Poker Strategy: Tournament Stack Sizes And Final Table Preparation

The Pros: Bryn Kenney, Steffen Sontheimer, Bert Stevens, and Jake Schwartz

Craig Tapscott: There are big differences between cash games and tournaments when it comes to stack sizes. In cash games, players are generally deep and the short stacks can rebuy. But in tournaments, short- and mid-stacked play can be the difference between bubbling the money and a win. How do you deal with different stack sizes in tournament play?

Bryn Kenney: Stack size considerations are very important in tournaments, especially at different stages of the event. You must pay close attention to the flow and the stack sizes of each of your opponents. For instance, sometimes you will have a mediocre stack and be approaching the bubble. In some cases, you will be able to win every hand, because the table is passive and looking to make the money. But in other cases you might have to deal with aggressive players at your table who are trying to leverage their stack and to apply maximum pressure against you. 

It’s important to really understand the table dynamics when you first sit down. When I made a deep run in the WSOP main event, I played pretty solid for the first 30 minutes at any new table, mainly to understand the dynamics of what’s going on. Every table will be different.

Next you need to understand the dynamics of the different stages of a tournament. This is also very important in my opinion, because you can determine how much value people put on their chip stack. Usually, the more value they put on their chips, the more aggressive you want to play against them. You can devise nice bet sizing choices to have them call flop and turn, and then fold the river for a big bet.

If the players on your left are very passive, then there will be a lot of situations where you can play aggressively. Whereas if the guys on your left are very aggressive, you will want to play a more selective range because you’re going to be battling more often. In that situation, you want to show up with a solid range base. I always try to find the most value spots and stay away from pushing for the smallest bit of value. I don’t want to get too greedy.

Steffen SontheimerSteffen Sontheimer: I see poker as multi-disciplined spots or situations. We have to understand that the game changes a lot depending on the stack depth.

I try to keep awareness of what I need to focus on in the moment. Am I playing 20 BB (big blinds), 40 BB, or 60 BB deep? That will dictate my strategy. Like in sports, I try to practice every discipline by itself and therefore not a big fan of reviews where everything happens one after another. My advice would be to focus on one thing, learn your guidelines and then be aware in-game to apply that as well as possible. The shift of your strategy will follow along with the given options for risk or reward situations.

There are lot of players who play cards with 100 BB the same way they would play them with 40 BB. They play a 40 BB game pretty much like some kind of bank account they are not ready to touch. What we really want to do is to use our full stack to apply maximum pressure when it is the right situation. We need to learn how to do that in the best proper way possible to achieve the results we are seeking.

Bert Stevens: In tournaments the average stack throughout the whole event is 20-35 big blinds. So, in general it is going to be very different compared to cash games. During cash games you never want to get it all-in with A-J preflop. But in tournaments you may want or need to get it in preflop all the time with much weaker hands than A-J. There are a lot of resources available to study how to play push or fold poker at a 15 BB stack. This information is paramount if you want to beat the games.

Jake Schwartz: It’s very important to become proficient at all stack depths. It’s okay to sit as a short stack for a little while, but it’s much more fun to have a large stack on the bubble of tournaments.

Making players leverage their chips is a crucial part of the game. While short stacked on the bubble, every decision you make is magnified and the consequences of your actions are much more important. With a middling stack, you are allowed a little more wiggle room. You have more options with the decisions you are making. That being said, you still need to be very calculated so you don’t find yourself on the short-stacked end of the bubble.

Obviously as a big stack on the bubble, you find yourself in an enviable position. You are going to be able to bully the shorter and middling stacks. Live tells are most important on the bubble, because it is important to note how much each player values the difference between min-cashing or winning. This is definitely one of the more fun and exciting moments of a tournament before reaching the final table.

Craig Tapscott: After you’ve made the final table, what stack size variables are you considering when formulating a strategy plan?

Bryn KenneyBryn Kenney: Your stack sizes and table position will determine how much pressure you can put on other players and how they think about ICM (Independent Chip Model). Player type is also very important. Whereas you may be able to lean on a player who cares a lot about ICM, it can be a big mistake to lean on the wrong type of player who doesn’t care or think of the pay jumps. They’re just thinking about winning the tournament and are not affected by the difference in payouts.

Other things you need to think about are how will the players on your left play if you start opening a lot of hands. Are they passive? Can you lean on them more? But if they have you covered and take advantage of that dynamic, you will have to be very cautious about the hands you choose, mainly because it could get you into trouble.

Next, you have to factor in other players’ stacks and how much risk appetite you should have at any given time. If you have a lot of chips you can play very aggressive, but I suggest you make sure you navigate smartly, because one misstep can put you in the middle of the pack. And when that happens, you’ve lost the ability to play a lot of hands effectively. All of these factors make up such an important approach to craft a proper strategy for every unique situation.

Steffen Sontheimer: I prepare for every final table in the same way and try to narrow every potential situation down to something I can actually prepare for. I try to go from position to position and think about all situations that can come up with the lineup I’m facing.

I will go through a few examples. Let’s say we are in the big blind. Who are the potential open raisers? Where are the big stacks I will face most likely? Do I need to prepare re-jamming ranges or will we play more post-flop? What happens when it comes down to blind versus blind?

What about when we are in the small blind? What about the open-raising spots? Which positions do I want to raise light? Where do I need to stay on the tighter side given ICM considerations? Who is the ‘victim’ I’m after, and where do I need to be cautious?

Basically, what I try to apply in my thinking is the concept of divide and conquer. I narrow down what might happen and prepare for as many spots as possible. Obviously, this is far more work than to just say, ‘I’m a middle stack. I will stay tight and try to ladder up.’ But if you take the time to prepare thoroughly, it will definitely pay off in the long run.

Bert Stevens: The final table is the most important part of any tournament. A lot of my strategy is based on ICM considerations. Stack depth is also one of the most important factors when deciding your strategy. Every final table is going to be different. Look around and see if you are either chipleader, mid-stack, or short stack.

As chipleader you can widen your opening ranges substantially, as much as opening 100% in some spots. You can use your stack to pressure mostly the middle stacks at the table because they have to outlast the short stacks. 

When you are the mid-stack you are handcuffed and have to let the bigger stacks push you around. Getting that pay jump and outlasting shorter stacks is the most important thing. You don’t want to fold every hand of course, but your range should mostly be hands you want to get it in with. There is very little flatting, and a lot of three-bet jamming or folding. 

As a short stack, you can gamble a little bit more, but you still have to fold more in general. This is because folding is not just neutral EV (expected value) but can make you money in cases where someone else busts.

Final tables are a very complex part of MTTs. Even the best players have different strategies which means there is a lot of value in studying these spots.

Jake SchwartzJake Schwartz: First of all, you have to be present in the moment and be grateful for the opportunity to be playing for a lot of money. You have edged out a high percentage of the field and are in a great position to achieve some sort of glory. 

If you are a short stack, it’s important to be fearless and take calculated risks in order to chip up. I like to think of it as a mindset where you have nothing to lose. People will be paying more attention to the mistakes that the big stacks will be making.

If you are a big stack, it’s important to apply pressure while paying more attention to ICM. ICM is personally one of the stronger parts of my game. It’s very important to be precise in knowing where everyone at the table stands and how they feel about laddering. Again, a lot of this will be read-based and it’s important to trust your gut on the reads you’ve gathered on your opponents up to this point. ♠

Bryn Kenney was once a top-ranked Magic: The Gathering player, but he made the switch to poker and has never looked back. The New York-native is the all-time poker tournament earnings leader with more than $58 million in career earnings. Kenney has held the top spot in the Global Poker Index and is considered one of the most feared and accomplished players in the world.

Steffen Sontheimer had a breakout year all players dream of in 2017, making numerous final tables and taking down the inaugural Poker Masters in Las Vegas. A year later, he won the $250,000 buy-in Caribbean Poker Party high roller for a massive score of $3.7 million. The German pro has won nearly $14 million on the live tournament circuit.

Bert Stevens is perhaps best known by his online moniker ‘girafganger7.’ The Belgian pro is considered one of the best online players in the world and is currently ranked no. 1 on the world leaderboard. The cat lover has more than $15 million in recorded online tournament cashes.

Jake Schwartz hails from New York and attended college at Indiana University. He has over $3.1 million in career tournament cashes, including six World Poker Tour final tables with two runner-up finishes. At present, Jake is just happy that live tournaments are back.




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