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Poker School

How To Play With a Medium Stack In Online Poker Tournaments

Things you will learn:

  • How to play when you only have a medium-sized stack

Having a medium stack in tournaments is always an uncomfortable situation.

It's uncomfortable because you'll often be put in tough spots and need to make decisions over whether to hold back and conserve chips or try and build your middling chip stack into a big one.

First, let's define what a medium stack is.

Your view of this is going to vary hugely depending on the amount of chips in the tournaments you usually play. In terms of the number of big blinds, you usually stop being short-stacked when you have more than 12 big blinds. For the purposes of this article we'll focus on roughly 12 to 14 big blinds up to about 25 big blinds.

At 25 big blinds you'll have a lot of chips in most lower stakes tournaments. But it could be argued that you're still quite short-stacked in a bigger buy-in tournament where there are most likely some mammoth stacks around you and your manoeuvrability is restricted; however, for the purpose of this article, let's keep it within the 12-25 big blinds range.

Let's play

The tournament's structure will have a big effect on how you play your medium stack.

In faster structures, there's more pressure on you - and your chips will soon reach emergency levels. This should make you more inclined to take on 50/50-type situations (eg, playing for all your chips with hands like A-Q or 8-8 against an underpair or overcards).

In slower structures, medium stacks have more room to breathe. You might be able to chip away at your opponents' stacks, but you can still get away from hands - as you will have longer before the blind pressure becomes intolerable.

The mistake many players make when they have a medium stack is feeling too comfortable.

If you have chips towards the top of the middle stack range (say, 20-25 big blinds) it's still easy for all your chips to end up in the middle in one hand. Almost any re-raised pot pre-flop will be all-in by the flop. 

It could be argued that having between 12 and 16 big blinds is the hardest situation to be in.

This is because you're not under immediate threat from the blinds (or may not feel so) but if you do enter a pot you can very quickly become committed to it. This can lead to difficult spots with semi-strong hands and if you're called when attempting to steal the blinds.

Players often make the mistake of folding when it's correct for them to call.

  • For instance, let's say the blinds are 100/200 and you have 2,400 in chips (12 big blinds)
  • If you raise to 600 and the big blind calls there is now 1,300 in the pot and you have 1,800 left. It's now not possible to make a bet that doesn't commit you to the pot
  • You'll either have to get all your chips in or fold. You cannot bet and then fold to a raise as the odds you'll be getting to call are too great

The solution to this situation is to steal less and to re-steal and re-raise more. Any time you open a pot with a standard raise you should know what you'll do if you're re-raised. Although this is true at all times in No-Limit Hold'em, it's particularly important as a medium stack when you can be pot-committed so easily.

If you're going to make a standard raise as a blind steal with a medium stack (especially at the lower end of the range) you should choose your spots very carefully. If you get action from a tight player you'll very often have to shut down after the flop.

Applying pressure

Re-raising and re-stealing are very important weapons to have when possessing a medium stack.

Both moves can be used to put a lot of pressure on your opponents and maximise your ways to win, by either forcing your opponents to fold or by having the best hand at showdown if called. As a medium stack you restrict your opponents' options when you re-steal - they can only call or fold.

Re-raising pre-flop is generally a better option than calling in No-Limit Hold'em, and with a medium stack it's almost always the better option. This is due to a combination of it being better to commit your chips as the aggressor, particularly in a situation where you may well end up committed later in the hand, but crucially because you're putting pressure on your opponents to fold. Other medium stacks will often fold too much in tournaments giving your re-raises great equity.

Re-stealing is valuable for the same reasons and if you pick the correct spot it greatly increases your equity in the tournament - as you're winning more chips than your fair share.

With more and more players opening pots with marginal hands to steal the blinds it's vital you have it in your armoury. When looking to re-steal from an opening raiser you need to consider the range of hands he will bet with and the range of hands he'll call a re-raise with. Obviously the more likely the raiser is to be stealing the more often you should re-steal. You can do this with a very high frequency if the player doesn't call re-raises often enough (most players you'll encounter).

So, for example, you're in the big blind with blinds of 100/200 and you have 3,000 chips. An aggressive player with 4,000 chips raises to 600 from the button. You should be looking to move in here reasonably often. If he's a typical player he'll be opening with a huge number of hands that can't call your all-in. If they fold you pick up 900 chips, increasing your stack by 30 percent. If you're called and double-through you're well on your way to becoming a big stack again. Any time you find a hand with some value (especially hands that play well against an opener's calling range, eg, suited connectors) you have an opportunity to push your medium stack.

Battling the shorties

The final note to leave you with is about playing against short stacks when you have a medium stack. When raising a short stack you have to think about what kind of player they are. If they have the kind of stack that's likely to make a stand you should tighten up your opening and stealing standards.

On the other hand many players don't call enough when a short stack moves in. This is because you've correctly been taught to be the aggressor in pots. However, if the short stack is moving in with a substandard hand this can be a great opportunity to get some chips in positive equity situations. Just remember to consider which stacks are left to act after you.

Medium stacks can be difficult to play and greater experience at spotting the right situations to commit chips is the key to improving your play of them. Just remember to always be an active player and look for opportunities to put pressure on your opponents.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

It's no fun when you're stuck in the wrong place...

Being sandwiched between a big stack and a short stack is a typical situation for a medium stack and can often force you to make tournament-defining decisions. Imagine you have an aggressive chip leader to your left on the button and an aggressive short stack to your immediate right who keeps shoving all-in. You are in the cut-off when the short stack shoves all-in. How should you play the following hands from the cut-off?

  • Blinds: 100/200
  • Big stack: 19,000
  • You: 5,500
  • Short stack: 1,400

With K? Q?

Usually pass. Calling is dodgy as it invites a raise from the players behind or others may enter the pot giving you a tricky post-flop situation. Moving in is an option but the hand is not very strong, and if another player calls you're almost always behind and often dominated.

With 8? 8?

Move in or occasionally pass. Calling isn't an option because it invites others into the pot and the hand plays badly post-flop. Moving in is a good option, as you'll often isolate the all-in player who you are usually ahead of. However, there is the risk that the big stack could find a hand and put your tournament life in jeopardy too, so passing is also fine.

With A? A?

Move in or call - both options have their merits. Moving in is fine with any big hand in this spot. However, calling is also an option as the weak-looking call may induce a squeeze play from the big stack or another aggressive player in the blinds, putting you in a great position to double up.

Balancing act

Whatever stage you're at in a tournament make sure you've got a plan of how to build your tower.

Early stages

Vary your play according to the structure. If it's a slow structure, try and steal your way to a big stack. If the structure is fast, look to get your chips in even when you're marginally ahead - taking a 50/50 race if necessary, especially if you're getting better odds on the call. Build that stack for the big blinds to come.

Middle stages

This is where it's vital not to sit on your medium stack. Use it to make plays and take calculated risks to give yourself a shot at the big prizes. Don't sit on your stack or the blinds will turn your medium stack into a small one.

Late stages

Balance aggression with avoiding unnecessary confrontations. Keep the pressure on your tight opponents who are looking to move up in the money with re-raises and re-steals. Try to avoid playing hands that you're not willing to be completely committed to.