make the correct decisions. I try to avoid bloating the pot out of position, and I am generally happy to play big pots when I have the luxury of position. I’ll admit that three-betting a lot on the button is one of my favorite moves, as early on it is difficult to play back against. Later in the tournament when stacks get shorter in relation to the blinds, it’s not so hard to just four-bet all-in if someone is three-betting too much on the button, but early on your options are fairly limited against a tough player three-betting a lot in position. Another mistake I see a lot of early big stacks make is bluffing too much. While I think it is useful to apply pressure in good situations, blind aggression usually leads to big blowups. When making a big bluff, you have to remember that you are telling a story; you have to represent something. Think about why you are betting in each spot and what that looks like to your opponent. Think about the types of hands they can have and how those hands do against a range of hands you are representing. Players these days are very good at hand reading, so you have to tell a believable story if you are going for a big bluff. A lot of players, even successful players, will bet any time they don’t have showdown value on the river. While this can be successful against amateurs, I think this is a mistake against good players and can cost you a lot of chips.

Anthony Gregg: One of the biggest leaks I see players make who possess a big stack is that they begin to think they’re invincible and start to take bad spots because they’re trying to win the tournament as quickly as possible. You can’t win the tournament until you get heads-up, and you can’t get heads-up until you make the final table and so on. So try to stay patient and not get too carried away with the short term success you’ve had. Though you’ve granted yourself the freedom to splash around a bit with more speculative hands, there’s no need to go out of your way to four-bet and five-bet trying to bust someone every hand just because it is not going to affect your stack that much if you lose. Things have obviously been going your way so keep doing what you’re doing for as long as it is working. Though when your heater ends and you start to face a lot of resistance, it is important to be willing to adjust by taking your foot off the gas for a while to reestablish a solid image. Changing gears is such a huge part of tournament play and even though you may have gotten all of your chips in fifth gear, it is probably not going to be a sustainable strategy forever.

Chris Hunichen: Too many players try to use the big stack to bully their opponents around because they think that because they have a big stack they can apply heavy pressure to their opponents to continue building their stack.  While it is good to apply pressure to your opponents, people often make the mistake of not recognizing when to apply pressure and when to sit back and be patient.  Another mistake I see when deep stacked in the early stages of tournaments is players are three-betting too wide and too often when they should be playing a more small-ball controlled strategy which is causing them to stack off way too many big blinds with big hands. 

Chris Klodnicki: Probably the biggest mistakes I see are people playing loose-passive with big stacks. Many guys will open more hands preflop and three-bet wider, but they won’t be willing to apply the right amount of pressure. I often see guys opening way too light from early position at tough tables just because they have a lot of chips. Having a big stack is not a license to steal. If you are going to loosen up preflop you must have a very strong postflop game if there are other large stacks at your table. A big stack really becomes an advantage when you get near the bubble. At this point you need to find out exactly what you can get away with and be putting constant pressure on everyone at the table. In order to stay the big stack optimally in these situations, you can’t be overly predictable or your opponents will start to play back at you successfully. If your opponents are tough and unafraid of you, it’s best to not let your ego get in the way. ♠