Poker is very much a game of ‘different strokes for different folks’ in that what might feel totally natural and comfortable for one might be quite the opposite for another. This is particularly the case when it comes to Cash Games and how much we sit down with when joining a table. Some players absolutely need to play with whatever maximum the table limit allows, while others feel happy only at the other end of the scale, bringing the very minimum limit.
There are numerous reasons why players have such preferences. A very logical justification in always playing with a full stack, for example (and why many constantly ‘top up’ as soon as their stack is depleted) is to guarantee maximum profit when a monster hand – and subsequent great opportunity – finally comes around. The thinking is that backing up a winning hand with anything but a full stack is to miss the very payout that everything has been geared to achieving – why pick only, say, $4 when pocket Aces hold up in an all-in showdown when being armed with a full stack would garner $10? Playing ‘fully loaded’ also affords us maximum flexibility in terms of there being more options when deciding how best to continue involvement in a hand. Short-stack aficionados, on the other hand, will offer this or that theory for their preference. One such, very simply, is that they want to play at a certain level but that their bankroll allows them to do so only by buying in for the minimum. Skilled players who specialise in short-stack strategy are very dangerous, and can be a thorn in the side of full-stack players – particularly those who sit with the maximum only because it’s a recommended approach and not because they necessarily know what they’re doing. Others opt for a short stack because they lack experience and/or skill.
Both full and short stack strategies have their pros and cons and, as usual with poker, there’s no black and white but various areas in between that themselves depend on certain factors and which in turn can be situational.
But what if we were to take a leaf out of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, where the girl makes choices based in what feels ‘just right’ … introducing the happy medium option for Cash Game players that is the mid-size stack (for sake of clarity, let’s define this as between 60 and 75 Big Blinds). Strangely, this is something about which we hear very little when the subject of stack size is discussed. Players tend in the main to fall into either of the extreme categories, opting for full or short stacks and the contrasting characteristics that determine how each is optimally used.
Surely, rather than blindly go one way or the other just because only two options tend to be suggested, we should at least consider the possibility of a third route which, ideally, takes the positives from each end of the spectrum, does away with the negatives and leaves a recipe that has ingredients that can be more universally palatable. Of course, there will be fundamental differences that will be counter-productive such as no longer offering the same ‘maximum’ profit potential that comes with big stacks, or putting more money on the line compared with risking the bare minimum, but nothing is perfect, and it’s reasonable to assume that a compromise might, by definition, bring with it the best of both worlds.
Advantages of playing with a Mid-Size Stack
Without getting bogged down with the intricacies of so-called Expected Value, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a typical 100BB full stack presents us with the most +EV strategy. It’s just a number, after all. If convention were to ordinarily give us the option of buying in for 200BB, or 500BB, these would produce quite different dynamics and considerations, and the typical Cash Game would be considerably different to what we’re used to. So it’s important to take into account that the 100BB full stack we take for granted is merely a universal standard rather than a scientifically-based optimal, magical +EV number.
By sitting down with 60BB, for instance, we’re still giving ourselves a chance to win decent sized pots compared with short-stacking, but we’re simultaneously addressing variance by reducing our potential risk. Given the number of times classic match-ups such as QQ v AK crop up, mid-stacking gives us that extra bit of security.
As well as offering a bankroll buffer, plus extra flexibility in terms of game selection, mid-stacking can make life easier when dealing with stacks of various sizes. Both short and big stacks have certain ways of coping with short and big stacks, but the best plays against mid-size stacks can be problematic in finding the right bet sizes, with lines that tend to work well against either end of the spectrum lacking efficacy against mid-size stacks.
Midstacking also reduces the edge of those play deep stacks better than we do. Furthermore, the more we get a feel of how midstacks perform in this or that scenario, there’s a good chance that as we gain in experience we can even turn the tables and steer big stacks down paths that are to our advantage rather than theirs.
Meanwhile, for shortstackers who might want to try midstacking, there are obvious advantages. The extra flexibility even allows us to approach the game along the lines of big stack strategy without having to buy in for the maximum. For example, open-raising to 3.5BB commits 3.5% of a 100BB stack, while a 2BB pre-flop raise with a 60BB costs roughly the same (at 3.33%). Given the trend nowadays for opening smaller, midstacking fits in well in this respect.