If you play poker tournaments for any reasonable period of time, you will notice that you frequently find yourself in situations where you are the medium-sized stack at the table. A medium stack can be defined as a stack that is somewhere between twenty and forty big blinds. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the middle stages of these poker tournaments.
This situation happens to players of all skill levels in poker because there is a decent amount of variance involved in the game of No Limit Texas Hold’em. The best players are not always the chip leaders of every tournament they decide to play, and the worst players are not always short-stacked. Everybody gets to be the medium stack once in a while, which is an unavoidable fact of tournament poker.
Keeping this in mind, it should be easy to see that learning how to properly play these middle stages of a poker tournament is a necessity. Any time a very common situation arises in poker, you should study how to deal with it so you will not be questioning your logic in the middle of a session.
The middle stages of a tournament require a lot of aggression, but you must analyze a few factors before you know when aggression is going to be the answer. Some of these factors include timing, your table image, your hand strength, and if the money bubble has burst or not. You should be readily scanning your table to look for players who are scared or weak so you can pounce on them when the money bubble arrives.
If you are normally a cash game player, you are probably going to be extremely unfamiliar with the strategies involved in a medium stack. This is because you are able to reload your stack all the way up to one hundred or two hundred big blinds in a cash game anytime you want, which shields you from living the life of a medium-stack player.
In order to help out our fellow cash game friends, or anyone else who is interested in learned medium-stacked middle stage strategies, we will now break down exactly what you should do in each situation. We will organize these situations according to what type of hand you are holding and then consider the reactions that you should have to various moves your opponents make.
Premium Pocket Pairs
Seeing as how this section involves the easiest set of hands to play, we figured we would put it first on the list. “Premium pocket pairs” refers to hands such as pocket aces, pocket kings, pocket queens, or pocket jacks.
Why is it that these hands are the easiest to play? Well, the fact is that you can play them with no fear when you have a medium stack, because they are always going to be in the upper part of your perceived range of hands. The shorter your stack becomes, the truer this statement is, since your perceived range of hands becomes wider and wider.
This means that if you raise with one of these premium hands and you face a re-raise, you have no qualms about shoving all of your chips in the middle. There should be no thought involved whatsoever when you have between twenty and forty big blinds and hold one of these hands. The only exception where you might need to think twice is when you hold pocket jacks and an EXTREMELY tight player re-raises you.
One move that we highly recommend avoiding when you hold these premium hands is going all-in pre-flop before anyone even raises once. Beginners are known to do this move because they are sick and tired of losing to bad beats on the river and they just want to end the hand as soon as possible.
This is a very short-sighted approach that ends up costing people a ton of money. When you open-shove with big hands such as pocket aces, especially when you have the higher half of this medium-stack range, you are forcing a ton of weak hands that would have called or re-raised a normal-sized raise to fold.
These players are running away from profitable situations in the name of avoiding an occasional tilting bad beat, which is a very silly thing to do for those who are interested in making money. Making money is a good thing, for those of you who are taking notes while reading this.
Your standard raise size with a medium stack and a premium pair should just be two big blinds. If you are feeling feisty, you can make it 2.1 big blinds.
Either way, you should make smaller raises that allow weaker hands to try to make moves on you, which makes more money in the long run compared to bigger raise sizes.
When you are facing a pre-flop raise with a premium pair, you should have a mixed strategy that involves both re-raising and flat-calling this raise. By doing this, you mix things up so that you are not very predictable. It is extremely tough for your opponents to put you on a premium pair when you just call, so it is good to do this once in a while. However, you should be re-raising more often than just calling with premium pairs, since that is the best way to get a lot of chips into the pot, and it helps to give you a looser image.
Second on our list comes trash hands, since they are the easiest set of hands NOT to play. If you have played any poker at all, you are going to be quite familiar with trash hands, because they make up a majority of the hands that you are dealt.
Some examples of trash hands include ten-three offsuit, queen-four offsuit, and two-seven offsuit, which is considered the worst hand in poker. Most trash hands are offsuit, although there are certainly some that are suited as well. The trash hands that are suited are certainly never going to be connected in any way.
There are going to be stretches where all you see is trash hands for hours. You have to be mentally prepared for droughts like this so you do not start playing hands that you shouldn’t play. It is very easy to get bored and start splashing around, but if this was the path to winning poker, then everyone would be doing it.
Even if the action folds around to you in the button position, at least 60% of the hands you are dealt are going to be considered trash hands that are not worthy of playing. If you are in early position, you can consider at least 90% of hands to be complete trash. Therefore, the level of trashiness that a hand possesses is sometimes reliant on your position at the table and the action that happened at the table before it became your turn to act.
Trash hands might win for you once in a while and put the other players on extreme monkeytilt, but they do not make you any money in the long run. It is important not to be results-oriented in poker and to start to think that a move is a good move to make just because it worked once or twice. Math governs what is profitable in poker, not your small sample size of results.
Sure, it’s fun to re-raise all-in with two-seven offsuit and then show the whole table your bluff, but if you do this move a million times, you will lose money. This is because trash hands simply do not have enough equity against the ranges of hands that call the bluff to make it worthwhile. Any time a move loses money if it is done a million times, it is the opposite result of what you are looking for.
There is just no reason to call a raise with these hands, and there are better options out there if you are looking for hands to re-raise other people with.
In addition, if you do happen to bend the rules and raise one of these hands, you should never consider calling a re-raise. Even if this re-raise is only five big blinds after you raised to two big blinds, your medium stack is too shallow to consider flatting 3-bets with trash hands. The reason for this is that you will not flop a strong hand that is worthy of staying in the hand often enough to counter the large percentage of your stack that you are putting in before the flop is dealt.
Medium Pocket Pairs
Now we come to one of the trickier sets of hands when it comes to playing a medium stack in the middle stages of a poker tournament. Medium pocket pairs include hands such as pocket tens, pocket nines, pocket eights, and pocket sevens.
These hands are tricky because they are considered to be in the top 10% of all possible hands, but they are tough to play after the flop is dealt unless you hit a set. This is due to the fact that there are so many higher cards that can come on the flop, which makes it tough to bet your hand for value and also makes it tough to call bets at all.
Conversely, they are also tough to play before the flop against re-raises because your response will totally depend on what range of hands you think your opponent has. You will almost never be folding these hands when you are on the lower end of the medium stack spectrum, which is somewhere between twenty and twenty-five big blinds. However, once you get up to around thirty-five or forty big blinds, you can certainly consider folding these hands to re-raises from tight players.
Your standard raise with these sorts of hands should be a minimum raise unless you have a stack that is between twenty and twenty-five big blinds, in which case you can consider just shoving all-in some of the time. These relatively large all-in bets are fine because it makes it look like you have ace-king or ace-queen and people will routinely call with pairs smaller than yours. You will also not be losing much post-flop value since they are so tough to play post-flop anyway.
If there are a bunch of limps before the action gets to you, you can consider either limping or raising with these medium pairs.
Medium pairs are certainly strong enough to assume that they are ahead of everybody’s limping range, so it is logical to start building the pot at this point. It is also fine to just call and try to flop a set some of the time, especially if you are at tables that hate to fold or tables that like to limp as a trap with premium pairs.
Once a flop does come, you should always be checking to the other player if you are out of position and you were not the pre-flop raiser. If you have a positional advantage over your opponents, or if you were the pre-flop raiser, you should not be betting on flops when your pocket pair weighs in as second pair. This is for reasons of pot control and deception, and it gives your check-back range some balance. Other players will routinely make mistakes on the turn and river when you do this.
Small Pocket Pairs
Small pocket pairs are also a very tricky set of hands to play, much like the medium pocket pairs. The flop is almost ALWAYS going to have one or two overcards to your pair, and you are only going to flop a set in one out of eight flops.
Due to the extremely tough post-flop conditions and the small percentage of the time when you flop a set, you should have no qualms about shoving these sorts of hands all-in before the flop comes. This mostly pertains to the lower half of the medium stack range, with stacks between twenty and thirty big blinds.
If you have more than thirty big blinds, you can consider doing normal raises with these sorts of hands, and then use your momentum to steal the pot after the flop. Your normal raise should be two times the big blind, and your continuation bet should be around half of the pot.
If a lot of people ahead of you have already limped, you should certainly call the one big blind and see a flop yourself. Small pocket pairs thrive the most when there are lots of players in the hand because it gives you a higher percent chance of getting paid off when you do flop the set one in eight times. These sets often go undetected because they are so small and the small card on the flop always appears to be so harmless to the other players.
Ace with a Big Kicker
An ace with a big kicker, such as a king, a queen, or sometimes a jack, qualifies as a premium hand even though it is not a pocket pair. At tables where other players are busy playing any ace that they come across, these sort of hands are very strong indeed.
When you are facing a raise with one of these aces with a big kicker, you should almost always be re-raising. If you have between twenty and thirty big blinds, you can consider simply re-raising all-in, but if you have between thirty and forty big blinds, you should consider a normal re-raise size. You can do the normal re-raise size some of the time with twenty to thirty big blinds, as well, since it is always important to be balanced in every situation so that you are not predictable.
When it folds to you, you should always be making a raise with these hands. When you raise with these hands, you are hoping to induce someone to re-raise you so that you can go all-in. You should never be raise-folding ace-queen or ace-king with a medium stack. Ace-jack is a hand that you can sometimes fold to a re-raise if your opponent is tight or the situation is right.
If there are a lot of limps ahead of you, you should not be afraid to raise it up. These limping players will rarely have large pairs, especially when you hold two large cards in your hand.
When these hands are suited, they hold slightly more value than when they are not suited. This value is sometimes overestimated by some people, and the only real difference is that you should be more willing to see flops with the suited hands. This is simply because you will flop flush draws more often with suited hands, which makes it easier to play aggressively after the flop is dealt.
Ace with a Small Kicker
An ace with a kicker less than a ten, or “ace-rag,” is going to be considerably less strong with a medium stack than an ace with a large kicker would be. You will notice a drastic change in strategy that results simply from having this bad kicker, whether the hand is suited or not.
If the ace with a small kicker is not suited, you can basically fold it every time you see it. The exception to this rule would be if it folds to you on the button or small blind, in which case you can certainly make an open raise with the ace-rag in your hand.
When the ace-rags are suited, they are usually quite appealing to hold onto. However, if there is a raise ahead of you, you should probably be folding these suited ace-rags anyway. If it folds to you, then you can feel comfortable doing a normal raise with a suited ace-rag in late or middle position. Early position is definitely a place where you should be folding all ace-rags whether they are suited or not and there is really no exception to this rule.
If there are a bunch of limps ahead of you, feel free to see a flop with a suited ace-rag, but not with an offsuit ace-rag. You can even raise up the limps once in a while when you are feeling feisty, which is perfectly fine. This will help to keep you unpredictable, and when you flop a flush draw, you will be sure that you have the best flush draw possible.
Two High Cards
For the purpose of this article, we will assume that “high card” means ten or higher. Any hand that contains two of these high cards is a very strong hand indeed for a medium stack in the middle stages.
First of all, you can open-raise these sorts of hands through three or four people without any worries whatsoever, since it is a profitable play. Once you come across situations where you have to go through five people or more, you might want to fold the high card hands such as jack-ten offsuit or queen-ten offsuit. If you are in very early position at the table, you should really only be open-raising ace-queen and ace-king from this group.
If you are facing a raise, these sort of hands are perfectly fine to 3-bet with. If you have the lower end of the medium stack range, somewhere around twenty or twenty-five big blinds, then you should be 3-betting all-in with these hands. With larger stacks, you can afford to do a smaller 3-bet if you wish, since you have more room to work with.
You can also flat-call other players’ raises with these sort of high-card hands sometimes, but you should be 3-betting them more often than calling. This is especially true if you have a stack that is on the previously mentioned lower end of the medium stack chip range. This is also especially true when your hand is not suited, since you should welcome seeing a flop with a suited hand more often than an unsuited hand. The reason for this is simply that suited high card hands are easier to play after the flop, since they will have strong flush draws and backdoor flush draws more often, which makes it easier to play aggressively and also gives more ways to hit a made hand.
When you hit a pair with these high cards on the flop, it is going to be extremely hard to fold. Unless there is an obvious flush or straight that hits, your stack is too short to even consider folding top pair with the top kicker in most situations.
When you flop flush draws that have two cards higher than any card on the flop, you have a huge hand, even though it does not seem like it. Even if the other player has top pair, you still have around fifteen cards that can help you, which is a 60% favorite to win the hand if there are two cards still to be dealt. Sure, you might be able to consider folding to a 6-bet all-in if you were three hundred big blinds deep on this flop, but in medium-stack poker, you simply cannot consider folding these sort of huge draws.
Small Suited Connectors
Ah yes, the slippery and slimy suited connectors that we know and love. These hands are very tricky when they make a big hand because they are usually undetectable when they do so. For example, if you see a board that reads ace-three-two-king-nine, the last thing that crosses your mind is that the other player holds four-five suited for a straight. Most players will have a very hard time folding a set or two pairs in this situation, not to mention just folding a pair of aces.
Unfortunately, suited connectors are the most powerful when chip stacks are very deep, like one hundred or two hundred big blinds. In a cash game, you can play them as if they are aces and sometimes get lucky with an undetectable strong hand. This only works when there is a lot of big blinds to be won. However, when your stack is only twenty or forty big blinds, you are only capable of winning twenty to forty big blinds from another player.
Therefore, with a medium stack, we do not recommend going nuts with these types of hands. When you do hit a monster, you will only be winning between twenty and forty big blinds, which is not really worth the hassle. When you do not hit a monster, you will have invested anywhere from 5% to 15% of your stack just to try to hit a flop extremely hard. This math does not work out in the favor of whoever is playing the suited connectors, since you will not hit a flop extremely hard often enough to counter the large percentage of your stack that you are giving up.
High cards and high pairs gain a lot of value in the middle stages of a tournament with a medium stack, which means that suited connectors lose some value. The only time that you should be playing these suited connector hands is when you are first to act and you are in late position, in which case you can and should raise them.
After reading about what to do with each group of hands, you should be able to see the larger picture of what kind of strategy is going to be necessary with a medium stack in the middle stages of a poker tournament. This situation comes up constantly for anyone who plays poker tournaments with any sort of regularity, since there is a good amount of statistical variance that comes along with the game of No Limit Texas Hold’em.
While this variance is a necessary evil when it comes to poker, there are certain strategies that can be used which will minimize the wild swings. By using proper hand strategies, paying attention to who is weak at your table, and paying attention to when the money bubble is about to burst, you should be able to pick out spots where you can be aggressive in a profitable way. When you only have twenty to forty big blinds, there is a lot to be said for selective aggression and picking your spots correctly to pick up free chips.