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Playing a Big Stack
by Chris Goudey

I'm tired today because I spent most of Thursday night and into the wee hours of Friday morning watching the live pay-per-view telecast of the final table of this year's World Series of Poker. Yes, I'm that much of a poker freak. I actually pony'd up the $24.95 to TiVo the telecast on Thursday night and then spent all day Friday trying to NOT find out who had won the title so I'd be surprised when I watched the telecast that night. Fortunately I was successful in not finding out who won, but the end result wasn't really a surprise. Jamie Gold, who had a monster chip lead going into the final table, just steam-rolled everybody and came away with the precious WSOP bracelet and, oh yeah, $12 MILLION dollars.

Watching the final table, Gold put on a masterful performance of big-stack play. He used his stack like a bludgeon, just continually raising and re-raising pots, forcing his lower-stacked opponents to fold. Allen Cunningham, the lone pro at the table (and probably one of the two or three best no-limit tournament players in the world), knew exactly what Gold was doing, but because he had only $10 million-$15 million in chips compared to Gold's $50 million-$55 million, was powerless to stop him. The same fate befell all the other players at the final table until finally, mercilessly, they were put of their misery when Gold talked Paul Wasicka into calling all his chips with a 10-10 on a board of Q-8-5. Gold, of course, held the Q in his hand, so when no other 10s came on the turn and river, Gold was crowned the 2006 WSOP champ.

The telecast did not show the hole cards of the players, so it was impossible to know what everyone held each hand. Gold played almost 40-50% of the hands, and the math says there's no way he held a good hand every time, so he was using his huge chip lead to win him pots as opposed to having those good cards. Usually you're going to get what would be considered a playable hand (by most pros) about 15-20% of the time, so if you see someone playing a lot more than that, they are either not very selective or are bluffing a lot of the time.

Gold held at least three times as many chips as all of his opponents at all times, so there was probably never a time where he felt nervous about losing his chip lead. The blinds in the tournament remained very low in comparison to the amount of chips on the table, so all of the players at the table had time to build chips, as opposed to being forced to go all-in because the blinds were getting too big. Gold knew this, but he took the bull by the horns and instead of waiting for his opponents to take each other out, he decided to use his big stack to force them all into decisions for all their chips.

When you're looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars being the payout difference between 4th place, 5th place, 6th place, etc., you're going to be much more hesitant to call a big part of your chips unless you have a monster hand. Again, Gold (who was mentored by the legendary Johnny Chan) realized this, and I'm sure was bluffing at least 1/3 of the time, knowing he wasn't going to get called unless the opponent had a huge hand. We'll see when ESPN shows the edited version of the final table in a couple of months if I'm right, but I'm telling you there's no way Gold had the best hand all the time. I'd say it was probably a 50/50 split of him actually having the best hand and forcing opponents to fold.

Gold ended up taking out all of the players at the nine-person final table except for one. It was truly an exceptional performance. Obviously it helps when you have three times as many chips as anyone else, but he showed exactly how you are supposed to play a big stack. Once you accumulate a big stack and you have smaller stacks at your table, it is imperative not to get cautious and sit back, thinking you have it made. That is actually the perfect time to become more aggressive and use that stack to force your opponents to fold and/or call decisions for all their chips.

You will need to change gears occasionally, because if you do nothing but raise, raise, raise all the time, eventually your opponents will figure you out and will slow play their big hands and check-re-raise you. When you do raise with a big hand and get everyone else to fold, show it to them so they believe you are raising with good hands. Raise for a couple hands after that (because they'll think you're just on a good run), then sit back for a while, and then start attacking again. Once you've shown a pattern of raising with good hands, then start bluffing or forcing decisions.

It takes a combination of things to accumulate a big stack in a tournament, be it luck, good cards, opponents' mistakes or whatever. Once you do get that big stack, though, use it to your advantage and take those small stacks out!

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