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March 23rd, 2009
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Poker Lesson: Playing a Medium Stack in Early Position
Author: Allen Cunningham
For obvious reasons, we’d all rather have a medium stack than a short stack. But there is one advantage to being short-stacked: your decisions are easy. With a medium stack, almost every decision you make is complicated and almost every move is awkward.
A medium stack is defined as when you have about 30-40 big blinds, and learning how to play it is absolutely vital to tournament success. In most tournaments, you’ll have a stack that size from about the time half of the field has been eliminated all the way to the final table.
This means you’ll potentially spend up to half of your tournament in a position where every pot you play is pivotal and every decision is tricky. You have far too many chips just to open-shove, like you would with a smaller stack, and if you open for a standard raise, that’s already close to 10 percent of your stack that you’re putting at risk. So you can’t play too loose.
That said, you have to keep things in perspective: if you play too tight, you’ll quickly find yourself a short stack because of the rising antes and blinds. This can get even more complicated if you’re at a table with a lot of aggressive players; the temptation will be to play extra tight so you don’t waste chips raising and then folding. Always keep in mind that there will be times when you’ll have to take risks because the blinds and antes you can win by open-raising will help keep you afloat.
Focusing purely on the challenge of playing a medium stack in early position, my advice is that you should mostly be playing hands that you’re willing to play for your entire stack: if you’ve got pocket Tens or higher or even A-K, you want to try to get it all in. While you can expand this range to include pocket 8s and 9s, A-Q, A-Js or K-Qs, these are hands that you might want to get away from if you’re re-raised by a solid player.
Let’s say blinds are 250/500, I have 15,000 in my stack, and I’m dealt pocket Jacks. If I make a standard raise to 1,500, and a player in late position re-raises to 4,500, I’m just going to go ahead and shove all of my money in and hope for the best. I really can’t afford to be throwing those hands away with that sized stack.
If the situation is identical but I get smooth-called and the flop doesn’t scare me – something like 9-7-4 rainbow – I’m going to bet the flop and continue betting, raising or check-raising until I’m all in no matter what my opponent does. Without a scare card on board, you really can’t get away from the hand. You also don’t want to give free cards when the pot is already sizeable and any Ace or King could freeze you.
An exception to following through like that comes if I’m up against an aggressive player. Say I have pocket Jacks and make a standard pre-flop raise, an opponent in late position calls, and the flop comes Q-7-4 rainbow. Odds are that my Jacks are still the best hand, so I have to take my chances and proceed as if they are. But since my opponent is aggressive, I’ll check to him, and if he bets, I’ll check-raise him all-in. I’m giving him a chance to bluff, then protecting my hand with a big all-in bet if he does bluff. That will often work better than throwing out a continuation bet, which could make him fold any hand worse than mine. It’s also reasonable to make this play with A-A, A-Q or as a bluff with A-K.
Playing a medium stack in later positions is a different proposition. You’ll often have to deal with a raise from an early-position player, and if you don’t, the hand range you can open with is considerably wider.
But in early position, a tight-aggressive approach is definitely your best bet. Be careful about which hands you play, but once you decide to play a hand, be prepared to push with it.
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