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Deep Stack – Early Stage Tournament Play

Deep Stack Poker Chips
There are a lot of guides and study resources to help you understand and conquer medium stack tournament poker play. There are even more guides and tools to help you master short stack tournament play. The phase of the tournament that seems to get the most neglect, though, is deep stack tournament play.

This may be because it’s more challenging for people to bust out in this stage, so they think it’s less important. You have more chips, so you feel like you have more room for mistakes that don’t cost you your tournament life. It may also be because most players assume they are playing correctly, when in fact they aren’t. Even more, it could be because it’s one of the tougher stages of play to master. Whatever the reason might be, it’s insanity to neglect such a big part of a poker tournament.

In this guide, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to start tackling the deep stack stages of Texas hold’em poker tournaments. While I couldn’t possibly attempt to cover every instance or hand possibility involved in deep stack play, I’m going to do my best to cover the major strategic implications that you need to be aware of.

Deep Stacks Versus Structure or Other Players?

One of the biggest misconceptions that I see from tournament poker players is the understanding of what it means to be deep stacked. When I’m talking about being deep stacked from a strategy perspective, it ONLY refers to how many chips you have in relation to the blinds. If you have 100,000 chips, your opponents all have 10 million chips, and the blinds are 300/600, are you deep stacked? The answer is yes! You have over 160 times the big blind. It does not matter that your opponents have monster stacks. You have a smaller stack in comparison, but you’re still deep stacked relative to the blinds.

Anytime you have somewhere over 70 or 80 times the big blind, you can consider yourself deep stacked in a tournament. The more big blinds you have, the more deep stacked you are. If you notice, this is different than in cash games. If you have 100 times the big blind in a cash game, it’s said that you have a normal stack. Anything over that 100 big blinds starts to move you into the territory of being deep stacked. Tournament play is viewed differently. Anything over that 70 or 80 big blind mark starts to be considered deep stacked.

Please make sure that you are not making this distinction based on your opponent’s stack sizes. While they will have the ability to put more pressure on you with larger stacks, it does not change whether or not you personally are deep stacked.

The only time that it does matter how big your opponent’s stack is happens to be when they have a smaller stack than you. If you are heads up with an opponent and you have 200 times the big blind, and they have 30 times the big blind, are you deep stacked? Technically, you are, but the hand is not going to play out that way. The effective stack is only 30 big blinds, so you are not going to be playing a conventional deep stacked pot.

Is being deep stacked only in the early stages of a tournament? Nope! The only reason I have that listed in the title of this guide is that it’s much more common for everyone to be deep stacked at the beginning of the tournament. Technically, you can be deep stacked the entire duration of the tournament as long as you continue to accumulate chips. This rarely happens, though, thanks to the ebbs and flows of tournament poker, but there have been people who have gone wire to wire before without ever falling out of the deep stack range.

Remember, it ONLY matters how many chips you have in relation to the blinds. It has nothing to do with anyone else’s stack or what level of the tournament it is in.

Chips Ripe for the Pickings

One of the best parts about deep stack play (especially when it occurs early in the tournaments) is that there are usually a lot of bad players who have tons of chips they are looking to give away. Are they consciously looking to give them away? No, silly. I just mean they’re not very good and are inevitably going to spew their chips off. They have problems making necessary folds and just don’t know how to play with so many chips in front of them. Think of it like this. If you gave a clueless investor $10 to invest, how big of a mess could they make? If you gave that same clueless investor $1,000,000 to invest, now how big of a mess could they make? Mo money, mo problems.

If you’re a sharp player, this creates a great opportunity for you to exploit these players’ mistakes and pick up some easy chips. How should you adjust your play? Well, you should be looking to play more pots with these deep stacked fish. You should be getting in there with more speculative hands and trying to snap them off when they have a bigger hand they can’t fold.

I’m going to talk later in depth about how the value of certain hands increase and decrease as the stack sizes changes. Most recreational players are not aware of this, and it creates a lot of problems for them that you should be looking to take advantage of.


The reason this is so important early in a tournament is that the recreational/bad players are less likely to make it to the later stages of the tournament with a lot of chips.

Most of them are going to gift those chips away before they know what hit them. This means that you need to actively be in there trying to get your hands on some of these chips before the other sharks scoop them all up.

Don’t Get Too Splashy

While the above tip to go after the fish early is important, it has to be taken with a heavy dose of discretion. It can be tempting when you have a lot of chips to put all of those chips to work. It’s completely fine to use your chips to continue building your stack, but you can’t try and do it on every hand. You still need to be conscious of the fact that it’s just not possible to win every hand. Pick your spots wisely and don’t overextend yourself. You can take some shots, but protect that big stack.

Something else I often see that you should not be doing is getting too passively splashy with a big stack. This leak can cause your entire game to sink. Instead of fighting for chips, people will passively see flops and play fit or fold. If they hit the flop, they’ll push forward, but if they miss, they’ll give up and not look for spots to try and win the pot. The feeling that this is ok comes with the idea that they have so many chips it’s not going to hurt to “see a few flops.”

Don’t leak off your big stack. Use those chips ACTIVELY to fight for pots.

The Decreasing Value of Big Hands

Pocket aces are a huge hand, right? AK on a K-8-2 board is a big flop, right? While these are big hands, the deeper the stacks, the lower their value is. When you’re sitting on a shorter stack, one pair hands and overpairs are monsters. With 30 big blinds, you’re usually ecstatic to get it in with top pair and top kicker. With a deep stack, though, if you’re getting 100+ big blinds in with one pair, you’re usually going to be in a world of hurt.

Here’s the problem with hands like aces when you’re sitting on a deep stack. They are hard to fold and rarely will win a big pot deep stacked. You’re destined to win a smaller pot or lose a bigger one. This usually is the fault of the fact that it’s hard to fold a hand like aces.

To backtrack a few steps, I am not saying that hands like aces and AK are bad hands. I’m not even saying that they’re bad hands to get early or when you are deep stacked. What I am saying is that their value based on the tendencies of common players make them a potential hazard in deeper stacked situations.

Here’s What You Need to Know

These hands may put you in some tougher situations and will require a lot more correct decisions to play properly when you are deep stacked. You need to be prepared to fold these hands and do so without a lot of resistance.

Remember, as the stack sizes increase, the value of these one pair type hands decreases. As the stack sizes decrease, the value of these one pair type hands increases.

The Increasing Value of Speculative Hands

Just as the value of the strong one pair hands change with stack size, so do the speculative hands that have the capabilities of flopping sets and making five-card hands like straights and flushes. As the stacks get deeper, these speculative hands grow greatly in value. Why? Well, first of all, they have the ability to snap off the hands we mentioned in the section above. Too many people struggle to fold one pair hands deep stacked, which makes the ability to take advantage of that huge with these hands.

Second, these hands are extremely easy to fold when you miss or only hit somewhat. For example, most people aren’t going to go broke with 8-9 suited on a 9-6-4 flop. You may lose some chips, but you are going to be able to get away from it if you need to.

As stacks get shallower, these hands lose value because you don’t have enough chips to be speculating.  The implied value just isn’t there because people’s stacks are usually too short. However, when stacks are deep, these are the kinds of hands that you should be looking to win some big pots with. Remember, though, don’t get too passive trying to make a hand. You still want to be in there fighting for chips.

Putting It All Together

Here are the main ideas you should be taking away from this. Let’s review.

  • Whether or not you are deep stacked is dependent on your chips in relation to the blind level. It has nothing to do with how many chips your opponents have or what stage of the tournament it is. The only time it matters how many chips your opponents have is when everyone in the hand has fewer chips than you and the effective stack shrinks.
  • Overpairs and other one pair hands lose value deep stacked because they are tough to fold and are rarely good in big pots.
  • Speculative hands that can make five-card hands like flushes and straights and snap off stubborn one pair hands rise in value the deeper stacked you are. These hands are easy to fold when you miss and even when you hit, making them much less of a liability. They become especially high in value when you’re playing against worse players who struggle to make necessary folds.

Ideally, deep stacked tournament poker play is going to play much more like a full stacked cash game than it is a tournament. There will be some tougher decisions to make as you’ll be playing more on later streets than when you are shorter stacked, and the chips get in before the later streets. Just make sure that you are always aware of how deep your stack is and how that should affect your play. Deep stack play is one of the most neglected, but can be the most important in your quest for tournament glory.