May 17, 2006

Short stack is power?

i was once talking to someone about playing in a no limit cash game in las vegas, when he asked me how much i generally buy in for. i told him about 40-50 big blinds usually seemed reasonable for me. his reaction fell somewhere between shock and "this motherfucker is crazy". after all, wouldn't buying in for $200 at a $2-$5 no limit table at the wynn (where there is no max buy-in and people regularly buy-in for $1000) be complete suicide?
"why would you leave yourself so short-stacked? that just seems crazy when everyone has so much more cash on the table. you have no power."
we've been trained, by espn and the wpt, that big stacks are power in no limit hold'em. the logic is that, without a big stack, you will constantly be crushed by players raising you out of hands while you wait for premium cards to "get your money in good". yes, this is always true for no limit hold'em tournaments where the blinds escalate and the ratio of a stack to the big blind is anywhere from 10-30. in these situations, a poker player isn't only playing against the other players, but also against the blinds (which always seem to be chasing him) and the threat of death (elimination). when you're getting pushed around by a big stack in a no limit hold'em tournament, you're really getting pushed around by three different factors. it's these factors that often make raising on the button with K2 suited late in a tournament correct. in a tournament, the big stack is always best. let's take an example: i'm on the bubble of a tournament, with only about 10x the big blind left. a late position big stack raises to 4x the big blind. it's folded to me. i'm on the BB and look down to see Ad2d. what exactly do i do? i'm handcuffed by his raise. i can fold, letting myself get even shorter. i can move all-in (when he would be mathematically bound to call with almost any two cards) as a favorite over very few hands and risk my tournament life. or i can call the raise, committing another 3rd of my chips to the pot, pot-committing myself for all my chips. calling and then folding on the flop after a bet would pretty much be suicide. but what about cash games? i've often thought that it is a huge misconception that the biggest stack is always best. and then i listened to The Circuit interview, with Gabe Thaler yesterday in which he echoed my thoughts. thaler's contention, seconded by joe sebok, is that in a no limit cash game, being the small stack is not necessarily a disadvantage. in fact, he believes that it can be a great position to be in. in a no limit cash game, two of the three factors that push on a tournament small stack are taken away. busting out of a cash game or getting a stack that's low in relation to the blinds merely means it's time to re-buy. in a cash game, the term "small stack" rarely means 5x the big blind. it usually means 30-40x the big blind, and this is a big difference. without the pressure of elimination, players have time to wait for a big hand and can still get paid out substantially for it. taking our previous example, seeing that bare Ad2d on the big blind in a cash game as the "short" stack is a whole different story. now i have 30-40x the big blind. chances are, i just pitch these two cards into the muck without even thinking about it. i'm not pressured by the fact that i am running low on chips in relation to the blinds. i can wait for a better spot. now what happens when i actually look down at AA instead of A2? i have a ton of different options against one player (smooth-call, min-raise, standard raise, move-in to like a steal, check-raise the flop all-in), with the potential to double-up. and really, that's all i want. i can just sit around waiting, with the sole purpose of doubling-up. on the other hand, being the big stack in a cash game means that you have all of that money to lose. yes, you can put pressure on your opponents by raising often, but if they're smart they will play back at you when they have the goods, making you susceptible to becoming everyone's banker. pushing people around in a cash game isn't quite as easy because you don't have your two henchmen to help you (blinds and elimination). you're the guy who everyone else is looking to trap or double-up through. they're much more likely to flop a hidden set and milk your top pair for a big score. they have enormous implied odds because you can completely fund their double-up. that's not even mentioning the psychological aspect that barry greenstein raises in his book. greenstein says that he always buys in short to cash games because it builds better discipline and focus in his play. the argument against this school of thought (made on The Circuit by Gavin Smith) is that you want to be the big stack because you always want to get maximum value when you make a big hand. if i flop a straight against someone's two pair, i want to get ALL of his money in one shot. the only way to do that is to have him out-chipped. and yes, this is true, but it also means that you need to be making tremendous decisions after the flop, all the time. you need to extract maximum value from your big hands and escape with minimal damage from your second-best hands. most of all, you need a wild and crazy enough image to get action when you want it. that seems like a pretty tough way to play for me. at the end of the day, the wonderful thing about poker is that there's no one way to win money. but i do think that for the player who isn't positive he can always make the right post-flop decision, being the "short" stack in a no limit cash game has its advantages. in some ways, it's possibly more "powerful" than having a large stack. you have all your options available and one goal in mind: double up.

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