Effective Stack Sizes / Cash Games or Tournaments

I first learned about effective stack sizes when I started to get serious about sit and goes and tournaments. It’s a concept that has made/saved me more money than I could count.

It’s a concept that you should learn about, too, if you haven’t already. It doesn’t matter if you play sngs, mtts or cash games – you can use this. My goal with this page is to show you how. Below I explain what effective stacks are, how it affects the hands you play and how you play them.

What are Effective Stacks Sizes?

The effective stack size is the maximum amount between two people* that can be won or lost in a hand. For example:

  • You – 25 big blinds
  • Your Opponent – 10 big blinds

The effective stacks in this case is 10 big blinds. It’s the most that either of you can win or lose because it’s all the button has.

I think about effective stack sizes in terms of big blinds, but you can also think about them in terms of dollars. That might make more sense for cash games. For example:

  • You - $55.35
  • Your Opponent - $125.00

In this case the effective stacks would be $55.35.

Effective stacks are only applicable to games where betting isn’t capped, such as no limit holdem or pot limit omaha. Effective stacks don’t apply to fixed limit games because only so much money can wagered over the course of a hand.

* Effective stacks can be used for more than 2 people in all in situations. For example, if it’s your turn to act in a sng, and there are 4 players left to act after you with the following stack sizes – 5bb, 10bb, 7.5bb, 22bb – effective stacks are 5bb, which means that you should shove all in, regardless of how deep your stack is. There are exceptions to this rule – or more optimal ways of playing in spots like this – but my point is that the concept still applies here.

How Effective Stacks Affect the Hands You Play

Effective stack sizes determine the hands you can (should, are able to) play.

For example, say you’re heads up and effective stacks are 6 big blinds. You look down and see T7s, your favorite hand.

It doesn’t make sense to play this hand. Stack sizes are so short that, for one thing, you shouldn’t be doing anything other than shoving all in, and two, stack sizes are so short that your opponent will either have the odds to call or shove over you (if they have more chips), or will be so short that they’re needing to gamble and will call you with any ace, king, queen, etc. hand they have.

On the other hand, if you have T7s and effective stack sizes are 250 big blinds, then it makes more sense to play T7s. In this case effective stacks are so deep that you have implied odds. If you can make a strong hand you stand to win a large pot. You’re also able to raise and fold, and not be put in a position where you’ll have to play push/fold poker or be too pot committed to fold on the turn or river.

Do you see the difference?

How Effective Stacks Affect How You Play

Effective stacks will determine what options you have for how to play your hand, too.

For example, take the T7s example from above. With effective stack sizes at 6 big blinds, you cannot reasonably raise or limp here. There’s either a) too much dead money for the shortest stack to ignore, b) you do not maximize your fold equity if you’re the shortest stack and/or c) there’s not enough chips to play post flop.

The bottom line is that you have to play by the short stack’s rules, whether you’re the short stack or not.

Lets look at another example. Lets say that effective stack sizes are 125 big blinds. You have KJs on a QT2 rainbow flop. There is 250 chips in the pot and your opponent bets 200, giving you pot odds of 2.25 to 1 or 44%. You need a 9, which is about 11 to 1 or 9 percent pot odds.

Pretty bad odds, right.

But with so many big blinds behind, and the fact that a king might be good if it peels on the turn, you can (sometimes) justify a call here. You (may) have implied odds.

However, if effective stacks were 30 big blinds, there’s no way you could profitably call. There’s just not enough money to move the odds into your favor. That’s besides the fact that you may be wrong about being able to stack your opponent (or double up).

Effective Stacks and Fold Equity

Effective stacks will determine how much fold equity you have, too, which then determines what options you may have.

For example, say effective stacks are 10 big blinds. You have much less fold equity in this situation than if effective stacks were 100 big blinds. With 10 big blinds someone is at the threshold of needing to gamble to stay alive and maintain their fold equity. So ranges will be much wider.

However, with 100 big blinds ranges will be a bit tighter because no one has to gamble. Losing money (especially in a tournament) is just as bad, if not worse, than not making any (breaking even) because of the loss of equity, opportunity costs, image and variance you endure.

The bottom line is that effective stacks are apart of nearly every situation in poker. Although you’ll mostly use it in short stacked situations, it’s a good idea to always consider it, as it can be a good way to gauge ranges, fold equity and so on.