Your Stack and the Time Clock

An interesting scenario arose for me in the $1,500 pot-limit hold’em event at the World Series of Poker. I took down 14th place and a $21,000 payday, but I won’t bore you with how the ladies (pocket queens) let me down a couple of times toward the end. This column focuses on a key stage in the tournament when the time clock played an important role in determining my strategy.

Let’s set the scene: There were about 18 players remaining from the original field of 1,100. First place paid more than $300,000, third place paid a little more than $100,000, and 18th place paid $12,000. We were in day two and the blinds were $2,000-$4,000. This was pot-limit, and the standard preflop raise at the table was the pot amount, so most players were raising to $14,000 before the flop.
I had about $60,000 in chips, with the average being about $90,000. Normally, I am in OK shape in this spot. I could play 10 orbits before going broke. I can raise to $12,000 or so and not be committed to the pot if an opponent shows a lot of strength. I am not yet desperate, but I would obviously like to double-up. Normally, I would be OK in this situation, but there was one key thing against me – the time clock. There were about 15 minutes remaining before the dinner break. We would all leave for dinner, and then come back to play with the blinds increased to $3,000-$6,000.

When holding a $60,000 stack, $3,000-$6,000 blinds are very high. I would practically be pot-committed on any hand once I commited to a raise. One or two orbits around the blinds would cripple my stack. Time was working against me. If I wanted to win this tournament, my best chance would be to make something happen before the blinds increased. If there were 30-40 minutes left at the level, I would be able to play a normal short-stack strategy. But the time clock didn’t allow me this luxury.

So, I started to analyze the situation. If someone were to raise before me and I moved over the top of him, I could potentially win his $14,000 raise plus the $6,000 in blinds, which would increase my stack by 33 percent! And $80,000 would give me a lot more working room going into the next level. I would have enough to survive a few orbits without crippling my stack. I could raise and still fold if an opponent showed a lot of strength. That $80,000 would give me a lot more options than $60,000 would with the blinds at $3,000-$6,000.

I had 15 minutes to make a move. I started looking to my right to assess my opponents. Which types of opponents were the best to make this move against? Did I prefer to do this against an opponent with looser starting-hand requirements? I would be less likely to run into a premium hand in this case. What about tighter opponents? Tight opponents might raise with fewer hands, but they also would be more likely to throw away stronger hands when facing a reraise. The problem was that no one possessed a significantly large stack at the time, so many opponents would be willing to call with a wider range of hands than usual. I concluded that my best target would be one of the looser players, although most of the play was pretty tight at this stage of the tournament.

There was a player two seats to my right who fit the right profile. He was willing to raise with a wide range of hands from any position. He had me out-chipped, but not by much. If he called my reraise and lost the hand, he would be severely crippled. I believed he respected my play, as I had not made too many reraises before the flop. Note that at no point had I really considered what type of hand I would make a move with. The situation called for me to make a move under the right circumstances against the right players; a good hand would just be a bonus.

With about 10 minutes left on the clock, my target made his move. He raised to $14,000 from early position and I knew right away what I was going to do. I still had a lot of players left to act behind me, but I was not in a position to be able to wait for a better opportunity. I looked down at 7-5 offsuit, which was plenty good enough to make a play. I made a reraise, which basically committed me to the pot if anyone called or reraised.

Note that I had two ways to win some chips here. If everyone folded, I’d pick up $20,000 increasing my stack by 33 percent. A reraise put a lot of pressure on my opponents to make a call without the very best starting hands. If I was called, it is not the end of the world; 7-5 offsuit is only a 2-to-1 dog against two overcards. If you count on your opponent calling with jacks or better, A-K, or A-Q, you are about a 2.5-to-1 underdog. So, even though I might have been called, there was still a decent chance of doubling up.
My play was successful, as my opponents folded. I came back after the dinner break and picked up a few blinds, and then hit a big hand with A-A. In a matter of 15-20 minutes of playing time, I went from $60,000 in chips, a below-average stack, to $125,000 in chips, an above-average stack. I was now in position to make a run at winning the tournament.

These are the kinds of plays that make you look like either a genius or a donkey who just lost it toward the end of the tourney.
In reality, this type of play is just one of the many calculated risks you need to take in a tournament. The time clock can be your best friend or an evil enemy. Always be aware of its presence as it is ticking down. Ask yourself how your strategy might change once a new level hits. Determine whether you need to make a move at the present time or can afford to wait until later. If you are the one with chips, determine which opponents will be impacted the most by the looming increase in the blinds. Just as a quarterback must learn to manage the two-minute drill, or a basketball player must be aware of the shot clock, a poker player should always be aware of how much time is left and how that might impact the strategies of each player.