Texas Hold ‘em: Strategy by Stack Size


Few things in life feel better than sitting at a poker table with a giant stack of chips in front of you. Knowing that you’ve achieved prosperity through a combination of skill, proper decision making and, let’s face it, a little bit of luck, provides the kind of rush that can rarely be found.

On the other hand, having only a handful of chips in front of you, as you sit for what seems like hours waiting for a playable hand, can be depressing. But that position is the one that probably tests your poker mettle more than any other.

No matter how high your chip stack stands, you will have to learn effective strategies for each circumstance, because if you play enough poker you will find yourself facing all of them.

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Playing a Short Stack

Playing with a short stack in Texas Hold ‘em is not only mentally stressful, it severely limits your options. Most people will approach the situation in one of two ways. They will either play extremely tight, waiting to catch one big hand that can turn their fortunes, or look for the earliest opportunity to gamble, figuring that it’s going to take some luck to rebuild their stack. Both options have their merits, and deciding which one works for you depends on your personality, general style of play and how you feel about the environment of the table at the time.

One thing to note about playing a short stack in no limit Texas Hold ‘em is that, whenever possible, you should be looking to move all of your chips in before the flop. Your best shot at winning a hand comes when you’re matched up against fewer opponents. So if you can make a bet that will limit the other players in the hand, you greatly improve your odds of winning.

Taking the conservative road – waiting for that one big hand – is typically the more common strategy when sitting on a short stack. Assuming you still have enough chips to avoid being blinded off (in tournaments, that risk is more prevalent), you should be able to hang around long enough to find at least one hand where you’ll feel comfortable moving your last few chips into play.

Deciding which hands qualify under that strategy is fairly simple. All you have to do is apply the same rules that any ultra-conservative player would. That means limiting yourself to pocket pairs of eights or better or higher combinations of face cards, like ace-king, ace-queen or king-queen.

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Without a pair or suited connectors, it may be best to play conservatively on a short stack.

If you aren’t the type to wait around, your range of playable hands greatly expands. This strategy applies more often in tournaments, where the blind structure is higher than it is in cash games, often forcing you to make a quicker move.

Hands that you may want to include when looking to gamble your way back to a bigger stack would include pretty much any suited connector, even combinations that have a one or two card gap, like a 5-7 suited or 7-10 suited. At least with those hands you should have a fighting chance, especially if you’ve moved all-in before the flop, which probably means you’ll be facing one or two other players, both of whom will likely have high cards.

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Suited connector cards like a 5 and 7 of diamonds may be worth a gamble with a short or medium stack of chips.

Playing a Medium Stack

An average-size chip stack doesn’t necessarily require any special strategic thinking beyond the tactics you would normally use. Many players will play slightly tighter in that situation, figuring it gives them the best shot at building a larger fortune, but there aren’t any hard and fast rules for medium stack play other than finding a basic style with which you’re comfortable.

Playing a Large Stack

This is where Texas Hold ‘em gets really fun. With a large chip stack you’ll be able to apply pressure to your opponents almost at will. Simply having a lot of chips in front of you often intimidates other players, and makes it easier to bend them to your will.

Again, there are two primary strategies for this situation. Some people like to sit on their money, figuring they’ve made a profit and don’t want to put that at risk. For those who are in desperate need of that money, this strategy makes sense.

However, having a big stack of chips opens up your ability to play any and every style in the book, and to not take advantage of that is sacrilegious to many experienced players.

First off, when you have a big stack, calling becomes an option you should almost entirely avoid using. You have a lot of chips – use them. Even if you’re not sure where you stand in a particular situation, raising is almost always going to be the bet you want to make. Use the inherent power of the big stack to your advantage. Your opponents might fold the best hand simply because they’re afraid to tangle with you.

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Playing with a large stack can give you a great opportunity to take chances for a big payoff.

Secondly, be willing to gamble, especially if the betting is relatively small. Do you have a flush draw where the pot odds might not be entirely in your favor? Bet, raise or call to see another card. If you’ve accumulated a lot of chips it’s probably because you’re running well. Try to keep that run going.

Finally, have no fear. Sure, there’s always the chance you could hit a bad run and lose everything you’ve built (and you don’t want to go off the deep end with wild play), but the time for fear is when you’re down to your last few dollars and can’t figure out whether you want to order food, let alone call a bet. Poker is supposed to be fun, and there is nothing more enjoyable in the game than being able to take control of a table with a giant stack of chips.