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.
In 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.)
Tommy 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.
This 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.