One of the sweetest feelings in tournament poker is running up a big chip-lead and acting like you own the table, bullying and busting players with ease. But while building a chip mountain is the dream, holding onto a chip-lead has proved famously difficult over the years. Form is temporary, as are the premium cards, but class is permanent. So how can you make sure that you show it and stay king of the castle all the way through to heads-up? We’ve got your back!
It’s no good taking some mega-sized pots if you’re just going to let your chip lead dwindle like British hopes at Wimbledon. You need to use your chip-stack to constantly put players under increasing pressure, polarising their decisions and utilising the power you have over the table to devastating effect. That’s easier said than done. Being aggressive does not mean playing loosely. The trick is to get involved in more hands whilst knowing where you are in regard to your opponent’s ranges.
A great example of using aggression behind a big chip lead came in the recent run-up to this year’s World Series of Poker ‘November Nine’, which on paper looks like a bigger cakewalk than a compilation of every bun ever baked in the Great British Bake Off tent.
24-year-old Joe McKeehan completely dominated play from a dozen players out, building his formidable chip-lead up to fantasy poker levels by the end of play. He did this by raising almost every hand when the most painful bubble in world poker was approaching, and fearing nothing and no-one, busting ‘Kid Poker’ himself, Daniel Negreanu, in 11th place. With 63.1million in chips by the time nine remained and the dust had settled, McKeehan had accumulated the highest percentage of chips at a WSOP Main Event final table in the post-Moneymaker era.
Change Your Bet-Sizing
This advice is far less adopted than the aggression we just mentioned, which every chip-leader from Johnny Chan to Joe McKeehan has embraced with gusto. Being chip leader is a bit like wearing a yellow jersey at a live table, and it is exactly the same online. Everyone wants those chips of yours, and hopes that you’ll give them away easily. If you lose a dominated all-in (A-J failing to catch A-K for example), other players can peg you for Father Christmas, and they don’t stop at putting out a mince pie and a carrot – they’ll do anything to get you to offer them a present!
One way you can prevent too many chips being chipped away from your pile is to moderate your bet-sizing. Opening raises can be taken down from 3x to 2.5x the big blind and make a big difference to the chip flow. Well-timed aggression is paramount to maintaining your dominance, but don’t become an easy mark for short-stacks to 4-bet all-in over your wild raises. You’re better off putting the limpers to the test and increasing your power at the felt than attempting to bully players who may have less to lose than you by making a big move and pushing all their chips into the middle.
It sounds obvious, but see more flops! Widening your range doesn’t mean playing fast and loose, but leaving yourself more opportunities to take advantage of with your chip-stack. If you have four times the average for example, then you should be in ‘table bully’ mode. However, though you may have a big lead, players with more than average chips can still do critical damage to your stack and status in the tournament. Don’t get into battles with those who can harm you almost as much as you could damage them. Steal chip from the middle stacks and put pressure on those who face awkward decisions, not those with big blinds to spare to look you up and start using position or any reads on you. Becoming the monster chip leader can make you think you’re untouchable; it’s just how the brain is wired. But it doesn’t make it true.
Plenty of big stacks get involved in the right number of hands, increasing their participation but forgetting that they can still walk away. Having the biggest gun doesn’t mean that you can’t get shot down, so if players are turning aggro on your 3-bet with 15bb shoves or 10bb raises with a stack themselves, don’t be afraid to lay down semi-decent cards. You should be making enough repeat wins for half a dozen big blinds at a time to afford yourself some raise-fold situations. Know when to use them to your advantage, and when to get out of Dodge.
This won’t be from you for once, Hellmuth-wannabe, but your opponents. There’s nothing that tilts some players harder than seeing a player – any player – hit a run of cards and run up a monster lead when they’ve just folded 9-2 off-suit for the third time in one orbit. Your new table captaincy can send players in two very different directions. Some folk can clam up, wait for a premium hand in the vain hope that they will be the first player to find a chink in your otherwise Lannister-like armour. These players are ideal, and you can bully them to your heart’s content.
Others can start raising wildfire with the merest of invitations from the deck. Players are going to come after you, but you have to remember, they’re not after you really. It’s like hating a football team – when they’re winning, it’s the ultimate in love-to-hate, loin-stirring passion. When they’re 12th in League 1, they fall off your anger radar. Poker players are the mid-table teams, who are looking to take down the title holders.
Good luck in staying at the top of the pile right to the end in the tournaments you play. Remember, when it comes to chips, sometimes it isn’t knowing when to Hold’Em, but how!