Sunday, February 26, 2012

Do you buy in short or deep in cash games?

This is one of the questions I got after the Swarthmore math talk. It came from the student who found this blog before the talk and commented that he had read Chen and Ankenman's The Mathematics of Poker. This is a question I've addressed previously on this blog.

The answer is that I usually buy in relatively short but will sometimes buy in for more if the situation is right. One reason I mentioned is that, by buying in short, you leave the option of buying in for more later. By buying in deep immediately, you pigeon-hole yourself, because you are not allowed to take chips back off the table. I also explained some factors that make me think buying in short can be advantageous. The question was a little outside the scope of the talk, so I first explained the question to the audience; hopefully my readers here will know what buying in short and deep means.

In no-limit holdem, there is a small mathematical advantage to having a shorter stack. This is for two reasons:

Reason 1. Most players with big stacks will not even bother trying to play well against players with short stacks. They maximize their EV by focusing their strategy on playing well against other players with big stacks. This means they will be exposing themselves to being exploited by you if you have a short stack.

Reason 2. If you are all-in against two or more deeper-stacked opponents, one of your opponents might fold a hand that would have won, allowing you to take the pot. Or, you might get to keep a hand that you would have folded if you were not all-in.

This second point was made by Sklansky in his tournament strategy book. Although I originally thought it was a very significant factor, I have come to think it's less important than the first reason I list here. Situations relevant to Reason 1 are fairly common. An example would be if you buy in for $500 and everyone else is playing behind $2k-$5k. They will simply not mind paying you off for $500 if they think they have a chance to win $2k+ from another player. Situations relevant to Reason 2 are comparatively rare. A lot of uncommon factors all have to fall into place. You would need to get all-in with a hand that would have come in second place. The first place player would then need to fold after you are all-in. Even when this does happen, it might actually have hurt you to be all-in, because it's possible you would have won a bigger pot if you had been able to wager more. Because of this it's not entirely clear that being all-in is really mathematically advantageous at all.

During the talk I also mentioned that in my experience, players got used to me playing a short stack, and so when I did have a big stack, they tended to underestimate me. I was able to take advantage of that. (In truth, this probably argues for buying in deep more often, but I didn't bring that up during the talk.)

Against very good opponents I believe it is actually best to buy in short, mostly for Reason 1. Against very weak opponents, it is probably better to have a deep stack, because this allows you to take full advantage of your skill differential. This is especially true if your weaker opponents happen to have deeper stacks than your stronger opponents at a certain table; this is likely to be a temporary situation, but it is usually worth taking advantage of.

Against normal opponents, it's tough to say which is better, but I prefer to buy in short because it allows me the option of staying short stacked if the table becomes tougher.

Frankly, this last consideration is much more important if you are in a situation like I was in as a prop, where you do not always have the option to leave a table if the game is very tough. As a prop, I valued having the option to have a short stack against tough opponents; for most people, the better option is to just leave the game. I didn't think to mention this during the talk, but I think it's an important point.

There is actually a third reason to buy in short that I didn't mention during the talk.

Reason 3. Having a deep stack is stressful and draining. As a prop player, I valued my ability to keep the game as low-stress as possible, because I did not have the option to just leave. It is very difficult to focus intently on poker for eight straight hours; by buying in short, I allowed myself some mental breaks during the day. Most players who are not in the abnormal prop situation should probably buy-in deeper against moderately weak opponents. However, there is something to be said for pacing yourself at the poker table by keeping the stress level low.


rick said...

Hi Keith, I totally agree that point 1 is far more significant than point 2. It's pretty rare that someone with a decent chance of winning a pot will fold to a side pot bet. However, it happens all the time that gamesmanship between big stacks leaves them a little bit vulnerable to short stacks. If you are very deep stacked, and another player with a deep stack comes in and you have 76 suited or 44, or even worse, a lot of players will call or even raise, because a hand like this can have a lot of deception and deep stack potential. However, a short stack can perhaps re-raise all in before the flop with a good hand and exploit this play.

rick said...

By the way, I really enjoy your blog a lot, and I wonder if, in addition to giving out tips and advice that you sort of don't want your opponents to know (or maybe are ambivalent about), you should also give out advice that you actually WANT other poker players to follow or at least think about. Some examples I can think of are:

1. How relevant is the rake? Why do we accept such high rakes? Does the ratio of the rake to the blinds matter? Is it possible that some games have such high rakes that even the best players are longterm losers?

2. Why do players put such a premium on playing 9 or 10 handed? If the casino manager will give a rake reduction for playing short handed, isn't that possibly preferable to 9 handed play?

3. What aspects of games should poker players want, other than bad opponents? For instance, most players frown on the idea of adopting new games, or games with different rules like antes, Mississippi straddles, etc.

Personally, I would love it if it were considered common knowledge among poker players that they're playing not just against each other but also against the casino, and that games with high blinds and antes relative to the rake are not only more exciting but make more sense economically too.


Keith said...

Hi Rick, thanks for stopping by the blog again. It sounds like you are encouraging me to become a sort of activist for the Brick and Mortar poker player community. I like the idea. I'd always viewed these things as essentially immutable, and I'd only mentioned them occasionally in order to complain or vent frustration.

It's very difficult to convince a poker player he is wrong about anything, and so it would be a long shot to affect any change in the practices you describe. However, that's not really a good excuse not to try, especially when I am always looking for new things to write about! Thanks for the idea, and I look forward to giving my two cents in future posts, which will likely be read by upwards of 15 people. :)

In truth, some of these factors may involve catering to recreational players, who are more likely to want to pay a little extra for jackpots (rather than paying for time) and play with extra players and whatnot. I'll have to think about those issues a little more deeply.

pinkerton said...

Glad to see you're still posting, I haven't stopped by the blog for a while and figured I'd catch up.

I don't play much poker these days either, but I didn't see anywhere in this post where you mentioned one of the biggest issues I personally have with being short stacked... for reason #2 precisely, you have fewer ways to vary your play. For me personally I get better value out of having a wide range of cards I could be making the same bet with than the off chance I might get a weak call from a big stack (I might get a weak call from a big stack when I HAVE a big stack) Obviously bankroll is another issue when playing like this..

For me, the four main considerations on short or deep are:
1. Competition. Even if there's only one or two players giving their money away, I want to be able to get it in as few swipes as possible, but if everyone is very good, I might buy in medium (say 300 on a 100-500 table).

2. Intensity. If I'm wanting to drink heavily or I'm sitting on a win and just want to have fun, I'll either lower the stakes or buy in short.

3. Play-style. I think for your play style (I totally picked you out at the Bike back in the day ;)) short stacked probably makes the most sense as a prop player, low stress, solid play. For me, I like to have the flexibility to bluff. Short stacked, you're limited in how you can play your cards... Deep stacked, you have a lot more ability to put pressure on situations. This can be good and bad obviously, bluffs that get called can get expensive, but they can also lead to some questionable calls later on. It gives me the ability to have a bit more control, even if the cards are not going my way.

4. Bankroll for obvious reasons.

Hope the best for you and I'll catch back up with previous posts later :)...


Craig Berger said...

If you'll permit me to weigh in on your "three questions," Rick:

1. You've always been an anti-rake crusader and I admire that, but as my dear departed Uncle George used to say "It's the only game in town." We accept the high rake because all the casinos do it and there's no other choice, other than to play online, which is why casino owning lobbyists got the Corporatist Republicans to make online poker illegal. I've always said that the $40 NL Holdem buy in games that now exist are impossible to beat because of the rake. Interestingly, these are now the most spread games in the casino. Nice of them to appeal to the lowest common denominator there, eh? 2. I think if you're only consideration is rake, yeah, maybe you want to play four handed, or even play in a home game. But a lot of people like a full ring for many reasons, including more soft spots at the table, more money on the table, and less scrutiny on you as an individual at the table (less likely players are trying to beat YOU specifically). 3. I'm pretty sure having opponents worse than you with big stacks is desirable, however I don't really want opponents with such enormous bankrolls that they can keep throwing chips at you until they get lucky and wipe you out. As far as short or deep stacks, I've done both, but I know a guy who made an absolute fortune super short stacking NLHE games online.