Reading stack sizes

Reading stack sizes

Thursday, 3 March 2011

It’s not the size, it’s what you do with it… Jeff Kimber explains.

Ask any online pro what information you need to know in order to correctly play a hand of tournament poker and stack size will be close to, if not top of the list. Try telling him a bad beat story, and before you’ve even managed to tell him your two cards, never mind how unfortunately they got outdrawn, he will be asking you how much you had in your stack and how much the villain of the piece had before deciding whether it was unlucky, or just “standard”. You can spot the online players at live events easily – as well as looking like they’d better get home to do their homework, they’re also the ones asking, “How much have you got in total?” every time someone raises their blind or has the audacity to call their pre-flop raise.

But why is this information so crucial? As live players should we just put it down to kids who are used to playing on computers bringing their annoying habits to the live arena, or should we be trying to understand why and how they use this information to make better decisions?

Like many of the concepts embraced by today’s online pros, live players have been using stack sizes to garner information for years, just under a different heading. The same can be said of floating – an old guy may never have heard of the term, although he happily calls with no hand because he thinks he can bluff on later streets. He’ll re-raise someone pre-flop because he thinks his opponent has nothing, but won’t have a clue what a kid’s on about when he talks about “three-betting light”.

However, stack sizes are a bit different, because online players have taken the concept to a new level.

At its most basic, we all use stack size theory to some extent. If it’s passed round to us on the button and we look down at 7-2 off, with the blinds and antes in there, we might consider raising to steal. If the big blind has half his stack in as the blind, however, we know he is committed to calling and, with our pathetic holding, we must pass, as the hand will definitely go to showdown and we’re very unlikely to be winning.

We might also use stack sizes to help us get a read on a player. If a guy has 10,000 chips left and the blinds are 1k-2k, when he min-raises to 4k, we all probably ascertain that he wants some action with this hand and it’s therefore probably strong, otherwise he would have just shoved all-in.
Good online players have taken this thinking to the next phase. They always know their stack size, their opponent’s stack size and how that looks in relation to the blinds. Online they garner this information from the lobby, it’s always just a click away. Offline, they often have to ask, but feel it’s important enough to do so.

They will use an opponent’s stack size to put them to uncomfortable decisions when they have ‘awkward’ stack sizes. For example, if at 500-1k, an opponent that we have covered makes it 2,700 out of a 25k stack, we might use his stack size against him by three-betting in position with any two cards to 7,000.

Now our opponent is in a horrible situation. We are not deep enough for him to take a flop, especially out of position, so he is faced with either putting in his whole stack and hoping we fold, or folding and giving up the chips he raised.

To avoid being put into such situations, top online players will almost never raise with the intention of folding when short stacked, and will generally just move all-in with 15 big blinds or less. The only exception to this would be on the odd occasion they will try and level an opponent into believing they’re super strong by raising small off a 15BB stack and folding to the reraise, knowing their opponent must have a big hand if they’re moving in as they will believe there’s no way anyone would fold.
With under 20BB, there is no three-bet folding from the online guys – all three bets would be all-in, because with that stack size it’s not profitable to three-bet fold, and it’s obviously better to be first in than three-bet with the intention of calling the all-in.

Online pro Chris Moorman says stack size information is essential online because there is less of any other information available and, although that importance diminishes when live as you add in factors such as tells, table presence, attitude, etc, using stack sizes in the live area more would definitely improve people’s play.

He says: “A lot of the time online your only information is the player’s name and stack size, so if you know how aggressive people are with certain stack sizes, you can work out the best option from just those two key bits of information.

“Online, stack sizes are essential; live, I think less so, because you have more live reads to work off of. But a lot of great live players have these leaks where it’s just a shove or fold spot with their stack size but instead they'll just call.

“Obviously this doesn’t make them bad players, but if they correct that it would make them better tournament players.”

While there’s no question that, with the amount of variables in live poker, stack sizes don’t carry quite the importance they do online, it would be foolish to dismiss them when adding up all the information and trying to come to the right decision.

And even if you don’t think stack sizes have any bearing on how you play, being aware that other players at your table are using them to make decisions will help you play more deceptively and also help read their intentions.

Jeff Kimber is a pro.

Tags: Jeff Kimber, Strategy