The disparity in the strength of hole cards is inversely proportional to the depth of the chips.

When playing No-Limit Texas Hold'em, the choice of entering hands is greatly influenced by the depth of the chips. The disparity in strength between strong and weak hands is actually inversely proportional to the depth of the chips.


For example:

Suppose you often play poker at a club where the blinds at each table are $5/$10, but the buy-in amounts vary. Table A has a buy-in of $200, Table B is $500, Table C is $1000, and Table D is $3000.

The players at these tables are regulars, with no or obvious donors. When facing skilled opponents, how should you adjust your starting hand selection at different tables?

Table A has a buy-in of $200, equivalent to 20bb. After observing the play for a while, you notice that a common situation is: if a player raises pre-flop, others fold, allowing the raiser to take the pot uncontested. Showdown scenarios often involve pre-flop all-ins or post-flop all-ins, usually showing strong hands like AA vs. QQ, AK vs. JJ, or KK vs. AQ.

Table B has a buy-in of $500, or 50bb. This table often sees some “interesting” outcomes, such as AA losing to a set of 66 on the flop, or KK losing to QJs when QJs has both a straight and flush draw on the flop and goes . Compared to Table A, players here have a wider range of starting hands.

At Table C, with a buy-in of $1000, or 100bb, the range of starting hands is even wider. At showdown, you start seeing medium suited connectors or small suited Aces. It becomes harder to predict their pre-flop hand selections.

Table D has a buy-in of $3000, or 300bb. You can't easily determine the starting hand ranges at this table. From observing previous hands, such as when a player raises pre-flop and another calls, then the flop comes A-4-2, someone bets, someone raises, and someone re-raises, you might think one player has Ax, which would be strong on such a dry board. However, they quickly go all-in. The player who opened shows AA, which makes sense as the top set. But the other player reveals 53o, hitting a wheel straight on the flop! The turn and river bring blanks, and the wheel straight wins the pot!


Would anyone reading this think these players are playing wildly? Actually, that's not the case, because the actions at each table are related to their chip depths. They adjust their starting hand ranges based on their chip stacks.

In the case of Table A, with only 20bb, it's obviously best to enter the pot with strong hands. You should only enter with big pocket pairs or two high cards and push all-in quickly, trying to end the hand before the turn or river. Without good odds, you shouldn't play speculative hands like small pocket pairs or weak connectors.

For Table B with 50bb, the situation is slightly different. Since there is some room with the chips, small pocket pairs and some drawing hands now have suitable implied odds, so you can selectively enter the pot with them.

At Table C with 100bb, even weaker suited connectors and small suited Ax hands can be included in the starting hand range.

Finally, in the case of Table D with a super deep stack of over 300bb, if you have a good , almost any hand can be used to represent a strong hand and go up against a real strong hand. However, you need to be much more cautious with hands like KJ or QT, which are easily dominated.

Therefore, in No-Limit Texas Hold'em, the choice of starting hands is directly related to chip depth. This relationship is somewhat blurred in tournaments because the deep stack stages are very short. In SNGs, the deep stack stage might only last the first round with just a few hands, while in MTTs, it may last at most the first two or three rounds. Once the blinds increase, it quickly moves into the scenarios of Table B or Table A.

In tournaments, the blinds keep increasing, so players don't have enough time to wait for the strongest hands to enter the pot. They are forced to consider pushing all-in with small pocket pairs or suited connectors. Playing these speculative hands isn't because of high implied odds or the ability to disguise strong hands, but because the continuously increasing blinds make the pot large enough that the EV of pushing all-in to steal the pot may be higher than folding. This effect often leads many tournament players to have a blurred understanding of the relationship between chip depth and starting hands.

Unlike tournaments, cash game blinds are fixed, and chip depth directly determines which starting hands we can play and the value of those hands.

Let's revisit the hand where the player at Table D went all-in: AA vs. 53o. We'll compare this hand across different chip depths.

At a short stack table with 20bb, there's no real comparison; AA's win rate far exceeds 53o. In heads-up, AA vs. 53o pre-flop win rate is 84% to 16%. Whether it's pre-flop or going all-in on the flop, AA is heavily favored.


What about at a 300bb table? Suppose AA opens with a to 3bb pre-flop, and 53o calls. The pot is 7.5bb, and let's assume everyone else folds. 53o's call only uses 1% of their total stack, which means they are taking on only 1% risk, with a disadvantage of 1:5.

In most flops, 53o won't hit anything, and after AA bets, 53o will fold, losing just 3bb, or 1% of their stack.

Let's assume the flop is K-6-4. This looks safe for AA. They bet 5bb, and 53o has an open-ended straight draw, which is well-hidden. They call, and the pot is now 17.5bb. 53o has put in another 5bb, with a win rate disadvantage of 2:1.

One thing to be clear about is that the player with 53o can guess that their opponent has a strong hand like a pocket pair, while they themselves have a draw. The player with AA, however, doesn't have as clear a picture. They know they have AA, but it's hard to guess what their opponent holds. It could be a K, or a middle pocket pair like 88 or 99.

Assuming the turn is a 2, AA still looks strong. After all, not many people call a pre-flop raise with 53. So, the AA player continues to bet 15bb. The 53o player, having made their straight, obviously calls, choosing to trap. The pot is now 47.5bb, with both players having 277bb left behind.

The river is an A, giving AA a set. On this board, assuming there are no flush possibilities, a set of Aces is the second-best hand after a straight. So, the AA player is definitely going to bet for value. They bet 30bb, hoping for a call, but are met with a raise to 120bb. The pot is now 197.5bb, and the AA player has 247bb left.

What should AA do? Other than 53, no hand beats AA. AK would have made two pair, KK would be another set. While there's a chance their opponent has 53, it's hard for AA to resist the temptation. They go all-in and lose the pot, while 53o doubles up.

Let's examine the chip changes at each stage:

  1. Pre-flop: 53o called an early position raise, which might seem crazy for someone used to short stack play. The player with AA had a massive pre-flop equity advantage, but only invested 3bb, 1% of their total stack.
  2. Flop: 53o hit a very hidden open-ended straight draw and called a 5bb bet, investing about 2% of their chips with a 2:1 disadvantage.
  3. Turn: 53o made their straight, the nut hand, and called, using 5% of their stack while waiting for a doubling opportunity.
  4. River: The AA player unfortunately hit a set and went all-in with all their chips. The 53o player, with a small investment, gained a 100% return.

What do you feel about this hand? Did you feel that the value of a hand like 53o is underestimated? You could say it is, but that's not the whole story. To explain this ambiguous statement, let me introduce a principle.


First Principle of Starting Hands

This principle is called the “First Principle of Starting Hands”, which we mentioned at the beginning of the article:

The disparity in strength between strong starting hands and weak starting hands is inversely proportional to the depth of the chips.

In a short-stack situation, AA versus 53o heads-up, AA has a clear advantage. The reason is simple: because it's a short stack, although there are four rounds, most of the chips are already in the pot in the early rounds. In these early stages, AA has a significant advantage, so the disparity is large.

However, when the stack is very deep, AA's advantage becomes significantly smaller. Although AA still has an advantage in the early betting rounds, the amount of chips involved in betting and raising is a small proportion of the total stacks. If 53o misses on the flop, they won't invest more money, but if they hit, it becomes a disaster for AA.

This creates a paradox: big pocket pairs like AA are strong hands that can win a lot of pots in the long run, but they often win smaller pots. Meanwhile, speculative hands like suited connectors, small pocket pairs, or suited Ax, though they lose most pots in the long run, tend to win larger pots when they do hit.

This can actually be explained by one of the four fundamental principles of poker, the “Implied Odds Principle”: the more varied the hands you play, the more likely you are to get rewarded in big pots. It's normal to enter the pot with big pocket pairs or AK, but these hands lack variety. Suppose you raise pre-flop and continue betting post-flop, with a flop of 7-4-4. Will your opponent consider that you might have 74? If you play a straightforward style and only play strong hands, your opponent won't worry much about you having 74. They'll only consider whether their pair is bigger than yours or if their draw can beat your hand. However, if you play a varied style, they'll have to worry that you might indeed have 74. So, your playing style and table image greatly affect how the game progresses and how your opponents think.

Similarly, small connectors have a lot of deceptive potential. For example, if you enter the pot with 97s and the flop comes 10-8-6, your straight is well-hidden in the early stages. Most opponents will think you're just on a draw and will continue betting or calling. If the turn or river doesn't bring any threatening cards, your 97s has the chance to win a big pot.

In summary, when you have a short stack, you need to strictly control your starting hand range and only play big pocket pairs or two high cards. But once the stack gets deeper, you can widen your starting hand range to include suited connectors, small pocket pairs, and suited Ax. When the stack gets very deep, under the right circumstances, you can play any starting hand that your opponents might not expect.

However, note the phrase “under the right circumstances.” We're not saying you can play 50% of your starting hands or frequently call or raise with junk hands when deep-stacked. Playing these hands is conditional. You should be selective, mixing up your range when you have position and the cost of entering the pot is not high. You can expand your starting hand types according to the suggestions above.

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