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Poker Strategy: Stack Management For Limit Hold'em Tournaments

Ben Yu Explains How To Apply "L" To Tournament Format

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Ben YuIn 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.

I’ve written about avoiding variance as a shortstack. Now I’d like to cover a variety of nuances on a broader scale.

Limit Holdem Tournaments Versus Cash Games

Structurally, limit holdem tournaments are very similar to their cash-game sisters. The only notable differences are nothing being raked out of the pot (applies to all tournaments) and the small blind not always being half of the big blind because of level increases. In most live tournaments, there will be levels in which the small blind will be between one-third and two-thirds of the big blind.

Adjusting for Small Blind Size

Accounting for a different-sized blind is straightforward at first glance. When smaller, you should play tighter, when larger, you should play looser. However, there are subtle differences to consider. In late position, the change is a much larger consideration.

When you raise in early position, how much you win or lose in the long run is based on how your hand interacts with the entire table, resulting in more multiway pots. When you raise in late position, a larger percentage of your winrate is stealing the blinds and navigating heads-up pots where you’ve chopped up the small blind’s dead money two ways. Therefore, it’s not worth altering your range much in early position, but more crucial to adapt as it folds to you towards the button.

It’s also worth considering what hands you should become looser or tighter with. This partially depends on the small blind itself. If she adjusts by three-betting more, I add hands with showdown value to my range to prepare for heads-up confrontations. If she tends to call, I would rather increase my hand density with high implied-odds holdings such as suited connectors. Open-raising hands such as A-3 offsuit from the cutoff is much less attractive when the pot is frequently going to be three-handed.

When You Are the Small Blind

When the small blind is smaller, the obvious adjustment is to play tighter. When it is bigger, you should likewise play looser, but should that be via calling or reraising more? Many players adapt by flatting, even though they typically utilize a three-bet or fold strategy in other scenarios.

I prefer to widen my three-betting range and never call. I don’t think its horrendous to cold-call, but the immense odds I’m offering the big blind and how unbalanced my range would be make me cringe. It would be difficult to construct calling and reraising ranges which both have a variety of hands, so I avoid that problem by three-betting everything. There are situations that make calling more palatable, such as if there is a weak player in the big blind or if you heavily need to avoid variance. However, even in these situations, it’s worth considering the free information you are presenting to your opponents as the flop comes.

Play In Limit Holdem Tournaments

The most defining characteristic of limit hold’em tournaments is that players are much tighter than their cash-game selves. As levels increase, players become increasingly concerned with survival, making the money, pay jumps, and their final table prospects.
Unlike no-limit, or the stud games, there are no antes, so there are less incentives to contend for each pot. This results in more correct play, as rounders tend to be too loose in limit hold’em cash games, without amazing postflop skills to justify it. As professional Jimmy Fricke deduces, “while in no-limit hold’em tournaments, you are rewarded for your opponents playing either too tight or too loose, in limit hold’em tournaments, you’d just prefer them playing too loose.”

Bluff More, Value-Bet Less

Despite playing better, these adjustments leave themselves susceptible to other plays. The best ways to counter a weak-tight strategy are to bluff more and value-bet less. However, being selective improves this strategy — specifically, tight players are more likely to miss low and middle-card flops, which are excellent candidates to attack.

Here is an example of a strong bluff made better by a stressful tournament atmosphere:
A player raises in the lojack (seat acting before the hijack) and we defend QHeart Suit JHeart Suit in the big blind. The flop comes 8Diamond Suit 7Spade Suit 5Heart Suit and we check-raise their continuation bet, planning on betting most turns. When we don’t turn a good bluff card like a four, six, nine, or ten, we often pick up a pair or backdoor-straight and/or flush draw, buffering our equity and minimizing the punishment for shoveling money in as an underdog.

This type of bluff can be attempted in a cash game, but shines here. In the pressure cooker that is a tournament, a tight opponent is likely to have big cards which miss this flop, having folded hands such as A-8 preflop. Even when they connect with the flop, they are also more likely to fold scary turn cards with hands such as A-7 suited, in the name of stack preservation.

Even though thin value-bets are a key weapon in the arsenal of expert limit hold’em players, they are less effective when the game is played as a tournament. Hands that would normally be a river value-bet, such as third pair, become value-cuts when opponents have defaulted to check/calling instead of betting themselves.

Adjusting Your Starting Hands

The implementation of these tactics is improved if we alter our preflop range. By planning to make fewer value-bets and more bluffs, showdown value is less of an asset and lack of showdown value less of a liability. The result is that suited connectors show improved play while showdown based holdings such as A-x are worse.

The chart below illustrates some reasonable additions and subtractions from a standard opening range, using the cutoff as an example. We remove some A-x and mediocre king hands while boosting our number of suited holdings.

Know When This Doesn’t Apply

These suggestions are generalizations. I’ve certainly played in tournaments where the advice here is worse than useless. For instance, some players are tight preflop and resolve never to fold postflop — trying to bluff them is counterproductive. Even though I have diagnosed their playing style correctly, the remedies prescribed in this article would be poisonous. No matter what strategies you come into a tournament with, it’s ultimately crucial to stay focused on the hands in front of you and play poker. ♠

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.