There are few better situations in poker than to enter final table play as the big stack. However, there’s a big difference in coming to the final table with the chip lead and in knowing how to use your stack to take control of the final stages of a tournament.

There are many poker players who don’t slow down once they reach the final table with a big stack. I’m not one of them. By the time I reach the final table in a US online Poker Tournament, I’ll have already played a number of hands against about half of the other remaining players. I’ll have developed reads on their games, and they will have done the same with me, which makes this a good time to switch gears. If I’ve been hammering away aggressively before the final table, I’ll often slow things down and go back to playing a more tight-aggressive poker style than I had been just a short time earlier.

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Even more important to my success here, however, is that I begin paying very close attention to the size of my opponents’ stacks. I want to know who’s likely to be playing conservatively in order to try and move up a few spots, and who is short-stacked and looking to get their chips in the middle with any two cards. I’m more likely to play pots against the conservative players and avoid the gamblers.

Let’s says the majority of the players are sitting on somewhere between 40 and 50 big blinds each, but the short stack only has about 15 blinds in front of him. He’s going to be looking for any chance he can to double up, which means I’m not going to raise his blinds unless I’m holding a hand where I can comfortably call his all-in re-raise. While doubling the short stack up probably doesn’t hurt me in the long run, the reward I get for knocking him out of the tournament may not justify risking chips that I can put to better use against other opponents.

When there’s a log-jam of players who all have about equal size stacks, I’m willing to play a fairly wide range of hands against them, so long as I’m in position. For example, say I’m chip leader with about 100 blinds and a smaller stack with about 40 blinds open raises for 3x the big blind. I’ll call this raise from the button or from late position with hands like 4-5 suited, 7-9 suited, or J-10 suited if I think I can pick up the pot after the flop.

I know that I’m not often going to flop anything better than a single pair – if I connect at all – when I call with these kinds of hands, but I’m still comfortable making this play because I know my opponent will miss often enough that I can steal the pot with a post-flop bet. This is especially true against players who completely shut down their games if they miss the flop, because you can use your big stack to force them to commit a sizeable portion of their stack if they want to contest the pot.

When I do decide to play against the short stacks on the final table, I’m looking to do so from position and with hands that aren’t going to be easily dominated. If I don’t have to worry about someone entering the pot behind me, I’ll play coin-flips against the short stack all day long because I know I’ll win enough of these hands over the long run to be profitable.

The times I won’t make this play with my big stack are when I think someone else may try to squeeze me out of the pot by raising all-in behind me, or when doubling up the short stack could drop me from being the chip leader back down to an average size chip stack. In these cases, I’ll look for better spots and let the shorter stacks fight amongst themselves.

While having a large chip stack is a weapon in itself, you’ll get better results if you know how and when to use your stack to your best advantage. Apply pressure to the conservative players while avoiding unnecessary confrontations with the short stacks, and you’ll turn your chips into something much valuable when the tournament is over.

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