Short stacking

Short-stacked tournament play is not simply a case of shoving all-in whenever you see an Ace

If you limp or make a standard raise, you give your opponents opportunities to let you make a mistake

If you play tournament poker, it is inevitable that you will regularly find yourself short- stacked. The easy thing to do in this situation is simply shove all your chips in and hope you get lucky, but there is an art to playing the short stack. If done correctly you will find yourself making it deeper in tournaments and maybe even turning that chip deficit into a winning position.

One of the important things to remember as a short-stack is that you can’t afford to wait to make your move. It’s important to get as much value for your remaining chips as you can. If you have 10,000 in chips and get no hands and fold for two orbits with 500/1,000 blinds and a 200 ante, you will slip down to 3,400 in chips. Even if you get Aces and double up to 7,000 you’re still a very short stack and have a big hill to climb.

It is important to understand this, because it means you should be open- shoving with a much wider range of hands than if you were a medium or large stack. In early position, you’ll want to be more selective. A big mistake many players make is to shove with any Ace they find. In later position this might be fine, but it is a mistake in early and middle position.

Think about it for a second. What hands are likely going to call you if you move all-in? Bigger Aces and pairs. You’re better off shoving with a hand like 8-7 than A-5 because if you’re called it is less likely to be dominated. A-5 is a 2.3/1 underdog to A-J, while 8-7 offsuit is only a 1.7/1 underdog to A-J.


Playing a short stack when you are first to act and have a hand you want to play is pretty easy – you move all-in. But what hands should you move all-in with and from what position? The following is a general guideline to the hands you should play and from what position, but as with most things in poker, there are always extenuating circumstances that should be considered.

EARLY POSITION – All pairs, any big Ace (A-10 or higher), any two paint cards.

MIDDLE POSITION – All early- position hands, all connectors 5-4 and higher, any big card that is not an Ace (for example, K-7 suited or Q-9).

LATE POSITION – Depending on who is in the blinds, any two cards. If a player left to act has a high calling tendency, then revert to the middle-position hands. If not, push with any two.

Needless to say, you should vary this if there is a raise in front of you. Being a short-stack means you usually have little or no fold equity against a raise – you don’t have enough chips to force your opponent(s) to fold. It is almost always better to be first into the pot than to call a raise or move all-in with a marginal hand when the pot has been opened. That doesn’t mean you fold all but premium hands though.

If you have A-J and a loose player has open-raised from middle position, it would be correct to move all-in. Much of what you do will depend on the player that has entered the pot and what their tendencies are. The looser they are, the more hands you can push with. If they are tighter you need to narrow your range.


When open-raising pre-flop from mid or late position you should move in with a very wide range of hands including any two cards on the button. Against a raise you have no fold equity, but can still shove back depending on the raiser’s tendencies


Understanding your opponent’s behaviour can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of your short-stack play. The best time to open-shove with a marginal hand is when the likelihood that your remaining opponents will fold is high. Before you make your move, evaluate this likelihood. If it’s probable they will fold, a push is a good play.

This most often occurs against players whose stacks are also short or on the verge of being short. Sometimes you will run into a hand, but that’s the chance you have to take.

In extreme cases, you will occasionally find yourself at a highly aggressive table where you never have the opportunity to get your chips in first. This can be frustrating and if you’re not careful your chips will evaporate. In these situations, you need to pick your spots carefully. Look for the player most likely to have a hand worse than the one you are holding and get your chips in against them. Waiting for a hand won’t cut it. A hand like Q-10 might very well be the one to go with in these situations.

Adjust to your table. If the table is playing extremely tightly and letting you get away with your short-stack moves, increase their frequency. If it’s the other way around, find the right opportunity to get your chips in. Table awareness is crucial to short-stack play.


Flat-calling a raise is a huge mistake when your ‘M’ (the number of table orbits you can survive without playing a hand – see boxout) is 4 or less. Let’s say you have A-10 and a loose player in early position has raised. You’re pretty sure you’re ahead but you want to see the flop and see what he does.

The flop comes 8-4-2 and your opponent bets enough to set you all-in. You fold, having tossed 4,000 of your 12,000 stack down the drain, and leave yourself in an even worse situation. Your opponent’s hand? It was A-7. By just calling you not only lost chips, you lost an opportunity to gain chips.

Some players advocate limping or making a standard raise rather than open-pushing. There is an inherent problem with doing this though. If you limp or make a standard raise, you give your opponents opportunities to let you make a mistake. By moving all-in, you eliminate that, and you can even induce your opponents to make a mistake. Being a short-stack is already tough enough – don’t make it worse by putting yourself in situations where you have to make difficult decisions.

Let’s say you have pocket sixes and there’s a loose big-stack in the big blind. You don’t want to risk going out on a coin-flip so you decide to limp in. The big blind raises to three times the big blind and you call for 30% of your stack, figuring that if you flop a set you’ll double up. The flop comes all big cards and the big stack bets out with his 7-6 suited and wins the pot when you fold. You gave him the chance to force you into making a mistake by not moving all-in.

Another mistake I often see players make is raising to three times the big blind when they have 10-12 big blinds and then folding to a re-raise. If your hand isn’t good enough to call for all your chips, you shouldn’t be playing it in the first place with a stack of that size. This doesn’t mean you don’t steal – you have to in order to survive – you just need to make sure you do it properly by moving all-in and putting the tough decision on your opponent rather than on yourself.


Flat-calling or making the standard raise of three times the big blind is almost always a mistake when short-stacked. Move all-in or muck

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