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Stack Utility in Tournaments

November 17, 2020
by Dave Roemer

Earlier today I was discussing two different tournament hands at roughly the same time. One privately, and one on the Pokerstars School_handreviews channel on Discord. Both were similar in nature in one respect. In each hand, our hero had a reasonably strong but non-nutted hand, and was being raised all in. There were no reads or data to guide us. In one of the hands, I said I would fold to the raise, and in the other, I said I would call it off. The primary deciding factor was our stack size. In the hand I would have called it off, we had 12 big blinds remaining after betting the turn. In the hand I would have folded, we had 35 big blinds remaining after c-betting the flop. All other things being equal, the difference here is in the utility of our remaining stack should we fold.

Stack utility refers to the ability to make certain plays or moves, go deeper in hands before being all in or faced with a stack decision, and what tools in our tool belt can be used effectively during the play of a hand. The more chips we have, the more utility we have with those chips. Let’s start with a very basic example to illustrate the concept. Action folds around to you in the small blind. Your stack size to start the hand was 5 big blinds. Your stack has very little utility… you can fold, call, or raise all in… if you raise all in you might get the big blind to fold without a fight some % of the time. It’s not much, but it’s something. If, however, your stack size to start the hand was 1 big blind, you now have no utility at all… your choices are to fold or call, and you can never make the big blind player give up without a fight because you can’t even raise them, you’ll simply have to hope to win at showdown.

Now that you have an understanding of what stack utility means, let’s talk about the utility of some different stack sizes so we are prepared when making decisions where we factor this in:


At this stack depth we have little utility. We can get a shove through some % of the time if first in the pot, but that likelihood diminishes the shorter we are. If someone has already raised in front of us, the expectation they will fold to an all in reraise from us is minimal at best. If we can get in first, that’s really all we can do, besides hope to win a showdown.


Now we not only have first in fold equity with a raise, but also have added 3-bet fold equity. If a player in front of us opens to 2.5x, and we re-raise all in for 15x, we will take it down preflop some % of the time, increasing our stack by the blinds, antes, and 2.5x open. A powerful play in this stack range that allows us to mix some bluff shoves in with our value hands to bolster our position.


We have additional utility now with 4B fold equity on this stack. For example, we open to 2.5x, and a player 3-bets us to 7x. A 4-bet all in to 25x carries tangible fold equity and surely will force all the light 3-bets in the opponents range to simply fold immediately. It may even get a player who wasn’t thinking ahead and 3B you with AJ or 99 to fold. Additionally there’s a little bit of room to maneuver post flop, but not much yet.


Not only do we have preflop leverage tools available to us now, we also have more post flop tools available. Things like semi-bluff raising flops carry a lot more weight with plenty of chips behind for future streets for added leverage. We’ll be able to float flops comfortably. Let’s say a player opens to 2.5x, we call on the button. Blinds fold and it’s heads up, and on the flop they cbet 3x. We call. We are going to the turn now with position and 29.5bb behind, with 12.5-13.5bb in the pot (depending on antes). If they continue by barreling the turn for 5bb, we can float them a second time if we choose, which would put 23bb roughly in the pot and 24.5 behind, a very threatening proposition for an opponent who’s found themselves out of position on the river without a real hand. If they have the heart to put us at risk as triple barrel bluff, that’s great, but the large majority of players are very bad at triple barrel bluffing, and often just give up on the river. If they cbet 3x and we raise the flop to 8x, now they are out of position and facing the prospect of 24.5x behind that we can still wager should they continue. There are so many options available to us now, this stack has nice utility.


Again we have ample utility, even more so. Double floats, bluff raises on the turn, preflop reraise wars, playing post flop turns and rivers (as opposed to being shorter and usually all in pre or on the flop round)… the sky’s the limit and our tool belt is wide open for business.

So back to the conversations I was having that prompted the idea for this article. The 12 big blind stack doesn’t really have much utility, so if we call it off and lose, it stinks we’re out of the tournament but it’s not a disaster, 12bb isn’t much to protect because there’s not much we can do with it. 35 big blinds however has ample utility, and we should be more cautious about lighting it on fire. If a spot isn’t close, obviously we are willing to put it all at risk, but in close spots, calling and losing a 35bb stack that would have had a lot of utility going forward isn’t desirable. Also note, if we call and win, having say 80 or 90bb doesn’t really do nearly as much to our utility as losing our stack is detrimental to it… the chips lost when we lose this hand are far more valuable than the chips gained when we win. With 35bb we have plenty to work with, so taking marginal shots or gambles with this much doesn’t make great sense, while it certainly does when we are as short as 12bb and have little utility to speak of.

Think about your stack size and when making big decisions at the tables, consider the impact on your stack utility should you lose vs. win the hand. If losing will take you down from a stack size that has great utility to one that has little or no utility, it’s generally wise to only risk this with much stronger situations and be a bit more protective of that great utility stack. Most of the time getting involved, you won’t face big decisions like this that risk moving you across several thresholds of utility, but when you do, keeping these ideas in mind and adjusting accordingly can help make the difference between a deep run and an early exit.

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