Going From Short Stack to Deep Stack
In my last column, I
discussed the deficiencies of relying on a short-stack strategy for beating
no-limit hold'em. I can understand why a neophyte might adopt such a strategy
for a few sessions to learn the game before putting larger sums at risk, but it
is too limiting a strategy for someone aspiring to become a good player. Here is
what to do in order to get off that crutch:
The most important thing you need to do is change your mindset. A good poker player also needs to be a good gambler. One of the things a good gambler does is understand the main situation in which opportunity comes knocking. That situation is when human emotion takes over from reason and discipline. People keep score by the session, not by the week, month, or year. They much prefer to quit a game when ahead than when stuck. Many people play a different game when they are behind, entering pots with inadequate values, bluffing too much, and calling big bets, hoping opponents are trying to bluff them. The pots get much bigger as a session progresses, and the quality of play disintegrates. The point where players
who are stuck are flying around on weak hands is the point where a good gambler starts to get dollar signs in his eyes - and the point where those with "hummingbird heart" have already cashed out their small win and left.
I am not trying to tell you that you have to keep playing during the wee hours of the morning and you are tired (though many professional players do that). I play a lot worse when I'm tired, and have a strong dislike for playing much beyond my bedtime. Poker has changed a lot in recent years. One of the biggest changes is that there is always a game that you can play in the next day. There is less reason to play late. But why would a person, after playing only a few hours, quit a good game because he ran lucky and won a couple of big pots? When people get stuck, your earn is much greater.
We call quitters "hit-and-run" players. I have to admit that I have made a hit-and-run move on rare occasions, but not without a good reason. Let me give you an example:
At the 1980 World Series of Poker, I booked a hotel room for a month and took $4,000 with me to Vegas. That amount represented about half of my bankroll at the time. Looking back, I was being pretty optimistic, even though I was good at playing on short money.
My game plan was to start out playing no-limit hold'em with $5-$10 blinds and work my way up to bigger games later on. The first game I got into was a barnburner. Bill Smith was drunk and having a private war with an oil man from Houston - whose oil of choice that night was alcohol. These two were getting all in for thousands of dollars on nearly every hand. I managed to horn in on a few of these pots and was up about nine grand by midnight after doubling up on a hand. I now had a comfortable amount of money to last me the trip. My choice was to either sit there and hope to win about $50,000 or cash out and get a good night's sleep. One thing was certain: Having about $10,000 in front of me was certainly a long way from financial security, as it was probably going to have to go into the pot with something far removed from the nuts. I took the conservative course and cashed out. My strategy worked OK. I won about $30,000 for the trip and moved to Dallas that October. Of course, I might have won even more if I had stayed in that juicy game; we'll never know.
I hope that I have convinced you to admit that you are going to have to learn how to play a big stack so that you can sit in a great game and try to make a killing. Now we can talk about what adjustments to make in your play.
An important adjustment is that you must attach far more importance to position in evaluating your prospects. There are probably going to be four betting rounds coming into play on each deal, instead of the simple decision of whether or not to go all in on the flop. Turn and river decisions are going to be much more accurate if you have the benefit of acting after your opponent. This is particularly true with marginal hands, as the weakies and powerhouses are far easier to play. You have to realize that the value of a hand is based on a combination of what you hold and your position. The old hold'em adage of "solid in front, loose in the back" is still a good one to follow.
Another adjustment is to understand the large influence on your play of stack size. The combination of position and a big stack will enable you to bully another big stack. For example, you can raise on the flop when on a draw, exploiting the fact that for all the opponent knows, you have a hand of such large value that you are willing to play it for all of your money. The threat of chips that might be wagered but have not yet been put into the pot are what I like to call "leverage." A wager with leverage is a lot more of an intimidation factor than the all-in raise of a short stack, which will likely get called. Consequently, both betting a draw and making a stone-cold bluff are more likely to win the pot right away. That is why aggressive players do so well at deep-stack poker.
When you have a small stack, you move all in with a wide range of hands. If I had a stack of 20 big blinds, and someone raised the pot, I would undoubtedly move all in with A-K, Q-Q, or J-J and take my chances. If I had 100 big blinds, I would be likely to only call a raise, especially if I had position on my opponent. If I reraised instead of just called, I would consider it some kind of semibluff rather than a wager with which I had full values for my play.
When you look at these factors that are much more important in deep-stack play, it is easy to see that the game has much more skill in it than simply deciding whether to go all in with a short stack. So, take those training wheels off your bicycle. You may take a spill or two early on, but you also may become a Lance Armstrong.