Pokey’s No-Limit Strategy to Playing Stacks: Part 1

No-limit Texas Hold’em is a game of variable complexity. It can be a very straightforward game that requires little thought or it can be a ridiculously complex game of subtleties and nuances. The degree of difficulty in No-limit Hold’em is primarily measured by one variable: effective stack sizes. As effective stack sizes increase, the degree of difficulty in no-limit Hold’em increases as well. With stacks of 10 BBs or less, Hold’em becomes a game of rock-paper-scissors, with little strategic thought involved. With stacks over 1000 BBs, every game becomes a psychological, strategic, and mathematical nightmare: every bed has monsters underneath, and every bet carries the threat of a financially devastating raise. What’s more, the skill of a player becomes increasingly important as the stack sizes increase.

Ah, but that’s the GOOD news! You, the student of the game, should revel in large stack sizes, because they give you the greatest opportunity to use (abuse?) your skill advantage over your opponents. For example:

Pokey’s Overly Simplistic Short-Stack Guide To Playing Poker

1. Buy in at a ten-handed table for the absolute minimum (ideally 1 BB, but no more than 20 BBs).
2. Wait until you get a “premium hand”; that is, a hand that is in the top 1/8th of possible holdings: pocket pairs 77+, A5s+, any two broadway cards, any two suited cards that are both 9 or higher.
3. Push all the money into the middle.
4. If you win, rathole your winnings (leave the table and go to a different one so that you’re back down to the minimum buy-in).
5. If you lose, rebuy and try again.

If your opponents always get out of your way when you push, you’ll win the blinds once every eight hands (on average) and pay the blinds once every ten hands, so you’ll come out ahead (by a tiny fraction) over the long run. If your opponents play back at you, you’ll have a solid holding that does well against the average hand, and could easily win. The concept behind this strategy isn’t my own, rather it originates in David Sklansky’s Tournament Poker For Advanced Players. It is also further developed by Blair Rodman and Lee Nelson in their book Kill Phil. While I have dramatically oversimplified the idea, the more refined approach described in the above books works very effectively in tournaments (where you are often short-stacked late in the event), and applies equally well to short-stacked cash play.

My point is that short-stacked play is formulaic. If done right it will consistently make a small amount of money, but it’s also boring, mundane, intellectually void, and BARELY profitable. Yes, you could eke out a tiny win over the long haul just playing perfect short-stack strategy, but if you want to play WELL smart poker, effective poker, thinking poker, PROFITABLE poker, then you need to reach back for some courage and buy in big. Only when there’s a large amount of money in play can your superior knowledge and strategy help you to dominate and brutalize your opponents, and only when the stacks are big can your win rate soar.

Poker gets harder as the stacks get bigger, but it also gets DIFFERENT as the stacks get bigger. How do you change things around? Well, the first thing is to adjust your starting hands.

With tiny stacks (20 BBs or less), you’re playing a preflop game. Once the pot is raised preflop and called, you’re often going to a showdown with all the money in the middle. That means that with the very tiny stacks, you need a hand that can either hold up on its own or improve to a small but winning hand. Suited connectors go WAY down in value. Ace-rag suited is of moderate value. Any two broadway cards are very strong. Any pair is a dynamo. One key thing to remember: people watch too much TV, so when the stacks get small, everybody thinks they’re at the final table of the WSOP. With stacks of 20 BBs or less, preflop all-in pushes become VERY common, and often occur with absolute garbage. WATCH FOR THIS. When you see an opponent who buys in for the minimum and pushes twice an orbit, wait for a decent (not great, just decent) hand, and CALL HIM. When I say “decent,” I mean an ace with a jack-or-better kicker, or a pair of eights or better. With the eights, you’ll often be a coin-flip against him, but a player who pushes extremely often will push with any ace. Given that A2 through A7 will only beat your pocket eights 30% of the time, you’ll win good money in the long run with this strategy. You want to beat shorty, sure, but much like a Shamrock Milkshake at McDonald’s, shorty is here for a limited time only: if you don’t take his money, someone else at the table will. You need to balance win frequency against the number of opportunities you’ll have to fire at him. If you lose, you lose, but you’ve got to take your shots while you can.

With medium-sized stacks (50 BBs or so), the game becomes longer. No longer is Texas Hold’em a preflop game. Now, the flop starts to matter. Even after a preflop raise, nobody is completely pot committed, and play on the flop is no longer rote. Implied odds begin to make a difference too, and your opponent’s stack is now large enough that it can be worth it to take improper immediate odds on a bet, so long as that stack is in play. For example, say you’ve got 87o in the big blind and three people limp. The flop comes A96 unsuited, giving you an open-ended straight draw to the nuts. The small blind opens the betting for a pot-sized bet. How do you respond? With eight outs to a winner, you’re about a 4.9-to-1 dog to win this hand, so those 2-to-1 odds look pretty unpleasant. However, that bet from the small blind is not necessarily the last money to go into the middle in this hand. We need to consider that there are potential bets to be won on the turn and river, and with about 15 times the size of that initial bet behind him, the small blind could easily offer us sufficient implied odds to make a call worthwhile.

Unfortunately, our play here is less about a mathematical formula and more about understanding our opponents. What kind of player is this small blind? Is he the sort who is willing to get stacked with top pair and a decent kicker? Can he escape from a good hand when you raise or reraise? Will he stab at flops but fold turns unimproved? Does his bet imply a powerhouse? A speculative hand? Just about anything? And what about the other two people left to act in the hand can we expect a big reraise after we call? Will they fold if we raise immediately? Will they smooth-call, padding the pot even further? There are many factors to consider, here, and none of them are easy.

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