A tale of Twelve Dollars – Stack Size For Limit Games

Poker Economy, Strategy

September 30, 2007

I was playing crappy Colorado casino poker yesterday when a noteworthy situation arose. The game was $5 limit holdem. That’s right, 0ne $5 blind and all bets are in increments of $5. It’s hard to imagine a worse structure. But this isn’t about the structure. It’s about one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen at limit holdem. And It’s a bad play that happens surprisingly frequently and that many players probably don’t even think of as bad play at all.

The hand went as follows:

The under the gun player (Bob) limped. The player immediately behind him (Juan) raised to $10. Table folded around and Bob called. Flop was Jh9d2s. Bob bets, Juan looks down at a whopping $8 in his stack, and goes all-in. Hands are flipped, and Bob has 9h9c. Juan has JdJc. Top set hold up, and Juan wins the pot. Three hands later Juan loses all his money and rebuys.

Now, some people may say that Juan had little choice in how he played this hand, but I’d say he made a mistake of at least $12 and realistically more like $22-$32. His mistake was not in how he played the hand as the situation stood, but that he didn’t add the extra $100 in his wallet to his stack before being dealt his cards.

It should be obvious that running out of money, like Juan did, any time you have the nuts or close to it in a limit game is a horrible situation. Now, the astute reader might well note that there are circumstances where being all-in is actually advantageous. For example, in limit holdem if you’re on a made hand facing a draw, and bet exactly all-in on the turn, this is probably a good thing. If the draw misses you won’t likely extract extra bets on the river, but if it hits you may well lose one or even two. In other words, you’re in a reverse implied odds situation, and you’d just as soon be all in. However, it’s not a good idea to try to be on a shortstack to take advantage of these situations for several reasons:

  1. you don’t know which side of the implied odds you’re going to be on – you might be the one drawing
  2. you don’t know ahead of time exactly how deep a stack you would need to end up all-in at exactly the right point
  3. situations where it’s good to be all-in don’t happen nearly as frequently as situations where it’s good to have substantial money behind

Taking all this into account, the correct strategy should be obvious: have enough money behind that you’ll never go all-in in a limit game. Exactly how much that is depends on how many streets the game has and how many bets constitute a cap, but it should be easy to calculate for any given game – for 5-cap limit holdem it’s 15 big bets. I would suggest the following: it’s a freeroll to never start a hand with less than this amount of money behind. It can’t hurt you, but it will occasionally help you. In games with no cap heads-up, it’s similarly a freeroll to have the biggest stack at the table, because eventually some idiot is going to bet all in with you for numerous bets when you have the nuts. It happens more often than you’d think. Obviously, this strategy of always having the biggest stack can become impossible to implement if two or more people are trying for it, and in that case you can certainly settle for second biggest. But you should always have at least enough to cover all the streets if capped, and reload before any hand where you don’t have that amount. If you don’t have enough money to cover the reload, you have a serious bankroll management problem.

There are additional psychological benefits to be had by buying into limit games for a large amount. I’ll talk about those in a future article.

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