Mid-Stack Management

“Why did I put myself in this position?”, said the amateur poker player agonizing over whether to call an all-in for his tournament life, dripping with sweat. “You didn’t have to,” replied the pro in the next seat over, eating Cheetos while getting a back massage with a steak dinner on the way.

While there are certainly calculations and edge scenarios that can be a bit complex, most of the action in a poker game is very straightforward and won’t require any uncomfortable stress. A hand will never be more than a couple rounds of betting with community cards uncovered along the way. The Poker Model is built around a concept that we will never be able to predict what card or player action will come next with full certainty (because it’s impossible), but we will be able to prepare for all potential outcomes. This means that instead of making a move and then thinking about how we will proceed, we’ll think about all of the potential things that could happen and then make our move. There’s nothing left to ponder at that point! It does take extreme discipline to follow through on your original plan. You may want to call very badly, but should not if the original plan said to “fold if this outcome happens.” Many players “talk themselves” into making a bad call and then regret their decision afterwards.   

Seems a bit farfetched and vague, doesn’t it? How are we supposed to make a plan for all scenarios? We create plans by following rules that are based around the two hole-cards we are dealt, stack sizes, the knowledge of a player’s raise in front of us, the momentum of post-flop action and if we made a hand or not at each stage of the Flop, Turn and River. These concepts will take some time to get used to, but once you have them down, the decisions will become second nature. Start by learning one of the rules like, “min-raise with any ace, any pocket pair, any two cards over 7, and suited connectors if I have over 20 big blinds and there is no action in front of me.” We are ready to help with questions that you may have.   

In today’s hand, we’ll walk through a nice example of how to manage a tricky situation without ever putting your tournament on the line. In order to execute, we’ll have to make plans for all potential outcomes at each stage of the hand. This approach creates less volatility in our stack size as we move through a tournament and most importantly keeps us alive.

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I’m on The Button holding Kh-Jc with antes at $100, Small Blind at $500, and Big Blind at $1000. With K-J and other hands like K-Q, A-10, A-J, A-Q, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, 10-10, J-J, and Q-Q, I’ll be calling min-raises from any player at the table. I’d be 3-betting with hands like A-K, K-K and A-A. I’d fold all other hands when faced with a min-raise in this position. If players with less than 20 big blinds were to go all-in, then I’d call Friscox415’s 13 big blinds with A-Q+ and 10-10+, nbobekov’s 16 big blinds with A-Q+ and 10-10+, stud91124’s 8 big blinds with A-10+ and 8-8+, and 06269’s 17 big blinds with A-J+ and 9-9+. These hand ranges will be dominating most of the two cards that players will move all-in with considering their stack size. A five big blind stack may move all-in with a hand as weak as King-High, while a 15 big blind stack has the luxury to wait for something much better.    

Remember in “You Went All-In With That!?”, that table position plays a major factor in the hand ranges that players will move all-in with as well. Observe how we’d call a 17 big blind all-in with A-J+ and 9-9+ from one seat to the right of the Button (The Cutoff), while we would need A-Q+ or 10-10+ to call a 13 big blind from under the gun. This shows that table position can be more of a factor that stack size in certain cases.

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All action folds to me. It’s important to note that you do not have to use all of your energy to calculate everyone’s potential action until it’s on you to make a move. If these calculations are new to you, we recommend getting as many reps in as possible by doing the math on each player. In this example, however, I could have just waited and saved the mental energy associated with calculating all stacks and potential outcomes until the action was on me. It’s up to you, but you must have full awareness of the active stack sizes of the players who are in the hand with you.

The action is on me, what do I do now? Rule #1, “Min-raise with any ace, any pocket pair, any two cards over 7, and suited connectors if I have over 20 big blinds and there is no action in front of me.” Let’s break this rule down for our situation. I have 2 cards over 7 (K-J), over 20 big blinds (33 big blinds), and there is no action in front of me (all folds). Time to min-raise.

Lastly, the stack to my left is 36 blinds and if he 3-bets, then I’ll fold. The reason I would not call the 3-bet is because I can expect to miss the flop and then be faced with a continuation bet from the small blind who acts first. I also am not interested in 4-betting pre-flop because I do not have enough chips to keep myself comfortably above 20 big blinds and there will be better spots later. The 4-bet would ultimately be around $14,000 chips. My best option is to fold and remain patient.

The big blind table position has 10 big blinds in his stack. If he goes all-in, then I’ll fold, too many hands will be mathematically dominating my K-J in this spot to make the all-in call. As always after folding to a 3-bet, I’ll still have over 20 big blinds left in my stack and move on to the next hand.

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I make the min-raise. Mac Dre calls and the big blind folds. The Flop comes 4c-Jh-10s. I flop Top Pair (I have a jack in my hand and the highest card on the board is a jack) with a King kicker. This means that in the event that Mac Dre also has a jack, then he would need an Ace with it to have me “out-kicked” and be ahead in the hand.

Repeat after me, “We will not lose our entire tournament with Top Pair on this hand.” Yes, we are likely ahead. Yes, there are a few hands that would go all-in with us that we are beating. Yes, sometimes players misclick. But tournament life is king and to win this entire tournament, we’ll need to collect millions of chips. This hand is not as important as it may seem. Stay above 20 big blinds and stay in.

Let’s plan. If Mac Dre bets, then we will call, leaving ourselves over 20 big blinds. We will not raise. If we decided to raise then we’ll find that Mac Dre can fold, call, or raise back. If he folds, did we really need to have Top Pair to get this fold? No, we could have made this raise with any two cards on the flop and got this potential result. If Mac Dre calls our raise, then we’ve built a very big pot and a half-pot bet is now very large if it happens to come on the turn. Top Pair is good, but not that good. Lastly, if Mac Dre raises back, then we’ve completely lost control of the hand. In this case he is either bluffing or has a hand that is most likely better than Top Pair. Again, we didn’t need Top Pair to gather this information and we’ll need to fold.   

If Mac Dre checks, then we will also check and move to the Turn. This Flop check ensures that Mac Dre cannot raise us on the Flop. In “The Check/Raise Bluff” we learned that some players may raise us with nothing. The surest way to have ourselves stressing like the amateur in the beginning of the article is to bet here and be raised. We’d be forced to make a fold and have very little idea of where we are in the hand.    

There are pros to betting here like when you feel strongly that your opponent will not bluff you and that they may have made second pair or a hand that is worse than Top Pair. Your bet will build the pot if they call. I’ve gotten in trouble many times with this line of thinking, however. It’s difficult to put an opponent on a hand when it’s mathematically unlikely to happen. I’ve also found that players decide to bluff at random times and you’ll never truly know unless they show. This is why The Poker Model’s general rule is to check these Flops and put your tournament life above all else. You will eventually have a better hand in a better situation where you can bet for value and feel comfortable building a large pot.

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Mac Dre checks and I check behind as planned. The Turn is the 7h. Now that we have made it to the Turn without having any stress, we can start thinking about value. A value bet is when we put just enough money into the Pot for our opponent to call when we are fairly certain we are ahead. A value bet on the Turn is much different than a value bet on the Flop because there is only one more card to come on the Turn while there are two cards to come on the Flop. What does this mean from a player’s point of view? Players are more “hopeful” on the Flop. Their draws have better chances of hitting and they are optimistic that improvement is on the way. This causes them to hang around or even check/raise with more likelihood on the Flop than on the Turn. This is why we can make value bets on the Turn with a bit more comfort than on the Flop. With a hand like Top Pair, the Turn is a nice place to look for some value while minimizing risk.

If Mac Dre checks I’ll place a small value bet into the pot in hopes of getting a call on the turn, followed by a check from him on the river. Mac Dre can still raise me on the Turn and cause stress. This is why making an additional check on the Turn is fine as well. We are toeing the line between value and safety.

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Mac Dre makes an average size bet of $2,950 because it is half of the pot. It should be treated like any other average size bet by considering the number of big blinds we’ll have left after we make our move. To review, I min-raised pre-flop from the Button, he called and we both checked the Flop. Now he is betting into me. I’m thinking that Mac Dre has “something” and checked it on the Flop. At this point I can only guess if it’s a bluff, pair, draw or bigger. I’m asking the question, “How do I keep myself above 20 big blinds while making it to the River and flipping over my top pair?” What should I do?

Folding is a poor decision. Top Pair with a high kicker has great showdown value at the end of the hand and my opponent could have any two cards. While my check on the Flop was meant to control the Pot and my stack, it may have come off as weakness to my opponent as a side effect. Some players go into heavy bluff mode after one check from an opponent. If I had a big hand, wouldn’t I make a continuation bet? This may have caused Mac Dre to make a bet to get me out. Folding here doesn’t get us to the end of the hand, however.

Calling is fine but not recommended. If we call $2,950, then we’ll have about 27 big blinds going to the river. The issue I have with calling is when our opponent’s hand improves on the river. Let’s say Mac Dre has 5-6 in this hand and decided to bet his open-ended straight draw in this spot. If I just call on the Turn and the Ace of Hearts comes on the River, then Mac Dre may make a big bluff bet because he missed his draw. I’ll have no clue if he has the ace, flush with hearts, or something else that has me beat and I’ll be forced to fold. The momentum of the Turn bet, followed by a River bluff would have me stressed. Again, I didn’t get to flip my cards at the end of the hand. I don’t want to be stressed, which is why I’m going to make a Turn Blocker Bet here.

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A Blocker Bet is when we place a small amount of chips into the pot in an effort to slow our opponent down, keeping our stack where it needs to be, while still being able to flip our cards over at the end. In our article on”The River Blocker Bet,” we show this technical play happening on the River. Today we’ll introduce “The Turn Blocker Bet.” The Turn Blocker Bet happens when we have a mediocre hand on the Turn (go figure), and we make a bet to slow down our opponent on the River. There is a certain flow to a Turn Blocker Bet that keeps the momentum of the hand in your control.

On a River Blocker Bet we are working to flip our cards over, while on a Turn Blocker Bet we are working to get to the River and have our opponent check to us. Both bets protect our stacks and help us gain the necessary information to know when to fold without risk.

The Turn Blocker Bet is a min-raise from me in this spot. When I raise, it appears that I have a very big hand. This causes my opponent to fold, call or go all-in. Folding is great, it means I won the hand and was not terribly stressed in my decision-making. If my opponent goes all-in, then I’ll have confidence that he had a hand bigger than my top pair and I saved a good amount of chips by not having to call a big River bet. I’ve also kept myself over 20 big blinds. A call from my opponent gives control of the hand back to me because he may slow down his betting pattern and make a check instead of a large bet. It means I get to see the River card and have the final option in the hand. Let’s see what Mac Dre does.

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Mac Dre calls my Turn Blocker Bet, the 9s comes on the River, and he checks to me. The Turn Blocker bet did it’s job. What’s important to notice on this hand is how we were able to not breach the 25 big blind mark now with the action on us on the River. We have full control over the $17,700 pot. Even though a bit conservative, I’m going to check on the River and flip my cards over. The last thing I’d want to do is make a value bet and have Mac Dre put me all-in on the River. While there is a good chance that I have the best hand, if I make a bet there is a limited range that my opponent will call with and I’m winning. The con of giving my opponent a chance to raise me here, far outweighs the benefits of gaining one more bet. In future posts, we’ll find places where a value bet on the River with Top Pair is recommended.

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Mac Dre had K-Q and made a Straight on the River. While I don’t like losing hands, we can feel good that we lost the minimum. If I had just called on the Turn, then I’d be facing a huge bet on the River from my opponent who has the Nuts. He could have made the very same bet with a bluff leaving me confused. The Turn Blocker bet served us well by pushing back on our opponent on the Turn, then causing a check on the River to give us the power to check on the River and lose the minimum. Also, if we had not checked the Flop, then our opponent would have called our bets to the River, where he hits his Straight.

There is no way to have the best hand on the River each time. This hand was an example of how we can maneuver through muddy waters, while still keeping our stack where it needs to be and not getting bluffed out. If you find yourself stressing, take a few steps back and think about the choices that were made to get you there. Always take the massage over the headache.

Brett

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