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Short Stack Tournament Play

Short Stacks
Size matters! Especially in poker. The size of the pot, the size of the entry fee, and the size of the chip stacks are all variables that will greatly impact your decisions in each hand. Today we will be focusing on the size of your chip stack and how to play correctly when your stack is short.

If you have ever played in a No Limit Texas Hold’em poker tournament, then you are probably aware that your stack size can fluctuate greatly in just a matter of one or two hands. This is the nature of a poker format that allows you to go all-in with your entire chip stack, no matter how many big blinds are in it.

Due to the high variance involved in No Limit Texas Hold’em, you will often find yourself with a short stack, leaving you with no choice but to try to spin it up. This is only true in tournament poker, since cash games allow you to add more chips to your stack whenever you want.

For clarity purposes, we will refer to any chip stack that is under 10 big blinds as a super-short stack. Any chip stack that is between 10-20 big blinds will be referred to as simply a short stack. Any stack that has more than 20 big blinds is not considered a short stack in tournament poker, since you have the flexibility to do a lot of extra moves without committing your entire chip stack. We will not be talking about chip stacks that are bigger than 20 big blinds in this article at all once this intro is over.

Even if every single person at the table has 300 big blinds and you have 40 big blinds, you should not consider yourself short-stacked in any way, shape, or form. Most people have a false sense of urgency in these situations, when in reality they have plenty of time to be patient and wait for a good spot to come up where they can get all of their money in the middle of the table.

Super-Short Stack Strategy

To kick off our strategy discussion, we will begin by talking about super-short stacks in tournament poker. Since these super-short stacks only have 10 big blinds or less in them, there is not a whole lot of flexibility to be found here.

Poker CardsNo Limping

One steadfast rule that you should always stick to when you have a stack this small is to never limp. Limping is a poker term that refers to when you just call the big blind before the flop comes instead of making any sort of raise.

Any time we see a player limp with a super-short stack, we instantly know that they do not know what they are doing. If it is a player who knows what they are doing, they will usually have a monster hand like pocket aces.

This is an especially common move for players who are the first to act at the table. The only time you should occasionally consider limping your monster hands is if you are at a table full of amateurs who are playing too crazily.

You will not nail the flop often enough to justify limping to see a flop for 10%+ of your stack. Even though you will occasionally flop a royal flush or quads, you will just lose you money in the long run by limping a super-short stack.

Poker CardsNo Calling Raises

Another giant blunder when you have a super-short stack is calling someone’s open raise before the flop. You should always be going all-in or folding when you face a pre-flop raise and you have a chip stack of less than 10 big blinds. The reason for this is similar to the reason for not limping, in that you do not have enough chips to mathematically justify calling a raise to see a flop.

Let’s consider an example where you have 8 big blinds with pocket 7s and you are facing a raise of 3 big blinds before the flop. If you decide to call this raise, you will only have five big blinds remaining in your stack. Since it is so common for players to make a continuation bet on the flop these days, it is not correct to expect the other player to just check and give up every time they miss the flop.

Since you only have five big blinds left in your stack once the flop is dealt, the pot is already bigger than your remaining chip stack at this point. This means that you do not have any room to call a bet and re-evaluate the turn. You also do not have any room to make a small bet if the original raiser checks without committing yourself to the pot. Therefore, your options are so limited when you take this route that you would have been better off just going all-in pre-flop.

Poker CardsHand Selection

Now that limping and calling raises is out of the question, what does that leave you with? Well, your only options when you have a super-short stack are usually going to be to go all-in, to min-raise, or to fold.

The question is, which hands should you be going all-in with? Luckily, this math has already been done for you, thanks to a man named John Nash. Using the Nash Equilibrium that he discovered, a ton of mathematicians have discovered all-in shove ranges for every situation that are guaranteed to be profitable in the long run.

Poker players these days can find out exactly which hands they should be going all-in with during each pre-flop situation by simply googling a pre-flop shove chart. There are tons of these on the internet, and there is even an app called SnapShove which will display these shove ranges on the screen of your phone whenever you need them.

For example, if you are on the button and it folds to you with 10 big blinds, you simply need to consult a shove chart to see that you should be going all-in with around 40% of hands. Most people would not go all-in with hands like seven-eight suited or king-five off-suit, but they happen to be part of the highly-profitable shove ranges.

Important:

An important tip for using these shove range charts is that you do not always have to go all-in with every hand that is listed.

If you happen to get dealt a huge hand like pocket aces, and no one at the table has ever seen you do it before, you can simply make a min-raise with your super-short stack.

The best way to balance this obvious “min-raising with monsters” strategy is to min-raise in these same spots with hands that are not quite profitable to go all-in with, and then you can simply fold to a re-raise if it happens. This is only really possible if you have 9 or 10 big blinds, though, because once you get lower than that, it is not a profitable move to make. However, you should really only worry about balancing your ranges when you are playing against the same professional players over and over again, since most people don’t even pay attention to betting patterns to begin with.

Poker CardsDon’t Be Results-Oriented

The main problem that people have with sticking to super-short shove ranges is that they are too “results-oriented.” This is because they assume that just because an all-in is listed as profitable, it should win the pot every single time they do it.

Therefore, whenever they do an all-in in a similar spot for four or five times and it does not work, these people will assume that they should not do this all-in anymore. This is completely incorrect, because the long run is a lot longer than four or five hands; it is closer to six or seven figures worth of hands.

This just goes to show that being results-oriented is a silly way to think. Sure, you will run into pocket aces from time to time and lose the tournament, but if you do the all-in moves in each situation that is suggested by the shove chart, you will essentially be printing money over the course of millions of tries.

Poker CardsNever Bluff a Raise

Another rule that you should always adhere to when you have a super-short stack is that you should never try to bluff a raise. The reason for this comes down to simple mathematics, so the best way to learn what I am talking about is to look at an example.

Let’s assume a hand is happening where you hold two-seven off-suit, the notoriously worst hand in poker, and you have a total of six big blinds. You decide that you want to bluff with this hand and then show it to everyone, so you can be the hero of the party, but someone raises to three big blinds before it is even your turn to act. Not even flinching, you toss your six big blinds in the middle to seem like you have a strong hand in hopes that the original raiser will fold.

This all-in by you would be a huge mistake for a number of reasons. First of all, you are using your ego to make decisions instead of using math, which will never end well in the game of poker. More importantly, the original raiser will be mathematically forced to call your all-in with any two cards that he may have, so your bluff would have zero chance of actually working.

Why is he forced to call? Well, after he raises to three big blinds, and you go all-in for six big blinds, that puts nine big blinds into the pot. You also have to throw the small blind and the big blind into the equation, since they were already in the pot before any action took place. This adds up to a total of ten and a half big blinds in the pot, and he only needs to call three big blinds to fulfill your raise.

Therefore, this player will be getting 3.5 to 1 odds to make the call, since they have a chance to win 3.5 big blinds for every big blind that they call. Since this player is getting 3.5 to 1 odds, they will only need to win the pot about 22% of the time to win their money back.

It is extremely rare to only have 22% equity against someone’s all-in range, since any hand that is going against the best hand possible, pocket aces, has at least 20% equity. You will obviously not be up against pocket aces every single time in this situation; you will be up against a range that includes other hands as well. For this reason, the player that you tried to bluff with the worst hand in poker will be forced to call your raise with any two cards.

This essentially means that you put all of your chips in the middle with the worst hand in poker, and you had no fold equity whatsoever. Fold equity is defined as the percent of the time a bet or a raise has a chance of getting the other player or players in the hand to fold.

Tip

You want to be sure that you have fold equity before you make any bluffs in poker, and this applies no matter what the size of your chip stack is.

Poker CardsNever Blind Off

This section is the most important one for amateur poker players to read, because we see them try this strategy all the time. These recreational newbies and even some veteran players believe that they should just wait for a hand if they have a chip stack of under ten big blinds, and that there is no sense of urgency.

While this is true to a degree when you are on the upper end of this super-short stack range, you are skating on thin ice if you try to take this too far. The fact of the matter is, you will not get good hands often enough for this strategy to keep you afloat. Occasionally, it will work out for you in a tournament from time to time, but in the long run, you will be costing yourself a lot of money by passing up good spots to go all-in with your super-short stack.

You might notice from looking at some shove charts that there are a ton of all-in bets that need to be done when you are short-stacked. This means that short stacks are not playable by the faint of heart, since you need to be willing to risk money in order to be able to win money. Blinding off is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Short-Stack Strategy

Now that we have explained some tips for how to play a super-short stack, we will move on to talking about what strategies should be used when you have a short stack of between 11 and 20 big blinds. This strategy will be a little bit different because of the fact that you have more chips to work with than you did with a super-short stack. Whenever you have more chips to work with, you will have more options at your disposal, because you will have fold equity in spots where you did not have it before.

Poker ChipsRe-raise Pre-flop

One of the biggest differences between a super-short stack and a short stack is that you can re-raise other players before the flop comes with a wider range of hands. This is an effective move, since you have enough chips to make other players fold because the pot odds are no longer requiring them to call with any two cards. It also helps that the poker world currently has a ton of players who like to play aggressively, so a lot of their pre-flop raises do not represent big hands.

When you are on the upper end of this range, which is between 16 and 20 big blinds, you can re-raise with a wider range than you normally would with just 11 or 12 big blinds. This is simply due to the fact that these re-raises will work more often when you have more chips.

For example, let’s say you are facing a raise from the button and you have a chip stack of 11 big blinds. You look down at your cards and you see jack-nine suited. You do not quite have enough chips to justify going all-in here, because your hand is not strong enough to withstand the high number of times you will get called.

However, let’s say one round later you are facing a raise from the button and you have a chip stack of 20 big blinds. You look down at your cards and you see jack-nine suited once again! This time, you have more than enough chips to make the player who raised from the button fold his hand.

This button raiser might even fold better hands like queen-nine or ace-three to your all-in because he is not getting enough pot odds to justify a call against your re-raising range. Even if they do call, jack-nine suited plays just fine against their calling ranges. Therefore, it would be a huge mistake to fold jack-nine suited with 20 big blinds in this situation.

Poker ChipsDon’t Cold-Call Raises

A cold call is when you call someone’s raise while you have no money already invested in the pot. Therefore, this is not referring to the times when you are in the small blind or the big blind and you call a raise. We will cover these situations in a different section.

You should almost never be cold-calling other player’s raises when you have a short stack. You may have noticed that this advice was the same for super-short stacks. The one exception to this rule is if you have a huge hand like pocket aces and you know the players behind you are very aggressive. It is also profitable to occasionally cold call raises with a strong hand like pocket aces when you know the original raiser likes to make continuation bets on the flop whether he has a strong hand or not.

In general, you should have 25 to 35 big blinds in your chip stack before you start cold-calling other people’s raises. A good rule of thumb is that you should have at least ten times the amount of the player’s raise in your chip stack before you consider using cold-calling as part of your overall strategy.

For example, let’s assume you have ace-nine off-suit on the button, but the player in the cutoff position has already raised to 2.5 big blinds before it was your turn to act. You are sitting with 15 big blinds and you look down at your cards only to find you hold queen-jack off-suit.

The worst thing that you could possibly do in this situation is cold-call the cutoff position’s raise. You are only going to hit the flop around 30% of the time, and even when you hit, you will be forced to go with your hand whether you like it or not, since you only have 12.5 big blinds behind.

This means that by cold-calling any raise with this stack size, you are just burning a large percentage of your chip stack on a longshot. The recommended play in this situation with ace-nine is to either go all-in or fold before the flop comes.

Poker ChipsAll-in or Fold?

Since we have dismissed the call button in most scenarios, that leaves you with just two options when you are facing a raise with a short stack. How do you know when to go all-in and when to fold? Well, if you feel like the hand that you hold beats the range of hands that they are raising with, then you should usually be going all-in.

One other variable that you should consider is how many players there are still left to act behind you. You should be wary of re-raising someone lightly if you have more than two or three people behind you. The fold equity gets exponentially smaller when you add more players, which means that trying to get a bluff through four players is more than twice as hard as getting the same bluff through two players.

For example, let’s consider the same ace-nine off-suit hand from the previous section. You have 15 big blinds on the button and you face a pre-flop raise of 2.5 big blinds from the player in the cutoff position. The only way to know whether an all-in or a fold is the proper move is to consider how often this player has been trying to steal from the cutoff.

Let’s assume that you have seen this player raise with hands such as queen-four suited and jack-nine off-suit, which are worse than about 40% of possible hands. If you think that this player has been raising around 40% of the time when it folds to them in the cutoff, which most professional players do, then your ace-nine holds 55% equity against their raising range. This is more than enough equity to justify going all-in, even though there are two people behind you.

However, let’s assume that the cutoff position contained a recreational senior citizen player who has been raising about 10% of the time when it folds to them. This means that the worst hands they will raise in this spot are hands like king-queen off-suit or ace-ten suited. This is perfectly normal for this type of player, and your ace-nine will only have 36% equity when facing their raising range. Considering that this player is unlikely to fold a hand that is better than ace-nine when they only need to call 12 more big blinds, their range is ahead of your hand, and you have two people left to act behind you, this is going to be an easy fold.

Poker ChipsPay Attention

It is noteworthy that the only difference between the last two examples we gave is how often the original raiser was raising. Outside of that, you had the same hand, in the same position, with the same chip stack.

However, the correct action was completely different in both examples. If you had not been paying attention, you might have done the wrong action in both cases and cost yourself a ton of money in the process.

This illustrates how important it is to pay attention to the tendencies of the players around you when you have a short stack. Failing to do so could result in you making a grave error that could have been easily avoided. You do not have much room for error when you have a short stack, since one bet is all you have left in your stack most of the time.

When you are short-stacked, you should avoid watching whatever sporting event is on the television and stop staring at your phone during hands. These sorts of distractions could keep you from obtaining information that will make your life easier in spots where you could either go all-in or fold with your short stack.

Poker ChipsDefending Your Blinds

The position on the table that is the toughest to play as a short stack is the big blind position. Do you have enough chips to see a flop? Should you go all-in instead? Should you just fold a bunch of times and let people run you over?

When you had a super-short stack, defending your blinds with a call was completely out of the question. However, now that you have more room to maneuver, occasionally defending your big blind is a viable option. This just goes to show you that stack sizes go a long way when deciding what your correct action should be.

The only way to know what to do when facing a raise in your big blind is to consider the strength of the range of hands the raiser could have. As a general rule, the wider the range of hands is that you perceive the raising player to have, the more hands you can call the raise with.

To illustrate our point, we will consider two examples where you are in the big blind with 15 big blinds and you are facing a raise of 2.5 times the big blind from the player in the cutoff position.

In the first example, you have noticed that the original raiser, who we will refer to as Player 10, has a raising range of around 10% of hands. You look down at your hand and you see king-four suited. Since you are up against a player who is so tight, it will not be profitable to call and see a flop here. It will also not be a profitable play to re-raise this person, because they have a good hand too much of the time.

In the second example, all of the other variables of the hand will remain the same, except for the fact that the original raiser, who we will refer to as Player 40, seems to be raising around 40% of the time when it folds to them. In this scenario, it will DEFINITELY be a profitable play to call this player’s raise with king-four suited.

Poker ChipsOpen Shove Ranges

Occasionally you will find yourself in a situation where you are deciding whether you should just shove all-in or make a regular raise before the flop comes. This is an area of extreme awkwardness when you have a short stack, because if you make a regular raise, you might be forced to make a continuation bet bluff on the flop, but if you just go all-in, you might force worse hands to fold.

As a rule of thumb, we generally like to shove all-in with the part of our range that is made up of small pairs and any ace that has a bad kicker. A kicker can be defined as the second-best card in your hand.

For example, if you are on the button with 15 big blinds and it folds to you when you hold pocket twos, the correct play is to go all-in. This will be true for all small pairs because they simply do not play well enough post-flop compared to other hands. We also recommend open shoving hands like ace-four off-suit in this spot because they are very tough to play after the flop comes, but they are still a profitable all-in according to Nash Equilibrium.

The Wrap-Up

When you are playing No Limit Texas Hold’em, you will often be sitting with a short stack of less than 20 big blinds due to the high level of statistical variance that is built into the game. Knowing the correct strategy when you have these short stacks is the key to having success in poker tournaments.

Occasionally, you will also be stuck with a super-short stack of under ten big blinds. While the strategy for these super-short stacks will be slightly different from when you have a short stack, it is still equally as important to be familiar with the fundamental super-short stack strategies in order to have a high level of success in poker tournaments.