In a recent World Series of Poker Circuit event that I played in, the nine-handed final table started with blinds of 10K – 20K, and there were roughly 3.5 million chips in play. Some quick division would tell you that the average stack was more than 350K, or about 18 big blinds. This simple calculation could lead you to some bad conclusions, however, because in fact most poker stacks were much shorter.
When the final table started, I had a chip stack of about 1.2 million or almost one-third of the chips in play. So the average among the rest of the table was a little over 250K or approximately 13 big blinds.
As the chip leader, I would have played aggressively if most of the stacks had 18 or 20 big blinds. Players with those sorts of stacks can afford to fold and wait for a decent spot, so I'd do well to raise frequently pre-flop while attempting to steal the blinds and antes. Against players who have 13 or fewer big binds, however, that strategy won't work.
Players with short stacks need to gamble and, if they pick up any kind of decent hand, they're going to shove all-in and hope to double up. Playing aggressively, I could find myself in some tough spots. For example, if I were to raise to 70K with some marginal stealing hand like A-T or K-J, and then a short stack came over the top for 210K, I'd be getting two-to-one on my money to make the call. It would be tough to fold and I could end up doubling up a short stack with a hand I didn't love.
At this final table, where the average stack among the other eight players was so short, my best strategy was to play extremely tight. I decided to play only top-quality starting hands while I waited for the short stacks to gamble with one another. Eventually, the stacks would consolidate and we’d be left with five or six players who had decent stacks. At that point, I could get more aggressive and begin stealing from players who could afford to fold.
In the end, I got some big hands that didn’t hold up and I didn’t win the event. Still, by understanding that the true average stack was shorter than a quick calculation would have me believe, I was able to apply a strategy that gave me the best chance of coming out on top.