Big Stack Strategy in Multi-Table Tournaments

Posted by James Guill

Compared with many poker tournament situationsknowing how best to play a big stack is a nice problem to have. Many players make mistakes with their big stack. Letting the field catch up is the single biggest one. With a big stack you need to be ruthless. After all, you don’t win a tournament until you have every chip! This guide to big stack tournament strategy covers this topic in depth.

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Three Types of Big Stack for Poker Tournament Players

Not all tournament big stacks are equal. Here are three scenarios, each involving a huge stack of chips, which have different strategy considerations:

two equivalent stacks of green poker chips

Deep Starting Stacks

Some tournaments start everyone off with a big stack of chips in relation to the blinds. For example, if you start with 15,000 chips at 25 / 50, you have a huge stack of 300x the big blind. Here, everyone else does too. You have plenty of ‘play’ in your stack – and can play some post-flop poker. Getting all-in and putting people under pressure are both risky in this spot.

two poker chips atop one another

Early Double Up

Sometimes you will take the stack of another player early, and maybe even use this stack to win some more pots. For example, the blinds are small, and you grow your stack to 7000 chips from your initial 2500. Here, you have a cushion, though your opponents have a lot of flexibility – with between 50x and 75x the big blind in the average stack. While you are in a great situation, you do not have a free reign, losing a big pot would quickly bring you closer to the average.

a green playing card next to two stacks of casino chips

Dominant Big Stack

This spot can occur in the middle to later stages. Here you go on a tear, perhaps parlaying your early lead into a dominant position. The blinds have gotten big, many stacks are under pressure, and you have 150x to play with. Strategy here is different, you can play pots without the risk of busting – while your opponent’s cant!

three green playing cards

Other Scenarios

There are other scenarios to consider. Sometimes you will be the only big stack in the game, while other times one or more of your opponents will have a big stack too. Sometimes, you will be the 2nd or 3rd biggest stack at the table. The situation also changes when there are 1 or 2 ‘micro-stacks’ (players on life-support) in the game. Here, those with mid-sized stacks will be reluctant to commit their chips before the extra short stacks bust.

Keep in mind when you read the strategy advice below that there are a huge number of permutations. You not only need to adjust to the other stacks, you also need to adjust to the tendencies you have spotted from individual players.

Early Level Tournament Strategy with a Big Chip Stack

You can’t win a tournament until you have all the chips. A common mistake among new players is to take the foot off the gas after a double, waiting for favorable spots. This allows one or more opponents to catch you up – denting the effectiveness of your chip lead. Instead, your approach should be to keep accumulating. You should look to put opponent’s under pressure and win more than your fair share of pots.

If you double-up in the early stages, you can take advantage of the bad players who usually don’t last long in tournaments. It will be much harder to take the chips from the good players later on.

stacks of poker chips and playing cards

Opening more pots is a positive move, though the types of hand you do this with don’t change too much. With deep stacks at the start of a tournament, implied odds hands go up in value. Unsuited ace-x or 2 picture card hands go down. Small pairs, suited aces and suited connectors can all make monsters on the flop.

If you see loose opponents enter too many pots, your big chip stack gives you the flexibility to isolate them. By reraising, you will usually get everyone else to fold – giving you a better shot at winning the chips from the loose opponent. If you do get a raise from behind, you can comfortably fold (or call with the correct odds). 3-betting loose players is very effective when you find opponents that play ‘fit or fold’ on the flop – folding to continuation bets too often.

There is plenty of opportunity for post flop play and hand-reading during the early stages. If you have a big stack, you can put some pressure on opponents. This does not mean you should take bad odds on a call. What it does mean is that you should play positive and aggressive poker – making your opponents wary of bluffing you.

Mid-Level Tournament Strategy with a Big Chip Stack

As the blinds go up, there will be a mix of chip stacks at the tables. Some players will already be in the danger-zone, others will be comfortable (though not yet in a position to win), and still others might have a big stack like you.

With antes in play, stealing your fair share of the pots pre-flop becomes an objective.

If another player with a decent sized stack enters the pot, you need to limit what cards will get you to call. Before you decide to call light, make sure that losing a pot against this player would not stop you from dominating the mid-sized stacks around the table.

At this point in the game you need to be wary of accidentally committing yourself to a pot against a smaller stack. If someone with a small stack raises and you 3-bet, the pot might be so big that you have the odds to call with any reasonable hand post-flop – even though you will lose more often than not. Mid-sized stacks are the best targets. These players will be reluctant to play big pots without a monster hand. They have enough chips to wait for a better spot.

Try attacking limped pots and continuing to isolate the weakest / most straight-forward players. Beware of small stacks still to act in these spots. You could isolate a fish, only to find a shove all-in from someone with 10 to 15 big blinds.

Whatever the dynamic of your table, it is vital that your play focuses on accumulating more chips. It only takes a couple of other players to double up, and your big chip stack is not so far ahead any more.

Later Stages / Bubble Play with a Big Chip Stack

Your big chip stack comes into its own at the tournament bubble. This does not have to be the exact bubble (one player to go before the money). You should start to accumulate chips from players looking to make the money before they risk their stacks much earlier than this.

In many tournaments, players who were once loose will tighten up massively when the cashing places approach. They are looking to get the min-cash before taking any risks. You can use your big stack to steal multiple pots at this stage – and be ruthless about it.

Any player with a comfortable stack (which can be as small as 8x the big blind or so) should become a target. Raise with any 2 cards if you are folded to in one of the later positions. Attack limpers and 3-bet those rare players who you think would raise light in this spot.

If a mid-stack re-raises you (especially if they have not gotten out of line before), then they likely have a strong hand. You can safely fold – and continue stealing pots right away.

Try avoiding other big stacks at the bubble. If someone with a lot of chips raises every time, you might find a favorable spot to resteal a pot. Unless you make a big hand, this is not the time for daring bluffs against someone that can bust you. Avoid raising players that are truly desperate. A micro-stack might just think their hand is good enough to go for it. Not only will you double them up, your strategy of raising any-2 (or close) could be revealed.

An advanced strategy that works in smaller tournaments is to keep a tiny stack alive, by folding your blind to them. While there is a tiny stack in play, players with mid-sized stacks will be super-reluctant to bust out.

In the Money / Final Table Big Stack Strategy

man wearing red playing poker

You’ll find a period just after the money bubble bursts where those players who tightened up will suddenly go crazy. They will be loose, wild, and sometimes desperate to get a stack big enough to be in contention for the later stages.

This can present you with many +ev opportunities. If you have enough chips, you can find spots where you have a range advantage – and can reraise to push other players behind you out of the pot. Remember, you need to keep accumulating chips. The way to win with a big stack is always to make it even bigger.

When the final table approaches, the same scenario described for the bubble happens again. Players tighten up to try and make the final 9. If you avoid the other big stacks and focus on those with a comfortable number of chips, you can use this spot to grow your stack even more.

At the final table your first objective is to figure out which players are going for the win and which are trying to fold their way up the prizes. A big stack can again be used as an effective weapon. If there are one or more ‘micro-stacks’ at the table, you should be relentless in putting pressure on everyone else. No player wants to bust in 9th when there are other players about to blind away.

A Special Note for Satellite Qualifiers

In satellites, a lot of players get the same prize – a ticket to a bigger poker tournament or even a live event package. If you have the biggest stack at the money bubble, you are in a really strong spot.

If there are a few players on life-support, the default strategy of anyone with a comfortable stack will be to fold every hand. They are not at risk, and even playing aces could put them in danger. Note that people usually will play those aces – whatever the equity math shows!

Avoid other big stacks, and otherwise keep the pressure high in these spots. Even if you get the chips in behind against a micro-stack, the blinds and antes will usually make this a positive expectation play.

James Guill

James Guill is a former professional poker player who writes fro about poker, sports, casinos, gaming legislation and the online gambling industry in general. His past experience includes working with IveyPoker, PokerNews, PokerJunkie, Bwin, and the Ongame Network. From 2006-2009 he participated in multiple tournaments including the 37th and 38th World Series of Poker (WSOP). James lives in Virgina and he has a side business where he picks and sells vintage and antique items.

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