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What Does Chip Leader Mean in Poker?

Being the chip leader at any given moment in a poker tournament makes for a pretty incredible feeling. In addition to that, being chip leader can also have significant financial implications: The closer you are the top of the leaderboard, the higher you increase your chances of cashing and making a deep run (when you’re still in the initial stages). You can also win the whole tournament by taking down the entire final table (if you’re chip leader in the later stages)!

Being chip leader isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. It usually takes a lot of effort to get there, and in one misstep, things can all come crashing down, and you could find yourself back in the middle of the pack (or worse).

Therefore, it’s important to follow certain strategies when you do find yourself atop the leaderboard to increase the chances of you making it deep and simultaneously not jeopardise the tournament stack you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

This article aims to help illuminate these strategies whenever you are the chip leader in a poker tournament.

How to Play as the Chip Leader?

Just because you’ve amassed a large chip stack doesn’t mean that you can be overly reckless with it (i.e. playing every hand and always trying to make your opponents fold through your aggression). This is a sure-fire way to go broke and lose your chip advantage, if you don’t use the strategies for “selective aggression” explained in bullet points later.

This point especially true for the earlier tournament stages with smaller blinds and deeper stacks overall.

  • First, usually when players are deepstacked in the beginning stages, many of them will play a much wider range of hands preflop, putting pressure on them thru aggression. The big stack won’t be as effective as when payouts are looming and/or they’re shorter stacked and don’t want to risk their tournament life as easily.
  • Secondly, in the early stages, there are no significant pots to be won preflop from stealing just the blinds (as stack-to-pot ratios are huge, and antes are typically not yet involved). Therefore, as chip leader, you should aim to play tight in the preliminary stages. You should only start opening up your aggression when antes are involved (more chips to steal and take advantage of) and/or when players will have to play a bit more straightforward from being shorter stacked (i.e. 30bb or less). The tight image you established from earlier will also carry over nicely when stealing pots preflop will start to mean something significant (i.e. with the addition of the antes and the increasing dollar value of each chip in play once in the money).

chip leader 2


When to Be Aggressive as Chip Leader?

There are many situations in which being the chip leader should call for more aggressive play, in general:

  • Bubble Situations: This is a great time to apply pressure on everyone with a wider range of steals and re-steals preflop, especially from late position. Short-stacks will be looking to min-cash and will likely be playing super nitty, as a result. Subsequently, you can widen your opening ranges when they are left to act behind. On a similar note, most medium stacks will want to preserve their stacks first-off, while attempting to steal from the short stacks, too. Versus these players, you can 3bet bluff with increased aggression, and often times get folds out of them because of the unique play surrounding the bubble.
  • Versus “Fit-or-Fold” Opponents: If certain villains at the table play very straightforwardly post-flop (i.e. tight passive), you can raise liberally preflop in later positions with a wider range of hands than normal to simply aim to take down the pot and chip up with a cbet. Careful, though – always be assessing and re-assessing your opponents’ tendencies. If certain players start adjusting their gameplay towards you, you might need to counter back accordingly and tighten your range slightly.
  • Applying Pressure on Medium-Sized Stacks: Especially surrounding significant pay-jumps (i.e. at the final table), chip leaders can very much exploit the medium-stacks in a poker tournament. The mid-stacks won’t want to needlessly jeopardise their tournament life or stack as long as a short stack is still in the game.
  • ICM / Pay Jumps / Final Table Gameplay: This point is quite similar to the last point. When you are chip leader and in spots in tournaments where other players are going to be playing snug due to payout considerations, open your range and steal and re-steal wider. Every blind you add to your stack could translate into huge dollar amounts in terms of ICM. Never overlook your steal spots.
  • Chopping: If you’re ever discussing a chop in a tournament (i.e. when there are only a select number of players left at the final table), always take any significant chip advantage you might have into account when deciding on the payouts. For example, if you’re chopping 3-way and you have 30bb, and the other two players have 20bb, your chop amount should appropriately reflect your chip advantage. This factor is especially true in live tournaments, where ICM calculators are not automatically integrated.

Chip Leader Tournament Strategy and Tips:

  • Avoid Unnecessary Risks for Sizable Portions of Your Stack: Preserving your chips versus other big stacks (by making more cautious calls instead of aggressive value raises) will help set you up for long-term success in tournament poker.

EXAMPLE: Let’s take a situation where you’re facing a river bet, and you think your hand is ahead. If you raise, you think your opponent will call with a worse hand 60% of the time, meaning you’ll win 60% of the time and lose 40% of the time, making a raise justifiable.

  • If you just call and lose, you’ll have 20bb; if you win, you’ll have 60bb.
  • If you shove for 15bb effective more and lose, you’ll have 5bb; if you win, you’ll have 75bb.

In this case, both calling and raising will leave you happy with a big stack, one being slightly larger than the other, but with not too much difference relative to standings and gameplay moving forward. However, the benefits of just calling (leaving yourself with a workable, 20bb stack if you lose) far outweigh the risks of raising (trying to climb back from a 5bb stack that doesn’t give you much room to work with).

As a result, you should just call here and take the safer option versus the other deepstack player. You don’t need to take the thin +EV spots in tournaments like you always should in cash games because of the value that keeping your tournament life holds.

  • Don’t Have Lofty Expectations: When you’re chip leader earlier on in a tournament, it can be fun to dream about making it to the final table, but be careful not to get too ahead of yourself and have elevated expectations. The same should be true even when you’re in the money with 4 tables left, and you’re chip leader – there’s a good chance that you won’t end up being the player who takes down the tournament. Always take things one hand at a time while playing and make each decision optimally without any worries or massive expectations. This thought process will help you succeed in poker tournaments, especially when your stack fluctuates.
  • Implement Strategies to Eliminate Tilt: While this should apply to any scenario in poker, it especially applies when playing as the chip leader – or even after becoming a mid-stack after losing the chip leader position. For example, if you lose 80% of your stack vs another deepstack player and it leaves you with 20bb. Don’t fret – especially if the 20bb is still in sight of the average chip stack! Just because you had a big stack before doesn’t mean you’re entitled to one through each stage of the tournament. Besides, 20bb is a very workable stack and leaves you still in the thick of things. Always work with whatever you have in your current chip stack without any worries about where you might have been a few hands ago. Remember, tilt is created when expectations (i.e. winning a certain hand) are not met. In poker, there are rarely ever any 100% hand winning situations, and as a result, you must learn to effectively and swiftly deal when the beats go against you so as not to affect your gameplay in future hands.
  • You Can Increase Your Post-Flop Fold Equity Through Aggression: Being chip leader doesn’t mean you should just be looser with preflop steals. To be extra effective, you must put your opponents in tough spots post-flop with similar aggression (while simultaneously not being overly reckless). For example, if the board is great for your range and not so great for your opponents, it might make for a great spot to triple as a bluff, if you think doing so will force villain off his entire range of hands. When the correct time calls for it, don’t be afraid to be the “big stack bully” and put your opponents in tough spots.
  • Always Keep in Mind the Tournament Types and Stage of Gameplay: Always keep in mind how (and even if) you can use your big stack to your advantage, relative to the tournament type and stage of gameplay. If you’re in a winner-take-all tournament, for example, being chip leader might increase your likelihood of winning. But, it will also give incentive for other players to take more chances and risks, in general, to try and amass a stack. Subsequently, following a looser play style versus your opponents while you’re chip leader might not be ideal for this situation.
  • Always Keep in Mind Your Opponents’ Tendencies and Adjust: While it might be profitable to follow the strategies listed earlier in this article, always remember that you must adapt to how your opponents are playing to play profitably. If you’re at a looser table, for example, that seemingly doesn’t care about cashing or going broke, then it’s likely not going to be profitable to use the looser chip leader approach in this situation
chips on poker table


In Conclusion

Hopefully, the above tips and strategies for how to effectively play when chip leader will help you out in your next poker tournament.

In summary, don’t be afraid to open up your aggression as chip leader when the situation is right to abuse the shorter stacks and chip up.

Pick your spots and use your stack to your advantage to put your opponents in tough situations where your aggression will likely be enough to fold your opponents out of the hand ultimately.

In the later stages especially, those small blind steals can be worth huge amount of dollars (re: ICM)!

Good luck at the felts!


For our web story about poker chip leader tips, just click here.

Matthew Cluff is a poker player who specialises in 6-Max No Limit Hold’em games. He also periodically provides online poker content for various sites.