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Is stalling a legitimate strategy in poker?

November 19, 2019

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We’ve all been in the situation where we have a low-to-average stack, and there are just a handful more players left in a tournament than there are prizes. Do you carry on regardless, or should you hunker down to try and ensure you get at least some sort of return? What criteria do you use to make your decision?

Your strategy could be any one of these:

  • Look at the big picture and keep as active as you normally are. Aim for the final table and don’t worry about the lower places’ cashes because an occasional bigger win will outweigh all the near misses.
  • Play a little tighter and pick your spots more carefully, even to the extent of only ever shoving all-in when you have a good hand (especially if you have just a few blinds left).
  • Begin to take more time for your decisions, regardless of stack sizes, in hopes that other players will be eliminated. This can be known as stalling.

To be clear, stalling or wasting time to make a point about other players being slow, disruptive in chat, or using a betting strategy you don’t like or find difficult to deal with is not a valid poker strategy and may instead escalate the situation.

There can be some compelling conditions to influence your decision.

If you have a big stack, then playing quickly and aggressively might be the most profitable. If there are players who are obviously trying to make it to the prizes, putting pressure on them is often going to see you picking up the blinds they are unwilling to defend because they would need to commit their tournament life. Many professional players take the view that it is more profitable long term to keep your momentum going in the tournament and not leak those “scared chips” in the first place.

Sometimes the next pay step can be a gigantic increase in prize. Anything is a huge improvement on nothing at all. If there are satellite seats or tickets available, the return is usually much higher than in a regular MTT where chip prizes usually start at barely more than the entry amount. In these top-heavy events, stalling is a widely accepted and common practice. And remember, if all of the prizes are exactly the same, there is little value in having the most chips when the game stops. A chip and a chair will be enough.

Stalling and using the clock to your advantage may be seen as a mild form of abusing the game rules, but poker is a game of attrition and the only player who you should worry about is yourself.

Consider this: Getting your entry back and living to play again may be a rewarding experience, but you have to look at the long-term effect of losing the blinds given up while you waited for the bubble to burst. Quite often, you’ll find yourself in the position of having to gamble immediately, and have little hope of a bigger prize. 

Whatever course you choose, as long as your motivation is to increase your poker return, it is perfectly reasonable to play however you wish.