Thursday, March 12, 2009

Stack Sizes in Limit Hold’em

Well of course size matters, silly!Have been continuing to play mostly brief sessions of $0.50/$1.00 fixed limit hold’em, almost exclusively six-handed. Spending most of my playing time on Poker Stars, where I’ve nearly cleared that deposit bonus I mentioned going for last month. I’m also Silver Star now, and so as soon as that deposit bonus clears I’m going to go ahead and trade some FPPs for cash as well.

Incidentally, if you hadn’t heard, Stars has lowered the FPP requirements for its VIP program. It now only takes 1,200 FPPs in a given month to reach Silver Star, and 3,000 FPPs for Gold Star. That means it will be a cinch for me to maintain Silver, and I could even conceivably push for Gold one month if I really wanted to do so, although I’m not really seeing much purpose to my doing that.

I essentially made the move back over to LHE from pot-limit Omaha on New Year’s Day, and so far the year has gone fairly well. To be honest, my profit per week has been about the same playing $0.50/$1.00 LHE as it was playing PLO25 and PLO50 (though much less swingy, natch). Not sure if that means I’m a better LHE player than PLO player, equally bad at both, or nothing at all. Likely the latter. In any case, I’ve been eyeing my win rate and bankroll and starting to have thoughts about moving up a notch to $1/$2 (where I’d been when I last played LHE regularly online about a year-and-a-half ago).

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve begun to notice one issue that I didn’t even really think was much of an issue when I came back to LHE -- stack sizes. Theoretically of little (or no) consequence, right? I mean it is fixed limit, so who cares if you have $20 or $200 behind?

No-limit and pot-limit games are fundamentally affected by stack sizes, which necessarily figure into just about every decision someone makes. When I was playing PLO, I finally got to the point (after several months of experimenting) where I routinely bought in for the maximum, which seemed to be the most potentially profitable choice given my style and skill level relative to that of my usual opponents.

Moving back over to fixed limit hold’em, I’ll admit I didn’t really give the buy-in much thought at all. Usually I just took whatever default buy-in was suggested to me by the software. PokerStars suggests $20 for the $0.50/$1.00 games, so that’s what I took. Full Tilt Poker suggests $10, and I similarly just clicked on through and sat down with the suggested amount over there, too. Necessarily noticed on FTP that I was having to rebuy any time I lost even one significant pot, and so began buying in for $20 there as well.

Finally it dawned on me. I shouldn’t buy in for just 20 big bets. I should buy in for more. And there are several good reasons why.

I have a number of books on my shelf that either focus primarily on LHE or have chapters or sections devoted to LHE. Few make any reference at all to stack sizes, which makes sense because there are a lot of other, more important factors to worry about. I’m finding a couple who do discuss the issue, though, and in both cases they are mostly focusing on how players psychologically respond to the stacks around the table.

'Internet Texas Hold'em' by Matthew HilgerIn his newly revised Internet Texas Hold’em, Matthew Hilger writes mainly about online play, and toward the end of the book has a short section on “Stack Sizes.” Hilger opines that players sitting at the fixed limit hold’em tables with small stacks generally fall into one of two groups: either they are playing lots of hands and thus have probably lost chips, or they are tight players who have just moved up from lower stakes. “Play aggressively against the scared player and don’t try to bluff the loose player,” Hilger advises. Clear enough.

With regard to one’s own stack, Hilger doesn’t specifically address how your own stack size might be interpreted by other players at the table, though one can infer that they’ll read your small stack similarly to how you read theirs. Hilger does recommend not letting your stack dip below ten big bets, thus leaving you in a situation where you may not have enough to maximize your profit should you hit a big hand. That said, Hilger says he “prefer[s] to sit down with at least forty times the big bet to minimize the chance [he] might have to add chips later.” That would be $40 at my $0.50/$1.00 tables. (Hilger’s discussion of stack sizes in LHE can be read online here.)

'Elements of Poker' by Tommy AngeloTommy Angelo also talks about the issue in Elements of Poker in a section titled “Stack Size Matters (Limit).” Angelo’s focus is primarily on live games, or “table games,” as he calls ’em. He starts off recommending that one “constantly survey the stacks” around the table for a couple of reasons: to remain aware of how people are doing, and to be prepared should you get involved in a hand with a player who hasn’t enough chips to play out a hand normally.

As far as one’s own stack goes, Angelo says “it is imperative to maintain a sizable stack at limit hold’em at all times,” both because you want to avoid ever getting into a hand without adequate chips to play it through and because of other, less quantifiable benefits that come from having big stacks of chips in front of you. When you are winning, you have lots and lots of chips, so you look like a winner. When you are losing, you still have a lot of chips in front of you, so you don’t look like a loser. And when you leave, you always are leaving with chips rather than not, which also tends to affect the way you feel about yourself. (The article, along with Angelo’s other discussions of stack sizes in no-limit cash games and tourneys, can be read online here.)

I do think that even at the $0.50/$1.00 tables other players will take note of your stack size and play accordingly. Thus, if I start with $20 and then manage to dip down under $10, I look vulnerable. Everyone knows I’ve lost a couple of pots, and I think the single digit has an added effect of suggesting further weakness (like I’m afraid to rebuy). If I start with $40, however, that issue generally doesn’t come up. I also don’t have to endure the dammit-I’ve-lost-and-now-have-to-rebuy-to-keep-playing feeling that isn’t always the most pleasant. Rebuying is a very small nuisance online, to be sure, but also can have a not-so-small psychological effect that can be avoided entirely if one starts out with a big enough stack to avoid having ever to do it.

Of course, some people seem to have no problem whatsoever with rebuying. I remember a session a couple of weeks ago in which I played a good while at one table with a fellow who constantly topped off his stack to $50 whenever he slipped even fifty cents below that mark. He’d win some hands and lose some hands, but to be honest I hadn’t really picked up on how he was doing overall. Finally it dawned on me that he must be losing pretty consistently if after all that time he was still sitting there with exactly $50. Checked PokerTracker afterwards and saw he’d dropped a whopping $60 in the 150 hands or so we’d played. (Of course, if I’d been using the PokerAce HUD I’d have seen just how much he was down while we were playing, but I’ve gotten out of the habit of using that.)

So I’ve been starting with $40. And I’ve been keeping track of what others have, too. It helps to have some idea who is winning and who is losing, and since many players just take the default buy-in, it is usually easy to see who’s up and who’s down.

Cash PlaysThis issue actually came up at the very beginning of the 2/26/09 episode of Cash Plays, the show over on PokerRoad that used to be hosted by Bart Hanson and has now been revived with Jeremiah Smith hosting. On that episode, Smith had Nick Schulman and Joe Cassidy as guests, and early on Schulman was talking about how he would play $100/$200 limit hold’em and would “always sit down with at least ten times what everyone else had on the table.”

“Why do limit players do that?” asked Smith. “You walk by a limit game, and you see players with a mountain of chips.” Schulman initially joked that he did it because he was an asshole, but added that he thought people “loved having tons of chips.” Cassidy agreed that “it is a perception thing.” “So it’s like a ‘mine is bigger than yours’ kind of thing?” asked Smith. His guests both agreed it was.

That’s part of it, for sure, but I think there’s definitely more going on here than just simple ego-boosting. As Al Alvarez eloquently put it in The Biggest Game in Town, “Chips are not just a way of keeping score; they combine with the cards to form the very language of the game.” And so the chips you have in front of you are always communicating something, even when they are sitting there quietly in stacks (large or small) before you while you play fixed limit hold’em.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Greylocks said...

One consideration in live games is that many if not most live cardrooms allow unlimited raises heads-up. Although most of the time this just means every one sits around getting bored and the house and dealer are losing income while two players with the nut straight keep raising each other, once in a blue moon you can get someone with an underfull or other non-nut hand to pay you off. For that reason alone I don't ever want to be small-stacked in a limit game where this rule is in effect. I'd want to keep at least 25 big bets on hand in case lightning strikes. In a game with a raise cap even heads-up, then I just make sure I have enough in case the maximum bets go in each street. Usually I'll have more than that on the table, but that would be my minimum stack size.

3/12/2009 4:29 PM  
Blogger Drizztdj said...

If you ever see me in Vegas at a limit table, I will have the biggest stack at the table.

Purely psychological. I can play looser/tighter and not worry about throwing in that extra bet when I think I'm good on the river.

3/17/2009 9:24 AM  
Blogger Timothy Post said...

Thanks for this blog post. I've done quite a bit of Googling and there's not much out there on the topic of stack sizes.

I am specifically interested in whether there is a material difference in a Limit Hold'em game due to the starting stack size (i.e. buy-in amount).

I'm playing in a Friday night game here in Russia (where, by the way, Texas Hold'em is considered a sport, not a game of chance, and is becoming super popular). There are 9 of us playing normally. We are all friends. We're playing 200/400 Rubles (i.e. $7.50/$15.00).

There is a soft minimum of 3,000 but generally 5,000 Rubles is considered the minimum. However, there is no maximum buy-in. A couple of the guys are very, very successful businessmen and think nothing of starting with 30,000 or 50,000 Rubles (approx $1,000 and $1,800 respectively).

I am interested in whether there is a material advantage to buying-in with such a large stack size? About half the guys at the table buy-in with 5,000 and the other half at 20,000 and up.

There is an unlimited rebuy policy and the guys who start with a large buy-in will often rebuy for another 20,000 when/if they lose their stack.

It's my contention that even though we are playing at Limit Hold'em game (we play Unlimit Hold'em after 12:00am) the guys who start with a larger buy-in stack have an advantage over the other half who start with the minimum of 5,000 Rubles.

I base my belief on the fact that if you take one of the guys with a 30,000 and another with a 5,000 stack, and both players are of equal ability, then the guy with the larger stack will have an advantage.

The advantage is not only because he can push the pot higher when he has a strong hand but also because he can see more flops/turns/and rivers then the guy with the 5,000 stack.

Specifically, the large stack guy can "invest" more to see more and thus, will increase his odds to improve a hand that was weak pre-flop and on the flop.

What are your thoughts? Should Limit Hold'em games have an equal buy-in for all players?

Thanks!

3/19/2009 8:16 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Great comments -- all good points.

Timothy, my instinctive response to the question with which you conclude is to say there's no need for a cap or any required buy-in for limit games. Theoretically speaking, it shouldn't make a difference whether or not a player has more chips behind than he can actually use in a given limit hand. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say it helps the shorter-stacked players to see & realize that the guys with the larger stacks are going to play a looser game -- just as any "tell" (of this sort) can provide helpful information. So I'd advocate letting folks buy in for whatever they please, since it doesn't technically affect how the game is played (like in PL or NL), and it becomes yet another part of the game -- an interesting one -- that is, to decide on the significance of players' buy-in amounts.

Incidentally, today I happened to notice Taylor Caby has written a Full Tilt "Tip from the Pros" in which he discusses "Pre-Game Online Tells." One of the topics he addresses is buy-in amounts. Caby isn't distinguishing between fixed limit games and PL/NL in his article, but it seems like his ideas about the meaning of stack sizes still has some relevance to fixed limit games.

3/20/2009 12:26 PM  
Anonymous Timothy Post said...

@SSS Thanks for the response. I will check-out the article by Taylor Caby; it looks interesting.

By the way, we did implement a max buy-in rule of 5,000 rubles but with an re-buyin option once your stack falls below 500 Rubles (between hands of course).

One interesting effect of the rule was (we played last night) that bluffing began a larger part of the game because the guys who formerly had big stacks had to think twice about covering re-raises.

3/21/2009 1:38 PM  

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