poker Strategy

An essay on being an effective big-stack bully

I got a nice message from one of my poker buds asking me to elaborate on how I “bully” the table as a big stack. He mentioned that he often loses a lot of money using this approach, which suggests that he does it wrong. I thought it might have enough general interest to post here instead of replying by email.

First of all, consider if you want to bully at all. At some stages, a big chip leader has no business getting involved in a lot of pots. If you are a big chip leader, but the tourney is still in the middle stages and the blinds are still relatively small, you should play tighter, not looser! If you have enough chips to be a mid-stack at the final table when 50 players are left, you don’t need to do very much. Wait for big hands and just cherry-pick the very best stealing situations. A big stack donking off his chips in the middle going in a pot he didn’t even need to be involved with is sad. Don’t be that guy! Also, consider the table conditions. Is the table hyper-aggressive and your reputation not that good? Then don’t bully. Wait for your spot and pounce!

If you are still with me, you believe that you are in a position to be the bully. You have a lot of chips and you want to get more so that you can win this thing. Maybe you are the chip leader at your fairly timid table, but you are not in great overall position. Maybe you aren’t going to go hog-wild, but you want to do a better job in the spots where you do apply pressure. Here are the three main tools of the bully:

1. Blind Steals

Everyone knows about blind stealing for fun and profit. It is an essential part of tourney strategy late in the game. As a big stack, the dynamic changes a bit for you. You are something to be feared (you could bust every one of them) and something to be coveted (you can give that ever-elusive double). There are a couple of keys to effective bullying. First, you lower your raising requirements. Middle pairs and hands like ATs that you would have thrown away earlier are now clear raising hands. When you have a good hand, you can raise it up no matter what the rest of this section says because you don’t mind if you get called when you raised 99 or AQ. You want them to think you could be getting great cards all the time. You should also always raise big hands like KK or AA because this might be the moment that they decide to get a spine. Also when you get cute and limp and then show down KK, what does that tell everyone about your other raises? I should also say a word about bet sizing. Once the blinds and antes start to get serious, I tend to lower my standard pre-flop raise from 3x BB to 2.5x BB. It seems to still win the blinds about as often and saves me some money when I fold to a resteal.
Raising with slightly looser requirements is one thing, but most everyone understands that. The next big step is raising with absolute crap. The art of raising with crap is knowing when to do it. You need to look around your table and pick your targets. First of all, you want to identify the tightest players. Many tourneys feature nits who have made it deep by playing 7% of their hands and still inexplicably getting action when they play AA. These guys are dead meat for you. If one of them is on the blind and you are the first-in, jump on them. They like to fold, you like chips, everyone is happy. The next thing to look at is chip stacks. Really big stacks will look at your 2.5 BB raise and the antes and the big ole pot odds and implied odds and toss in a few more chips every time. This means you’ll have to risk another 3 or 4 BBs on the flop to take their money and run the risk of getting hurt. You don’t like that. Avoid the big stacks without a hand unless they are tight or unimaginative. By unimaginative, I mean someone who has shown a tendency to call pre-flop and check-fold the flop a lot. You are happy to play with those guys. Finally, avoid raising the small stacks. They might feel too short to fold or they might make a “what the hell” push with modest holdings. You would rather not have to call them with 83s and show the table just what you have been up to. In a certain range, their push would require you to call with any two. You don’t want to raise someone with crap if you would obligated to call when they push no matter what. Avoid the shorties, unless you have the other factors working in favor of a steal.

In addition to chip stacks, you should look for certain situations. The most obvious one is the payout bubble. As the bubble nears, everyone gets very very defensive. You want to maximize your stealing in this situation. Whereas you usually want to appear that you might be raising legitimate hands, you don’t really care if they know you are raising with crap on the bubble, because they still won’t call you even when they know you are robbing them blind. This also repeats on the final table bubble, because the big payouts start to come into play. Sometimes at the final table, a short stack will clearly decide that they can fold into 5th and they’d rather do that than try to win. If you see someone in that mode, take their chips.
Finally, we should briefly discuss how you will handle being reraised. If you were raising slightly looser than usual, but have a semi-reasonable hand, you would usually call — especially if the guy who came over the top of you isn’t already committed to the pot. If he is already pretty much stuck to the pot, evaluate it the same you would evaluate calling an all-in (outside the scope of this little talk, although I think I’ve posted about that math elsewhere). If you were raising with trash then it is trickier. If you have a reasonable chance to use technique 2 below, generally call him. Especially in position. If you are out of position, he has been reasonably tight and/or you don’t think he has enough chips to fold post-flop you should walk away to fight another day. When you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar raising crap and have to lay it down to a resteal, don’t insta-fold. You might as well hold up a sign reading “I’m full of shit.” I also don’t like to showboat and take forever to decide. Take a little while, but don’t showboat. Some players can effectively ask the other guy what he has or say “I’m not sure I can fold this pair” or some BS. When you take a while to decide and/or chat it up, some players cannot resist showing their AA or their bluff. This is a very desirable side effect and you should encourage that as much as possible.

2. Take some flops and force them to make tough decisions post-flop

This is really the key tool in the bully arsenal. Stack sizes are everything here. You can call raises a bit looser with your big stack. You are looking for situations where you will win the pots where neither of you hit the flop good. Obviously, he is going to win with AA or when he flops two pair or some other good fit and you will win when you flop good. However, the majority of hands will result in a flop that doesn’t hit either one of you. As the big stack, you have a much better chance to win these pots. Taking a stab at the pot doesn’t risk as much for you as it does for them. Take advantage of this by seeing some flops, especially in position. You should also defend your BB more actively — you’ll take it away from them and they’ll stop trying to steal and you’ll get a free ride a lot more.

The most critical aspect of doing this effectively is bet sizing. As you undoubtedly know, in the later stages of a tourney a shorter stack should no longer raise pre-flop — he should just push. The reason is so that no one will consider calling or re-raising with a plan to put a move on him later. By doing so, the short stack maxmizes his fold equity and ensures that his opponents will have no fold equity to use against him. You can’t bluff an all-in player. You will want to use that same principle. If you are looking at a pot of 10k and your opponent has 10k left, a bet of 10k will ensure that he doesn’t think he can raise you off the pot. He has to decide between calling you and showing the best hand or folding. He will hesitate to call with even a modest hand because he doesn’t want to go home, especially on a modest holding. But let’s think a bit deeper. Did you really have to bet his entire stack to achieve this same effect? What if you had bet 5k? You have now cut your risk of loss in half (you are only risking 5k) but he has essentially the same decision to make. He doesn’t want to raise you with air, because you would have to call 5k to win 25k. You aren’t going to fold there, so a bluff makes no sense for him at all. You have threatened him with losing his entire remaining 10k without risking 10k of your own. This is the critical tool of the big stack bully. You need to size your bets so that the other player believes that calling is essentially deciding to risk his tourney life on this hand, but you want to do this with the smallest bet that will achieve this goal. This is part math and part psychology, but the magic point is usually around half the other player’s remaining stack. If betting half his stack would be a stupid overbet, obviously don’t do that. If you both have comfortable playing stacks, then just play poker. I’d still use my big stack to take more stabs at pots than usual, but now you make more typical bets of half to three quarters of the pot (maybe even the whole pot, depending on the situation).

When you call from the BB, you have to think about stack sizes there too. If the other player is going to commit himself to the pot with a bet, don’t try to check-raise bluff him. He will feel like he is marching off a cliff, but he’ll have to call. If the pot size and his stack dictate that a continuation bet will stick him to pot, then you have to make the first stab. Make a lead bet on the flop that requires him to make a decision. If you check and he checks behind, it is probably more worth a stab at the pot on the turn.

In general, your big stack allows you take more shots at pots that look like they might go unclaimed. You should dial up your willingness to take a shot at them. This includes those silly small bets into family pots that you would usually never make. A small bet from a big stack into a family pot is much scarier than the idiots who min-bet in level 2. I promise you.

Finally, consider the classic raise a buncha limpers ploy. The open-limper probably has crap and the callers probably have crap. You can often take it down with a nice raise there. This one is a bit more risk, but again — you have chips so you can take more chances than the next guy.

3. Resteal

Most big stacks do this too often and #2 not enough. Resteal logic is much like steal logic. Look for the right players to do it from (either they should be raising too often or they should be in a real obvious steal situation where they are likely to be doing it with air). Look for the right cards to do it with (a good playable hand that you don’t hate showing down). If you get both, of course you should resteal. If you only have one, look to the stack sizes. Don’t resteal from the people who can’t afford to fold. A shorter stack is going to go ahead and go all-in with 66 where he might have folded the flop if you smooth called and pushed. His AQ is going to look a lot less pretty on the K99 flop. Unlike steals, you can tend to resteal more from bigger stacks. They are more likely to be stealing with air and more unhappy about tangling with you of all people. Of course, pay attention. If a guy hasn’t raised since Carter was in office, just lay your 88 down.
A less obvious factor is that you like to resteal from the people to your immediate right. You want them scared to make moves in front of you, so that you have more opportunities to steal yourself. A few well-timed resteals will keep them in line.

I hope some of these help you to be a better bully. Don’t try it on my table, though. That would be rude.

By Nsidestrate

I'm a hard-core limit ring game poker player who is becoming a degenerate sports bettor. I'm sure it will all make more sense if you read on.