I was playing at a home game last night and had a particularly up and down evening.  It was a single table deep stack tourney with limited rebuys.  Having been on holidays and playing some winning poker of late I was perhaps less concerned with the outcome than usual and just really enjoying the game.  However, being able to take a few steps back from the table highlighted a couple of interesting things.  We’ve all heard the maxim in poker that all you need is ‘a chip and a chair’.  If you haven’t, the story goes like this…

Jack Strauss took down the 1982 Series world title, but not without flirting dangerously with elimination. In fact, under todays rules, Strauss never would have been given the chance to make what would become one of poker’s urban legends and a miracle comeback. 

Strauss was emersed in a hand the details of which have become both forgotten and irrelevant, but what is clear is that that at one point in the hand he silently moved his stack into the middle of the pot. His opponent called, matching him chip for chip. When the cards were turned over, Strauss had lost.

Jack stood up, put on his coat and started collecting himself, only to find one last $500 chip underneath his cocktail napkin. As he hadn’t actually announced himself all-in, this meant Jack was still alive, surviving on a technicality which would be unavailable to him by todays standards.

Strauss resumed his seat, moved all-in on the next hand and won. He moved in again and doubled again. He continued what can only be described as a blessed run at the title, and two days later, was the only player with chips. 

The premise of the story is that we should never give up.  As long as we have even just one chip,  we are still a shot at taking down whatever game we happen to be playing (although it helps if the poker gods have a hard on for us the size of the Goodyear blimp).  In short, it’s ok to have hope…even when things seem hopeless.

Why have I dusted off this well known poker story?  Because one of the things I notice, both in my own play and that of others, is the way chip stacks can impact on playing styles.  Being a short stack sucks, but it arguably makes playing poker easier at least on the decision making front.  When the number of blinds we have are small enough, we can be reduced to a push-fold mentality.  It’s not satisfying, but it’s easy poker, and there’s always the prospect of a double up to stay ahead of the blinds.  Whilst frustrating, it’s not necessarily demoralising.  We can stay true to the maxim of a chip and a chair.

However, sometimes the opposite can be said for having a large stack.  Most of us have an established approach to tournament poker.  Most of us appreciate the benefit of amassing a chip lead and using it to control and dominate the table.  Many of us also know how it feels to hit a cold deck and have that stack diminish.  But how many of us can rally after being dealt bad beat after bad beat to go from chip leader to short stack?  What also surprises me at times is the complacency that some players show in the middle stages of the tournament when they have taken the chip lead but fail to capitalize on it, finding themselves ‘caught up’ by other players who have been prepared to take some risks in later stages.  This is exactly what happened in the game I played last night, when the chip leader effectively sat on his stack throughout the entire middle to late stages, hoping to coast into the money, only to find himself playing survival poker at the nosebleed blind levels. 

So what’s the point of this post?  Simply, that it pays to have an understanding of a poker tournament structure.  It’s worthwhile reminding yourself that being short stacked doesn’t mean you are doomed to busting.  It’s even more worthwhile keeping tabs on the fact that a large chip stack is a weapon, and more often than not it pays to use it. 

Happy hunting.

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