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The Importance of Stack Sizes in No-Limit Hold’em Cash Games

By Tony Guerrera

When playing tournaments, good players pay close attention to how deeply stacked their opponents are. Good tournament players know that their opponents will typically change how their playing styles as a function of their stack sizes. They also know that their prize pool equity in a tournament is a direct function of everyone’s stack size (see the series of articles here on Poker Helper about Independent Chip Modeling).

Players sometimes overlook that stack sizes are also important in cash games. The depth of the stacks has a large impact on postflop play. Understanding this is essential if you are to be a top cash game player.

Stack Sizes Affect Implied Odds

Implied odds refer to the amount of money you can anticipate your opponents putting into the pot on future betting rounds. No-limit hold’em is largely a game of implied odds. Many of your big pots will be the result of your opponents not being able to lay down good hands against your excellent hands….excellent hands which, because of the betting structure in no-limit hold’em, you usually won’t be getting sufficient straight-up pot odds to draw to. Deeper stacks typically lead to more favorable implied odds, but exceptions exist.

Suppose you hold 55 in the big blind in a $1-$2 no-limit game. An early position player raises to $8, and there’s one caller. Let’s assume that the raise and the caller both have $600 behind. You are getting $19:$6, or slightly better than $3:$1 to call. The odds against you hitting a set or better with your pocket pair are 7.55:1, meaning that you need to have at least $27.30 in your stack after calling ($4.55:$1 = $27.30:$6). However, when considering reverse implied odds and the probabilities that your opponents might not necessarily have anything that they’ll put money in when you hit your set, you realistically need to be more deeply stacked.

If you have $40, calling will leave you with $34, which is less than six times the raise of $6. If you only have $40 in your stack, you probably aren’t getting proper implied odds to draw to your set. Meanwhile, if you have $100 in your stack, you are getting huge implied odds because, as long as one of your opponents has at least a pair, you’ll probably end up getting all-in. Meanwhile, if you have $500 in your stack, your implied odds might actually be less than they are in the case where you only have $100. The reason for this is that your opponents might control the pot size in a different way because the stacks are so deep. Against aggressive opponents who might bluff you on the river, or opponents who are unable to lay down top pair in heavy fire, then your implied odds will be gigantic, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that implied odds are only a function of how deep the stacks are because…

Stack Sizes Affect the Game Dynamic

Your opponents will play differently based on the relative stack sizes, and a big part of playing optimal cash game no-limit hold’em is realizing that there’s an optimal stack size for every game you play in. When I wrote Killer Poker By The Numbers, I made the common claim that the most skilled player should always want as many chips in front of him as possible. However, as time has passed, I’ve realized that this classic tome of poker wisdom is false (like many others) because the variables at play are much more nuanced than presupposed. The optimal stack size to have at a table isn’t a function of how you play; instead, it’s really a function of how your opponents play.

In today’s climate of no-limit hold’em, it’s tough to extract value from all your opponents…especially on the turn. If stacks are sufficiently deep, it seems that many players are tighter on the turn than they used to be. They know that they’ll most likely have to face a tricky decision on the river. Of course, you can exploit this trend by doing more bluffing on the turn. However, it would be narrow-minded of us to disregard the possibility that it might be more profitable to play straightforward, hit-to-win poker with shorter stacks against such foes.

Buying In For Too Much Money Might Intimidate Weak Foes

To illustrate this point, I’ll use an example from a game I played in about 2 years ago at The Wynn. I was playing in the no-max buy-in no-limit hold’em game with $1-$3 blinds at The Wynn. I’m trying to remember how much I bought in for initially, and I want to say it was something like $400. Not much was happening at the table. Basically, I was playing straightforward tight-aggressive poker at a table filled with loose players who would give me their money once I caught something.

After a little bit of waiting (maybe 45 minutes), I got the opportunity I was looking for. This hand happened a very long time ago, so I can’t recall the precise details, but basically, I flopped the nuts, and a TON of money went in on the flop. There was a bet and a raise, and the size of the raise combined with a read I had indicated that I’d get called if I pushed all-in. After pushing all-in, the initial bettor called after much deliberation, and the raiser folded. The guy called me with a flush draw…he took way the worst of it with his call, but he hit his flush and took down a big pot. The guy was stacking his chips and getting ready for the next hand, and I bought in for $1,000 (which by no coincidence was about how much money he had in front of him). After he saw I bought in for $1,000, he took his $1,000 and left the table.

Now, perhaps this guy was leaving anyway after winning what he said was the largest pot he’d ever been in, but I do think that my buying in for $1,000 had some impact on his decision to leave. If I had bought in for $300 or $400 instead, perhaps he would have stayed, and I would have kept a really weak player at the tables. Of course, not all players will take their chips and run, but this story motivates the important idea that many intangibles can influence how much to buy-in for.

Experiment and Find What Works Best

As you become experienced and play at a wide variety of tables, you’ll find the weaknesses of various classes of players as a function of the stack sizes in play. It’s possible to be a good, winning player without considering the impact of stack sizes on your hourly win rate; however, for those looking to extract every little bit possible per hour, ignoring the impact of stack sizes on postflop game play and on your hourly win rate is a huge mistake. I encourage all the players I coach to experiment with playing in games with varying stack sizes to see which stack sizes lead to the highest hourly win rate, and I encourage you to do the same.

Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker By The Numbers


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