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Medium-Stack Play

In tournaments, the medium stack is often the hardest to play. Learning to make the most of 30-40 big blinds is vital to your success. Playing a medium stack — about 30 to 40 big blinds — is one of the most important skills you can have in tournament. You’ll usually have a stack of that size half way to 2/3 of the way through a field — all the way to the final table. Any mistakes you make at that stage can really hurt you, and good plays can help you. So learning to play the stack is key. Here’s what we’ll cover in this lesson: Difficulties you’ll encounter playing the medium stack. How to handle the middle stack in early position. Playing the middle stack in a more favorable position And finally, playing the middle stack around the payout bubble.

I see a lot of people having trouble with a stack of 30-40 big blinds. Because every move you make with a stack that size is kind of awkward. You have way too much to just open-shove — which is an ideal strategy with a smaller stack. To open with standard raises requires a high percentage of your stack — and if you don’t win those hands you’ll go down fast. You can’t play too loose-aggressive, but you also can’t play too tight — or you’ll soon be a short stack since the antes and blinds are so high. Another problem: What to do if your opponent open raises. If someone open-raises to 10 percent of your stack, you have too much to want to shove with a good hand … and if you make a smaller re-raise, it looks like you’re almost committed anyway. So figuring what to do in that situation gets kind of dicey as well. The temptation with a medium stack often is to play a little bit tighter … because you see a lot of re-raises and fear if you get re-raised you might lose 8 or 9 or 10 percent of your stack. Still, you can’t play too tight and open a few pots. Because those blinds you win are what will keep you afloat.

From early position, you’re going to open mostly with good hands. So a big part of your range will be hands like A-K or a pair of 9s or better, with a few slightly weaker hands thrown in. So if you have any big pairs or Ace-King hands, all of them are pretty much good enough to get 30 big blinds in the middle … unless there’s extreme action behind you. So if you open with 10s or bigger, or A-K, and someone re-raises behind you you should generally shove all your chips in and hope for the best — you really can’t afford to throw those hands away with that size stack. Similarly, if you have a nice starting|hand and just got smooth-called, if you have a decent flop, it really doesn’t matter what your opponent does, or what comes on the turn. You’re going to bet the flop and go all-in on the turn. One interesting note: if you’re up against an aggressive player … and you don’t love the flop … say you have Jacks and the flop is Queen-high … I don’t think you can be convinced, no matter what the action is, that your lone opponent has a Queen. In a spot like that, I almost want to check-raise him all-in. Give him a chance to bluff. Then go ahead and protect your hand all the way. That might work better than just continuing to bet, which might make him fold anything but a Queen.

When you’re in late position with a medium stack, often someone raises in front of you. Because the raise is about 10 percent of your stack, you have to be very careful in choosing your options. If you decide to smooth-call, you have to be really precise about which hands you’ll smooth-call with. And if you’re going to re-raise, deciding how much to bet and what hands to do it with is very important. Here is something you shouldn’t do in late position with a medium size stack. And that is to call raises with marginal or speculative hands, like 9-10-suited. Generally a raise will be about 10 percent of your stack. Here someone raises, and somebody calls with 9-10-suited — for 1,500 with only a 16,000 stack. Generally, you’ll be putting in too large a percentage of your stack to really feel your way through a hand like that. Most flops you hit will be middle-pair type hands, maybe a flush-draw if you’re lucky. And generally, you don’t want to spend more than 5 percent of your stack to call a raise with a hand like this.

Here we flop middle pair — which might be good. But when our opponent makes a continuation bet, our options are rather limited. If we call the bet just to see the turn, the pot will be 10,000, and we’ll have 10,000 left in our stack. If he moves in on the turn, we won’t know if we’re beat or not, making for a tough call or fold either way. We could decide to just shove the flop, in which case our opponent would fold A-K or maybe pocket 7s. But they’ll easily call you if they have anything better. They’ll probably have you beat too often to just shove on the flop and pick up the pot or lose everything if you are behind. So to call raises, you’ll want bigger cards than 9-10, or perhaps a slow-played wired pair that plays much better with a stack like yours.

If you have A-A or K-K on late position, and somebody raises in front of you … You have similar dilemmas as with a smaller hand, because if you move all-in or re-raise, your opponent will probably fold. Unless he had maybe A-K, A-Q, or a pair of 10s or bigger. So to get the most value in this situation, you’re best to smooth-call a raise for 10 percent of your stack. Because now, if they continuation bet, they are fairly committed. And if they have nothing at all, you pick up the extra bet that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. And if they have anything, there’s a good chance they’ll come all the way having bet the flop. It will backfire if your opponent had a really good starting hand that was disastrous on the flop. Such as Q-Q or J-J with an Ace or King on the flop. Then you’ll wish you re-raised because they probably would’ve called! If you have a decent hand in late position, such as two 10s … and somebody raises in front of you, you have a rather difficult situation. I think 10s is good enough to risk your whole stack against a raiser who opened three off the button and you have 30 big blinds. The question is how to get your stack in the middle. If you just scoot it in, I’m afraid your opponent will fold most hands you beat, and certainly call with all the hands that beat you. As well as maybe A-K or A-Q, and therefore a coin flip. I do think moving in will net you a small gain — because you pick up so many little pots relative to the few times he calls you with a big hand. But there may be some better ways to play it. You could raise to 4,000, hoping he pushes with a weaker hand, or just calls you. That may work against some opponents. Often they treat a smaller raise as if you moved all-in. Because it’s obvious — you’ve put in a third of your stack and look committed. So it will be the same as an all-in raise. Both reasonable plays. Another interesting option: Just smooth-call with two 10s. That will often help you save your stack against awful flops, or when you’re already beat. And I think you’ll pick up some extra money from weaker hands that wouldn’t have called your re-raise. Let’s see a flop. A terrible flop with an Ace and King out there. If your opponent bets, you pretty much have to fold. Had you gotten it all-in pre-flop, and your opponent had A-K or A-Q, he would’ve broke you. Now you’re saving your money. If the flop were three small cards, and he similarly had A-K or A-Q he’ll still probably continuation bet, so you pick up extra money on a good flop, but save your money on a bad one. Of course the bad thing that can happen is he has 8-9 and bets the flop with Ace-King-high and wins the pot from you. However, that will be made up for by times when no high cards come and you pick up his continuation bet by moving in. Or when it comes, say, 9-high and you double through him. So overall, I think you’ll do OK by smooth-calling with two 10s. We just saw how smooth-calling can be a good option when someone raises in front of you and you have about 30 big blinds. However, if you have a re-raisable hand, you should often take the chance to re-raise, because you do have the best hand and it will work out. So it’s really best to mix up smooth-calling and re-raising. Just remember you have both options. It depends on the player. Against someone who often continuation bets, smooth-call; and against a tough player post-flop, re-raise.

You may have heard that it’s good to change your play a little bit when you get near the bubble. Perhaps play more aggressively to take advantage of tighter players trying to eke into the money. Or perhaps playing tighter yourself to squeak into the money. With a medium stack, there are definitely some changes you can make around the bubble in certain situations. A lot of that depends on the prize structure. Here we have an FTOPS structure, with more than 5,000 players, that’s paying more than 700 places. In a structure like this, you can see the prize doesn’t increase to much from 738th to 216th. It’s only about a $400 jump to outlast 600 players. And if there’s 740 players left, there’s a $400 jump just to outlast two players. In that situation, you stand to gain more by playing tight and sneaking into the money than you do playing extra-aggressively to get more chips … when those extra chips might only get you from, say, 460th to 330th. That would only be a $50 increase. In this scenario, you probably want to just get into the money — and play poker from there to win the tournament. Here we have a prize structure where they only pay 24 players. The bottom few spots are worth only $374, whereas the top spots are worth $10,000 and $6,800. Because you’re so close to the top spots when it’s down to 25 or 26 players, it’s worth it to really play more aggressively on the bubble … especially if your opponents are tight, in order get a really big stack and get those top two spots. It’s a lot more likely that extra money now will propel you to 1st or 2nd. That’s different than when you have 700 players and still so far to go no matter how many chips you win. To reap the benefits of the bubble, you want to mostly attack other medium stacks. You should raise their blinds with weaker hands than normal. And if they’re opening pots, you want to re-raise them more often than you normally would. I hope you enjoyed the lesson.


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