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Big Stack versus Big Stack in Tournament Poker

[ Posted October 12th, 2009 ] by The Dean

There is a tremendous amount of poker literature these days, not to mention websites, magazines, DVD’s and televised programs that are all connected with the game. All this exposure can either be a very good or a very bad thing when it comes to attempting to learn the game. Of course having all these avenues to explore is better than having no avenue at all. But too many avenues does create one thing….an awful lot of personal opinion. Once again getting access to as many opinions as possible in any subject can either be a good or a bad thing. It all depends on how you interpret that opinion and how accurately you follow it.

It also depends on something else as well, whether or not the opinion is accurate. But it is our ability to correctly interpret information and act upon it that is perhaps the primary skill in poker. Whether it is interpreting data in an actual game or just reading a poker book, how we interpret the information will go an awful long way in deciding if we are successful or not.

In this article I will be exploring one of pokers supposed golden rules for No Limit Hold’em tournaments, that is to not go up against another big stack if you have a big stack yourself unless you have a premium hand. I have lost count of the number of times that I have encountered this supposed piece of poker wisdom and cringed whenever I read it.

The people who spew out the advice tend to be repeating somebody else’s advice or they do not have enough time or space to properly explain what they mean. I have been ghosting the big tournaments recently on Pokerloco and towards the middle stages of the tournament, I was definitely seeing big stacks back down too much to blatant aggression from other big stacks.

But the “big stack vs big stack” rule goes against what poker actually is. A game of incomplete information where the only rule is that there are no rules. Once again this statement takes a bit of explaining because it could easily be misinterpreted as me saying that you can do whatever you like at the table. But there we go again, that word interpretation rearing its ugly head once more. But the fact of the matter is that the words “always”, “never” and “rule” should be words that are erased from your poker dictionary.

Because each one of those words infers that you do something in a certain way without deviation which is very rarely the case in poker. There are exceptions to every rule and poker is no different. Another name for these “rules” and a much better name at that would be general guidelines!

Of course it is perfectly obvious that if you are fortunate or skilful enough to be in possession of the second largest stack on the table then getting into a major confrontation with the largest stack on the table can bust you because they have you covered in chips. But if you thought that this means that you should avoid conflict with them at all costs unless you have a premium hand then you are wrong.

If you never defended yourself from an attack from another big stack then that would just encourage more and more attacks. This is what many players do when they get a big stack in a tournament. They are so proud of their monster stack that they will not risk it for almost anything unless they have a premium hand. The guys who play like this may as well play with their cards turned up.

Regular readers of my articles will tell you that I am very big on analogies whenever I am trying to get an important point across. This is because analogies go an awful long way to helping people see the underlying concept when it is being compared to something that they understand and know. For this example, I am going to quote the famous incident from the early 1960’s, the Cuban missile crisis. In this instance we have the two largest stacks in the game, the United States of America and Russia. By far the two biggest superpowers in the world at that time! The Russians by making a move to place nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba were in fact making a very aggressive move against the other largest stack in the game.

But politics like poker is a series of individual incidents that are ongoing and linked together in ways that are sometimes very subtle. If some of our poker “strategists” had been working as security advisors to the then president Kennedy then they would have advised him not to retaliate and to concede the issue to the Soviets. Simply because of the fact that a big stack should not go up against another big stack!

This action would have had the effect of avoiding a confrontation at that particular time. But it is sheer folly to think that backing down to aggression is avoiding confrontation. History has taught us countless times that backing down to aggression only fuels more aggression. In a way, the Russians were steal raising the Americans big blind in the same way that poker players do thousands of times a day both in bricks and mortar card rooms and online.

If a big stack is attacking your big blind or just trying to steal from you in general and he perceives that you are fearful of a confrontation with him then he is likely to attack you even further. Folding is only deferring the confrontation to a later date. If you fold because your hand is junk then that is a different story but folding because you fear a confrontation is asking for trouble and indicates a serious flaw in your game.

The correct way to counter this threat is to devise an acceptable defence without it leading to the total decimation of your stack. This is in essence what the Americans did in the missile crisis, they stood up to the aggression of the Russians and sent out the message that they could not be pushed around either politically or militarily. What was basically happening was that the Americans and the Russians were playing a classic game of “chicken” but escalated onto a gigantic scale.

The Russians were cold and calculating and this makes them better Chess players but the Americans are better poker players and this issue was about bluffing on a global scale. Whether the Americans would have gone all the way into a third world war is extremely doubtful but the important point was that they convinced the Russians that they would when they sent their battle fleet out to confront the Russian convoy that was carrying the missiles.

The Americans constructed a way to stop the aggression of the Russians without it leading to world war three. This is precisely what any player who has a big stack must do if they are constantly being bombarded with bets and raises from another big stack. There are many times in poker where you simply have to fight fire with fire. It can be a very uncomfortable thing to have to do because getting involved with another big stack whether it is in a tournament or a cash game always runs the danger of severely crippling your stack.

The skill is to make your opponent think that you are not going to stand for their aggression and will put your entire stack at risk at anytime if need be even if secretly, you have no such desire to do it. So the next time that you see or hear of this much repeated piece of poker wisdom, remember the analogy with the Cuban missile crisis and you will be better prepared to handle the situation the next time it arises.

Carl “The Dean” Sampson can be seen at www.pokerloco.com/thedean

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