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Understanding Stack Size Strategies – No-Limit vs. Limit

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jan 24, 2024


The Pros: Corey Paggeot on Hold’em, and Nathan Gamble on Mixed Games

Corey Paggeot has been playing poker professionally since 2017 and has already won seven WSOP Circuit rings. The Michigan native has numerous WSOP final-table appearances, including a runner-up showing in both the 2022 Tag Team event and the 2021 MonsterStack online. In 2022 he finished 24th in the WPT World Championship for a six-figure score. You can follow Paggeot @coreypaggeot.

Nathan Gamble is a two-time WSOP bracelet winner and mixed-games specialist. The Texas native took down the 2017 $1,500 PLO eight-or-better event and the 2020 $600 PLO eight-or-better event, and most recently won the Omaha eight-or-better tournament at the WPT World Championship. The Phenom Poker ambassador and occasional commentator can be found on Twitter/X @GambleOnPoker.

Craig Tapscott: How do you approach playing from different stack sizes when you’re nearing the money bubble?

Corey Paggeot: There are a few different points in a tournament where, for some stacks, the downside of losing chips becomes greater than the upside of winning them. This shift typically begins with around 50 percent of the field remaining, ramps up with about 25 percent remaining, and increases from there until the bubble bursts. 

Risk premiums created by the looming bubble will call for all players to adjust away from ChipEV strategies to those more considerate of ICM – which considers the monetary value of their stack, the stacks at their table, and the average stack in the tournament.

Having the biggest stack carries an obvious inherent advantage since nobody at the table can bust us. This allows for slightly different range constructions in order to create difficult decisions for our opponents’ leveraged stacks, especially leading up to and on the bubble.

In general, this means we are allowed to open freely and with a reasonable expectation to receive somewhat honest responses. Most opponents understand how big of a relative disaster it is to bust on the bubble, so voluntarily playing versus the chip leader in these spots is an extremely polarizing act in itself. This means our opens are likely to be met with fewer calls and more of a three-bet or fold response.

Because of this, A-X and K-X hands become especially attractive candidates for expanding opening ranges due to the extreme removal effect they have on the rest of the deck, particularly their interaction with the best portions of opposing ranges.

Holding one single ace reduces the available combinations of A-A by 50 percent and A-K by 25 percent! The ability to rule out that much A-A, K-K, and A-K means we will get jammed on (and continued against) considerably less frequently. Using the same principles, we are allowed to employ a higher three-bet frequency and even take a more aggressive approach when facing three-bets.

As a middling stack, we are increasingly incentivized to allow the shorter stacks to bust around us as the bubble grows closer. Both when opening into and facing opens from covering stacks; we will have to be a little tighter than ChipEV ranges would suggest. This is because our stack in its current state is still worth a lot yet losing just a few big blinds at this stage is detrimental to our overall chances of cashing.

In situations where we have a middle stack but still cover everyone left to act, we can apply some of the same blocker-heavy opening and three-betting principles as if we were a big stack to maintain pressure on those shorter stacks.

Being short on the bubble means you’re not going to cash a lot of the time. Accepting that fact as reality will go a long way toward being able to implement the best strategy in spite of how dire the situation may seem. Often this means patiently preserving each big blind in our stack.

At sub-15 big blinds, there starts to become considerably less room to maneuver post-flop. We generally want to avoid opening speculative hands like suited connectors and small pocket pairs altogether. Covering stacks are allowed to take on slightly more risk against us, and thus we risk being denied equity with marginal hands. Additionally, the shorter we get, the less fold equity our stack will be able to create. This forces us to wait for spots closer to the top of our range and often look to get the chips in preflop.

Nathan Gamble: Limit mix games are wildly different from no-limit hold’em in that you don’t look at stacks in big blinds but rather big bets, or even the significant number of pots you can play when in a tournament. You need to have a working understanding of how much you have in relationship to playing a single raised pot.

For example, if the blinds are 5,000-10,000 that means the betting limits are 10,000-20,000, a single raise and bet on every street will cost you 70,000 (PFR 20,000, bet on flop 10,000, turn and river 20,000+20,000). If you have 100,000 you have 10 big blinds but really only the ability to see 1.5 hands all the way through before you’re all in, and that’s without considering multiple raises. 

So, all this said, inevitably the way you are allowed to play around the bubble varies wildly. If I have a short stack near bubble time, I’ll gauge the stacks at both my table and the surrounding tables to see if I need to accumulate any chips to guarantee cashing, or if I can just wait out other short stacks.

As a medium stack your goal is primarily to steal a blind every orbit and maintain stack depth, hopefully you have position on the deeper stacks to make this easier, otherwise you need to target the small stacks once in a while when the opportunity presents itself.

As the big stack I will look to execute three or four steals per orbit. This is done by a combination of picking up normal raising hands, raising the short stacks with impunity, and even raising 100 percent of hands from the cutoff and button.

And when I say 100 percent of hands, I mean it. If the conditions are right, I won’t bother looking at my cards preflop and will raise and, if called, bet the flop blind. In the configuration as described you will win preflop/on the flop about 80 percent of the time and the cards truly don’t matter. 

In summary, on a short stack sit tight to the point you want to cry. With a medium stack, maintain your chips by trying to identify opportunities. With the big stack try to bludgeon everyone. 

Craig Tapscott: How do your hand-range decisions to open the action from early position change depending on your stack size?

Corey Paggeot: Early position opening ranges will be some of the most consistent across all stack sizes in MTTs. Since every other player is still yet to act when we are UTG or UTG+1, we have to respect the fact that the collective ranges behind will inevitably include good hands. As a result, we have to be relatively selective, folding the smallest pocket pairs and nearly every offsuit hand, while opening hands that flop good top pairs and the best draws. 

A typical early position opening range will look something like 5-5+, A-3 suited+, K-9 suited+, Q-9 suited+, J-9 suited+, 10-8 suited+, 9-8 suited, A-10 offsuit and K-Q offsuit.

Middle stacks can start to incorporate some offsuit broadways, more suited connectors, and some more suited K-X into their opening range than larger stacks, which are more influenced by reverse-implied-odds. The larger stack is theoretically worth more, meaning it is costlier when they are on the wrong end of an unlikely cooler with a straight or flush.

As a shorter stack, the first hands I’d consider eliminating from the above range would be the smallest pairs, followed by the middling suited gappers/connectors, then the worst suited aces, as they will struggle more to realize equity post-flop.

The presence of a much bigger or much shorter stack means we will sometimes want to deviate slightly from our general strategy, so maintaining an acute awareness of every stack at the table is crucial to making the most informed decision in every hand.

Nathan Gamble: Typically, even if you are the big stack at the table, there are two or three players who are within the same range of chips as you, so you don’t get exclusive access to attack any and all pots. This is very applicable when looking at early position ranges (UTG or UTG+1).

You’ll only have position on two players post-flop (the blinds), and unless those players are the other larger stacks then if you start opening at an extremely high rate you’ll allow yourself to be taken advantage of by other big stacks who have position moving forward throughout the hand. 

So, it simply becomes a risk vs. reward proposition. You’ll open 10-15 percent more hands in early position than normal as a large stack, premiums as a medium stack, and only hands you’re willing to go with as a short stack. 

Being cognizant of the short and medium stacks is paramount as you have to be aware of their tendencies. Some players will allow you to run them over with impunity while others are jonesing to get it in. If you begin opening at an increased frequency with players who are ready to roll over, you’ll pick up truckloads of chips, inversely  you’ll be bleeding chips left and right if you open hands that can’t call jams and the players are wanting to get it in at every opportunity. 

Tournaments are so much more than just the cards. In cash games you are incentivized to play whatever style you feel appropriate to maximize winning every hand. This means that if you were offered a coin flip where you had 51 percent equity vs. their 49 percent you should happily accept. But because you only have one “life” in a tournament, there are many instances where it makes sense to forego slightly profitable opportunities in favor of other courses of action.

Craig Tapscott: How do the implied odds change when you are battling another similar sized stack?

Corey Paggeot: Generally, the more chips players have behind, the greater the implied odds available to both. Since similar stacks are affected by similar risk premiums, how aggressively we want to battle another big stack will largely depend on our positions.
Being in position affords us greater implied odds due to the fact that the out-of-position player may choose to over-invest in spots where we have the best hand or a clear equity advantage.

Nathan Gamble: There really aren’t implied odds in limit games as there are in big bet games. It’s a much more mathematically pure game. In no-limit hold’em, if I have a straight draw and my opponent bets 40 percent pot on the turn, I know I’m not getting the right odds and should theoretically fold (10,000 in the pot, opponent bets 4,000, you have to call 4,000 to win 14,000 which means you need 28.5 percent equity and are roughly 18 percent to hit). But if he has another 25,000 behind that you know you’ll lay claim to if you hit, then you’re getting 14,000 + implied odds of 25,000 which means you only need 10.25 percent equity on the turn to continue. 

Take the same example in limit hold’em, you will most likely only be able to win one or two more big bets on the river if you hit your draw, not the rest of his stack. Thus, it becomes a lot more correct to look at the price you’re being laid alongside the one or two bets you can win on the river.

Implied odds become significantly lessened and pattern recognition of players (how they play portions of their ranges in particular) become paramount so you can maximize on opportunities to either save a bet or win an extra bet. The best players in the world know how to get an extra bet or two while saving a bet when they’re beat. It doesn’t sound like much, but it certainly adds up to a lot of profit over time. ♠

*Photos by Card Player, World Poker Tour, and PokerGO.