Chip leverage: The poker myth that won’t die

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (1993) in Card Player magazine.

Many poker players talk about “chip leverage,” but they just don’t understand it. Consider these questions:

What’s the main advantage to having more chips than your opponents? Image. Sometimes you can gain psychological leverage by displaying mountains of chips.

Are there other important advantages? No. Of course, if you hold a perfect hand with plenty of chips, you’ll never settle for less than you might have won. But, unless you’re much more skillful than your opponents, you’re more likely to benefit from having fewer chips!

Huh? What’s the benefit of having fewer chips? You can go all in while opponents with more chips battle. Then you often see the showdown and win with a lucky hand you normally would have discarded.

But, in a poker tournament, don’t bigger stacks have the advantage? The more chips the better, but it’s wrong to think the advantage is greater than the relative size of the stacks suggests. That’s the flawed theory of chip dominance. If eight equally skilled players remain, and you have $10,000 and Janet has $5,000, you are not more than twice as likely to win as she is. (Percentage-payoff tournaments offer surprising compensation for smaller stacks, but that’s not even the issue today.) With a small stack you can move all in and survive to win the showdown. You can’t be bluffed out and you can draw out. Example: When you’re all in for an ante, then you see the showdown while other players (having matched your ante already) voluntarily eliminate themselves.

What about heads up? I’ve heard some foolish arguments about who has “leverage” heads up. Assuming equal skills, and discounting things like blind bets and position, the chips are worth what they seem to be worth heads up.

There’s no such thing as chip dominance, but also no such thing as a disadvantage to the chip leader. That’s because each player starts a hand with exactly the same-size “stack” heads up. If I have $10,000 and you have $50,000, it’s the same as if I have $50,000 and you have $10,000. The most either of us can bet is $10,000 and the other $40,000 temporarily doesn’t exist…

Don’t small stacks require caution? In a proportional payout tournament, you should frequently act more conservatively with short money. Those tournaments require a strategy geared toward survival, assuming profit is your guiding goal and not just the glory of first place. Conversely, players with abundant chips might be more aggressive and more creative, because chip-for-chip theirs are less valuable in producing profit. Outside that type of tournament, larger stacks do not — and logically cannot — provide an extra advantage.

So, when they chatter about, “Chip dominance,” or “Chip leverage,” pretend you’re listening to chipmunks. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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