September 8, 2006

'Short stack is power?' revisited

a few months ago, i wrote a post entitled Short stack is power? in which i discussed a theory that i had involving the power of a short stack (i.e. 40-50x the big blind) in a no limit hold'em cash game. in my experience up to that point, playing with a short stack in a no limit cash game had been profitable and i concluded that having a short stack in a no limit cash game, where blinds are non-escalating and create no additional pressure on the players, is the optimal way to play. interestingly enough, over the past few months as i've built greater discipline and self-reflection in my poker game, i've come to realize that the short stack approach is, in fact, not always optimal. like everything in poker, there are situations at the table where starting with a substantial stack is truly beneficial for cash game play. let's take a quick example hand from my week-long vegas trip in july. i was playing in a $5-$10 no limit game and was sitting with around my starting stack at the table. i had bought in for $400 and had lost a small pot to leave me with $370. certainly 37 big blinds fell well within my range of 'small stack cash game play', so i was fine. in late position, i picked up AcJs behind an extremely loose player who had raised to $30. he had me covered by a lot and i felt that i had a good read on his style of play. i called in position and the big blind called as well. the flop came down Jc-3d-4h. a great flop with me, with no flush draw and no real straight draws. after the big blind checked, the loose player put out a bet of $90. i was certain that i had the best hand given the player's style and figured that i was looking at a J with a worse kicker. the big blind looked as though he was ready to fold. in thinking over the situation, i debated between calling his bet of $90 (leaving me with $250 behind) or raising him immediately. i elected to call, wanting to make sure that i got all my money in against his probable 2- or 3-outter. this is, in fact, the small stack approach: find places to double through other players at the table. when the turn came with a blank and he stuck a bet of $150, i moved in for $100 more and he quickly called. he did, in fact, have J9 and i doubled up. hooray, right? a couple of weeks later, as i thought about the play of the hand, i started to realize where the 'small stack cash game' approach fails. in the hand described above, i had a great read on the player and the amount of money that i won was capped only by the size of my stack. if i had started the hand with $500, i probably would also have been able to double through him. in fact, even if i had started the hand with $800, i might have been able to double through him. my edge over him was substantial, but i had handcuffed myself by limiting my own value in the hand by having a small stack. at the same time, the opposite is also true. if my opponent had held a hand like QQ, leaving my stack size at $350 would have limited my loss in the hand. but when you have great positive EV in a game or against a player, why would you be interested in limiting the magnitude of your wins? as i thought back on my no limit cash game play from the week, the first things i remembered were the horrific bad beats. but as i reviewed the play further, i came to realize that the size of those bad beats were huge because i didn't always get full value out of other hands where i was certain to be a huge favorite. poker's a difficult game with lots of ambiguity. in the cases where you know and like where you stand, wouldn't it make sense to get as much of your money out there as possible? playing with a large stack takes careful understanding of the intricacies of hands. it's substantially more difficult than playing a small stack in a cash game. but if you're comfortable with your standing in the game, buying in for a substantial stack can make more sense because of the added value from your winning hands. at the end of the day, it depends. the size of your buy-in for a cash game is contingent upon not just the size of the blinds, but on your playing style, your edge in the game, and your ability to skirt past tricky hands. there are many factors to consider and i was wrong: a short stack is not always power...

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