It’s the most repeated gripe across Internet message boards dedicated to discussing poker. It’s the source of countless accusations of online collusion, poker site fixing, killer poker robots and rampant cheating. It’s the bad beat that ends a player’s tournament life. Usually the player even had the best hand: maybe he had kings and was called down by a big stack with AQ or AJ, and his hand didn’t hold up. Maybe he had aces but so few chips when he moved in he was called by a player with a pair of threes who caught a lucky set. “How could that guy have called me with that?!!” they ask, and instantly their thoughts to turn to cheating and the cruelty of the Fates.

But usually the problem isn’t with their play, and it’s not with the other player’s “loose” call (which may or may not have been justified given the pot odds as he perceived them). Usually these players are called down on their premium hands by players with sub-par hands that have one advantage that makes all the difference in no limit hold em: a big stack.

A big stack is power, it’s immunity from elimination, it’s a license to gamble and steal and bully and cajole. It’s the difference between offensive, winning poker, and defensive, reactive poker. Much as in the Cold War, the only way to ensure your safety at the poker table is to have the most weapons. At the poker table, your chips are your intercontinental ballistic cruise missiles. When you’re lacking in chips, you won’t be taken seriously, and one missed gamble can spell the end of your tournament life.

For this reason, you often have to lie, steal and cheat your way to a big stack earlier in the tournament in order to avoid desperation all-in moves later on. If all else fails, you may need to gamble a bit with some short stacks or push draws more aggressively than you’d otherwise need to or aggressively re-steal. Basically, you need to do whatever it takes to build your stack and keep it larger than most of the rest of the table. Otherwise, you’re no longer a predator, you’re the prey. You can afford to be behind the curve while the blinds are still low. But when things escalate you’ve either got that big stack and a fighting chance to steal and gamble your way into contention, or else you’re going to be complaining about the “bad beat” that ended your tournament life.

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