A question I often get asked by recreational players is how do we build a stack when card dead. This is always one of the weirdest questions for me to answer because I feel that person already knows the answer to this question. The real question should be, “How do we not lose more chips when we are card dead”. The original question asked, in my opinion, leans more towards a leak in the discipline of the player’s mental game. Today we will discuss ranges and why we play them, how we limit lost chips during a period of bad cards, and also the mental side of this question.
Once you move past the basics of poker, the next step in the logical progression of a player is to begin to think in the form of ranges. Your preflop range is all of the hands that you deem profitable to play from any given position. From UTG 9 handed with antes, I tend to play about 17% of hands. This is roughly 55+, ATo+ A2s+, KQo+, 87s+, K9s+, Q9s+, J9s+ and T9s. I feel hands worse than these are worth 0 chips or -EV to play. Let’s say that I have folded for 30 straight hands and am considering raising wider because I have a tight image and want to steal the blinds. I am now choosing to raise a hand on the assumption that other players will play tighter against me because I haven’t raised a hand in 30 hands. The reason we choose to play a tight range from early position (and the above range is already a bit loose) is because there are still eight players left to act that we have no information on. These are all the hands that we deem profitable to raise from this (lack of) information. If there were other hands that I thought were profitable, I would already raise them.
The point I am trying to make is the goal is to not lose more chips than you need to when card dead, not try to build a stack when you have junk. When you find yourself card dead, you need to stick to your ranges based on your opponents and not force the issue. Countless times I have seen weaker players (and good players) go card dead, fold everything for 30 minutes, then fall in love w A8o because it is the best hand they have seen in hours. They don’t consider their position with the A8, or the action in front of them.
Another common leak is when short stacked with 15bb, a player looks down and sees AJo on the button. Their first thought is, “This is the one. GL me!” They have already set themselves up for failure in this hand. Now, when UTG opens and UTG + 1 flat calls (presumably two very strong ranges), their mind is going to trick them into making a -EV shove because they already thought of this as their double up hand. Instead of taking all the information presented to them and deciding the correct range of hands to play, they are now looking at the absolute value of AJ, not the relative value of AJ vs an UTG and UTG+1 range.
The mental game of poker can show up in many forms while we play. The above example with AJ is just one example of weaknesses in one’s mental game. The very nature of the initial question is a weakness in expectations in your poker game. You expect to build a big stack every time, or you expect a positive distribution of cards. This is simply not a good way to think about poker.
Your goal when you sit down at the table is to treat each hand like a puzzle and solve it to the best of your abilities. That is all that you can control. Sometimes it is a very simple puzzle such as you are dealt 72o under the gun and you fold. Sometimes the puzzles can be quite difficult, like getting check-raised on the river and having to make a tight fold. Mentally, you need to prepare yourself for the inevitable periods of time where you fold a lot of hands. Especially in live poker when you only see 30 hands on average per hour, it would not be uncommon to only play one or two hands an hour. From my sessions with mental game expert Jared Tendler, having an “injecting logic” statement to say to yourself during these times is helpful. A statement such as “I need to stick to my ranges and not force the issue. Playing unprofitable hands will only lose me more” will go a long way to helping you remain sane.
In summary, you can’t build a big stack when you are card dead. You can only preserve the stack you already have. Think of it as a bear hibernating. When the hunting is good (you have lots of playable hands) eat up and fatten up because winter is coming and the food source will dry up. The bear then hibernates and lives off the fat it has stored. In poker, build your chips when you can, so you can afford these times of dead cards. Whatever you do, don’t play unprofitable hands while card dead, or force the issue with marginal ones.