Going deep: How to adjust to deep-stacked cash games

Playing deep-stacked poker is all the rage these days, but if you don’t make the necessary adjustments you can get into a lot of trouble…

The poker world has fallen passionately in love with deep stacks. As players have become more educated they have demanded deeper stacks in both tournaments and cash games. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that playing deep-stacked is more complex and allows the skill edge between players to become more evident. The second is that it’s far more fun! With more chips you not only get to feel like the big man on campus, you get to make more difficult decisions, for more chips, through all the streets. After all, there are only so many times you can get a rush from getting it all-in preflop with Queens against Big Slick.

For the purposes of this article we’ll focus mainly on cash games, although in many tournaments the same principles apply in the early levels. The critical distinction is the number of big blinds in the effective stacks in any situation. As a rule of thumb 200 big blinds or more is where the strategies we’re discussing come into play, although some old-school live players would view ‘proper’ deep-stacked play as something like double that.

Make no mistake though, playing deep-stacked poker is a very different game from playing with 100BB or less. The same poker principles you’ve learnt so far apply – a pair of Aces in the hole is kind of a good hand and 8-3 offsuit is a bit crap – but certain things, particularly the concepts of position and implied odds, are even more important. Let’s look at why…

Street life

The key difference, if you’re used to playing 100BB stacks or non-deep tourneys, is that you will have to make a lot more decisions on the turn and river. This changes the entire game. Mistakes with hand selection and playing out of position preflop are magnified. You also need to think much more about stack sizes and bet sizing to create the right opportunities on future streets, whether that’s setting up a bluff or manipulating the pot size so you can shove the river. There are also many spots where you would happily raise and get it all-in with shallow stacks – for example, if you had top pair or a naked flush draw – but which would be a big mistake with deeper stacks, as your opponent will almost always have a stronger hand.

This is a segue to the main dynamic you need to think about with deep-stacked poker: the effect of implied and reverse implied odds. For those not familiar with these ideas you may want to get more comfortable before jumping into deep-stacked games. We’ll assume a working knowledge of these concepts, as they’re not the main focus of the article. The point is, you need to make sure these ideas are factored into your decision-making.

When playing with deep effective stacks, the potential ‘reward’ of making a big winning hand increases as your implied odds go up. As such, hands like small pocket pairs (looking to make sets) and suited connectors (looking to make straights and flushes) become more playable. Conversely, the value of big unconnected hands like K-T offsuit drops considerably, as it’s tough to win a big pot with these hands. You’ll often be put in situations where you have one pair that is unlikely to improve, and/or be left facing tricky decisions on all streets.

Position is power

Not only do you need to be aware of how different hands play with deeper stacks, but you must also pay careful attention to position. Of course, as competent hold’em players you’ll be doing that anyway (we hope), but the problem becomes even more acute when playing deep-stacked. In a deep game there will be far more occasions where you face big bets in turn and river spots, and making these decisions with marginal hands is tough. In fact, making big bet decisions out of position on any street pretty much sucks.

Let’s say you get three-bet preflop by an aggressive player who has position on you and has been three-betting you a lot. This time you hold a hand like A-J offsuit. If you are 100BB deep you might consider calling and then getting it all-in when you hit a pair or have some fold equity. For example, you could check-raise the flop and effectively get all-in, putting him in a tough spot with his marginal hands or when he’s missed. Now imagine the same spot, but with 300BB. No matter how aggressive your opponent, are you ever really comfortable getting your stack in with just one pair? If the villain is even remotely competent postflop, you’re very often going to be in bad shape – and sometimes crushed – if the full stacks go in. Also, an opponent can put you in nasty spots by using his positional advantage to call your donk-leads and check-raises with plenty of money left behind to put pressure on you later in the hand.

The implication is that you should play even tighter out of position and far looser and more aggressive in position. There is so much more manoeuvrability playing deep-stacked and this favours the person in position. Take advantage of this by three-betting, flat-calling and floating more when in position. Against the right players who fold too much, for example, you can really widen your three-betting range preflop and put them under constant pressure.

Bigger pots

Given the extra stack depth, four-betting and even five-betting becomes more feasible preflop. However, it’s important to realise that even though the stacks allow you to do this in a less committing way than playing with 100BB, the more money you put into the pot preflop, the more you narrow and polarise your range. By this we mean that you are usually only ever making four-bets and five-bets with a very small range of hands for value (for a lot of players this may be T-T+ and A-K), plus occasionally a bluff. Better players will pick up on this and exploit it by playing perfectly against you. One option is to sometimes flat-call four-bets and five-bets with big hands like A-A and K-K, especially against aggressive players who often fight back against three-bets with four-bet bluffs.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that many deep-stacked games are played with an ante. This may not look like much, but it makes a huge difference to the game. A $1/$2 no-limit game with an ante can play almost as big as $2/$4, not only because there’s more dead money in the pot, but because the initial raise and three-bet bloat the pots far more. The increased dead money means you need to fight for it more, so you should play looser, three-bet slightly more, and be aware that when there’s so much money in the pot you shouldn’t fold too much once you’ve entered a hand preflop.

Streets ahead

In a deep-stacked game the flop is often not as defining as in a 100BB game. In a three-bet pot players will often stack off in a shallow game, whereas this will happen much less the deeper the stacks are. When there’s a lot of money behind there’s also the potential to make more moves, like floating the flop and so on.

Despite this, it’s important not to let the stack size dictate all your actions. So while you may face more check-raising and floating on the flop in deep-stacked games, especially from competent players, it doesn’t mean continuation betting isn’t profitable. And, of course, you should make the necessary adjustments against these tendencies, such as calling check-raises on the flop to make bluffing against you more expensive, and double-barrelling turn cards against persistent floaters.

Another crucial difference is playing draws when very deep. When shallow it’s possible to get all your money in (or effectively do so) with naked straight and flush draws that have some chance of getting your opponent to fold. Due to the fold equity in these situations this aggression often makes it a profitable play. When you’re very deep, however, this can become a losing play.

For instance, let’s say you have a flush draw and decide to raise on the flop. However, both you and your opponent have enough money behind for him to either flat-call your raise or make a significant three-bet, both of which put you in a terrible spot. If you get reraised you’re seldom ahead and have to decide whether you’re committed or not. If your raise is called and your draw misses on the turn, you again have to decide whether to commit your money to this hand – and sometimes in very bad shape. Please don’t feel these warnings mean you can’t play draws aggressively when deep-stacked – just be aware of the difficulties you can put yourself in if you play the same way as if the stacks were shallow.

Set it up

The final consideration when playing deep down the streets is bet sizing in relation to stack size. You need to be constantly aware of the pot size, the active players’ stack sizes, and what bets you can make on future streets. As we just discussed, if raising with a draw, you need to be aware of whether your opponent can make a significant three-bet or, if he flats, what the stacks will be on the turn and so on.

This is also critical when value betting. Let’s say you have a hand where you think you can often get three streets of value. You should plan out your bet sizing to give you the maximum chance of getting all your opponent’s money in on the river.

Deep-stacked games are fantastic fun, good for developing your poker skills and can be very profitable, as weaker players’ mistakes are exaggerated by the bigger bets. However, remember that you need to practise and think more about the turn and river, and the different effects of playing with much more money behind. Good luck!

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