We've all talked for years about pot odds to call a bet; you need 3.5:1 to call for a flush, 7:1 to call for a gutshot, 1,000,000:1 to call against the Hammer, whatever. We've also talked at length about implied pot odds, when the odds aren't right to make the call on one street, but because of your read on a player you're certain that the action on later streets will justify your call.
If you're a fan of Phil Gordon and the Tiltboys, you're also familiar with the concept of implied tilt odds, such as when you call a pot-sized bet on the turn looking for a gutshot just for the joy of hearing your opponent's head hit the table in dismay when you catch. Implied tilt odds is a metagame concept that some people can employ to great success to manipulate their table image and get paid off when they want to and induce a fold when they want to.
I want to talk about a different concept specific to big-bet poker. Implied stack odds. This is a concept that inhabits no-limit and pot-limit games almost exclusively. I don't remember where I first heard the phrase, but it was described to me like this: "in limit poker, you're playing for pots. In no-limit, you're playing for stacks." Implied stack odds are the odds that if you hit your hand you will be able to take an opponent's entire stack with a well-disguised monster.
So let's look at what types of hands have huge implied stack odds. Starting hands like A-A through 10-10 have very low implied stack odds, because if you play them "correctly" you will telegraph some of the strength of your hand preflop, and your opponents will have an opportunity to get away from their own hands if they do not hit the mortal nuts. The same goes for A-K through A-J and even other things like 8-9, suited connectors, or higher. By this point, so many people have read at least one poker book or blog that they have some idea that these are viable hands.
Hands that have high implied stack odds get there because of their stealth. Small to middle pocket pairs have huge implied stack odds. Sitting across the table from a player with A-Q who sees a flop of Q-4-7 rainbow is the perfect position for someone who called the preflop raise in late position with 4-4. This is often called set mining, playing any pocket pair at least to the flop in hopes of catching a set. This is viable because the implied stack odds of a set are almost infinity.
So you've played your small pocket pair, caught your set, and now you have a player betting into you. What do you do?
Call. This is not the street to raise on, and certainly not the street to check-raise on, unless you have a very good read on the player and know that he cannot lay down a pair. If the board isn't scary for a set (straight or flush draws developing), then allow the other player to do your betting for you, because the only thing you're worried about is set over set, and there's no shame in going broke to set over set. I personally will call on every street and raise on the river to make sure I've gotten all the money in the middle.
Most of the time, by the river, the pot is so big that almost any bet will get called, unless the river brings an obvious scare card, which can reduce the amount you're getting paid. Obvious scare cards are the third card of a suit, anything that completes a possible straight, pairing the middle or bottom pair on the board, things like that. These can allow your opponent to put the brakes on and might limit your take, but you should still play the river strong enough for their whole stack regardless of whether or not they call.
Another type of hand that has high implied stack odds is gapped connectors. I love to play suited one-gap connectors like 10-8, 9-7 and the like from late position. If I can limp into a pot with these I'm thrilled, and if the table action warrants, I may occasionally call a small raise with them as well. The stack odds increase dramatically with the straight draws, as your straight will be much well-hidden than if your board is very coordinated towards a flush. If a flop comes with three diamonds it's going to be very hard to get action with your J-, but if the flop comes 10-8-7, your odds of getting paid by A-10 are huge.
Position is critical to increasing your stack odds. Hands that have great implied stack value in late position are not nearly as good if you have to lead the action on later streets. With the gapped connecting cards you only want to see those for a cheap flop, so I usually throw them away if I'm more than two spots off the button. Small pocket pairs I'll almost always see the flop with, but I'm far less willing to call a raise with them if I'm in early position.
Of course, there are times that you can take an opponent's entire stack with K-K by shoving all-in preflop and getting called in two places (like I did yesterday), but that's a better move when there are limpers in front and one big raise, because then you're targeting the chips that have already been put into the pot. Playing for an opponent's whole stack is not a pre-flop play; it's a seven card play. You must, on every street, evaluate your strength and select the appropriate action or response to maximize your value.
You only need to win those battles once or twice to make for a very profitable session, but they will be the hands where you are using everything in your poker toolbox to get the most money out of an opponent. So now, when evaluating your starting hands, think not only of their strength, but about how well-hidden that strength is from your opponents. Then take every chip they have.