Your opponent’s chip stack speaks volumes about their game
By Jim Feist
April in Paris? How about April in Las Vegas! With all due respect to Europe’s famed City of Lights, there’s much more going on for sports fans and card enthusiasts in my own town, Las Vegas. The basketball tournament is winding down, one of the most hectic and exciting months for bettors, and the NBA stretch run is gearing up. While basketball is a battle between guards and big men, size can also be a key factor at the poker tables, although it’s not about girth or weight. Rather, it’s the chip stack your opponent has—or doesn’t have.
You can learn a lot about your opponents, starting with the size of their poker chip stack. Generally speaking, you’ll observe that the best poker players have the larger stacks while the weaker players have a less impressive arsenal. People will often boast about how good a player they are, but the real test is not the size of their mouth but the size of that stack of chips.
Why? Since poker is not simply about getting the best cards, the better players win more regularly. It’s about strategy, observing your opponents tendencies, knowing when to back off, when to attack and how to manage your hands and money. The skill level for poker is enormous and the superior players will have the larger bankroll. Weaker players aren’t as skilled and lose more, so their bankrolls and chip stacks will generally be smaller. A common mistake that many novice players make is that they play at limits that are either too high for their bankroll, or play at a higher limit where the competition is steep. Temper that ego and know your limits, little fish. Rest assured, the big fish will welcome you to their dinner table with open mouths and devour you.
There will be times when a good player is on a losing streak and a bad player gets on a hot run, but generally stack size serves as an effective indicator of whether you are up against a sharpie or a weak fish. And it doesn’t take years of practice to make this observation. As soon as you sit or even approach the table, you can see stack sizes. An astute player utilizes those valuable seconds looking for a seat to make an assessment of who they will be up against.
This is especially true at higher limits, which requires a larger bankroll to participate. The size of an opponent’s stack is going to be your first impression. After the cards are dealt you will be gaining more information about those opponents and how they play, which may mesh or differ from that original impression. But the point is, don’t wait until then to assess the other players. Make a mental index-card even before the first hand is dealt.
Now, a player with a small stack falls into one of two categories. One would be a machine-gunner, someone who fires away constantly playing a lot of hands. Their stack is low because they lose more and don’t know when to cut their losses or properly manage their funds.
The second is the kind of player who just moved up from a lower limit game. This player is likely just the opposite; a bit gun-shy and tight with their chips because they’re afraid of losing anymore. With either kind of player you can use this information to your advantage. Play aggressively against the gun-shy player as they will fold or back down more, but don’t bluff as they will ride a good hand, and attack the machine-gunner as they are probably prone to emotion and errors.
One exception is when their stack size shrinks so low that they are close to getting wiped out. They’ll likely play super-cautious waiting for a great hand. This is the perfect time to go on the offensive against them before and on the flop. Attempting to steal the blinds can be very effective as they pull back like a frightened turtle.
For instance, on the flop attack first and then back off if your opponent either bets first or raises. Since they are in survival-mode they likely aren’t bluffing which is subtly giving away part of what they’re holding. There are multiple opportunities to play aggressively against opponents with small stacks by sizing them up correctly.
Many people think that basketball success is all about having big men in the low post, but the fact is diminutive guard play can often dominate college basketball tournament play, with small colleges like Butler and George Mason making recent trips to the Final Four. And in poker, observing stack size provides insight into who you’re playing against, how they play and what they might be holding—even before the next card is flopped.