Short Stuff

Playing the short stack in tournaments is a simple, yet skilled, art. We show you how to pick the right spots…

Nobody wants to be the short stack. It’s like being the new boy at school. You’re isolated, picked on, targeted and bullied, leaving you all alone in the darkness… (Sorry, too many emotional scars.) Despite all this, playing as the short stack is actually fairly simple, but can be hard to do correctly in the heat of battle.

The first thing to understand is that if you’re a short stack your chips are more valuable than at any other time. Hopefully this is intuitively obvious, but in case it’s not let me elaborate a bit. If you win the tournament you end up with all the chips, but you don’t get all the money in the prize pool (sadly).

So as your chip stack increases above average, each individual chip is worth less, enabling you to play a little looser.

But as a short stack, the opposite is true. Because your existence in the tournament gives you some equity (as you still have a chance to make money), the smaller your stack gets, the more each individual chip is worth. Most players make one of two mistakes in this situation. They either play recklessly, throwing them in carelessly because they’ve decided they can’t win, or they try to hang on for as long as possible – overvaluing their tournament life (which has very limited value until approaching or in the money) – and allow themselves to be dwindled away.


Before I get into the minutiae of how to play, I’ll quickly define ‘short-stacked’. Basically, all understanding of stack sizes should be in terms of the blinds and antes. It’s certainly arguable that anything less than 30 blinds (some bigname pros would even argue 50) is short-stacked, as your manoeuvrability in a hand is very restricted and it’s easy for all the money to be committed before or on the flop. However, most of the tournaments you’ll play in – unless you’re partial to a $5,000 buy-in – will determine that you’re a short stack if your total chip count is the equivalent of 12 big blinds or less. So that’s exactly what we’ll look at.

It’s important to remember that being short-stacked is dependent upon the size of the blinds, especially if you lose chips early on in a tournament. If you lose a big pot with the blinds at 25/50, and your stack shrinks from its starting amount of 5000 to 2000, you may not feel great about life but you still have 40 big blinds. That means you have plenty of time to wait for hands and situations to rebuild your stack, rather than push for a double-up.

You should also try not to feel too much pressure if players at your table are racing ahead with big stacks. Of course it may affect your playing strategy, depending on how they’re playing and whether they’re trying to bully, but it doesn’t mean there is an increased imperative on you to play – only the blinds should dictate that.

Playing a short stack is actually extremely easy. You only really have one option and that is to move all-in or fold. Even with 12 big blinds it’s usually a big mistake to make a raise less than an all-in bet. The exception to this is if you have a massive hand pre-flop and think you can induce action from other players by making a smaller bet. There may also be situations where you’re in the money and most of the players at your table are short-stacked. In this case you could try making a 2-2.5x raise as a steal and fold if you’re re-raised, but this isn’t usually optimal play.

The question to ask yourself is, ‘Will moving in and taking the pot uncalled mean I add 15 percent or more to my stack?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s a very significant gain and one you should happily accept in most tournament situations. By making merely a standard raise you encourage opponents to play and allow yourself to be re-raised by a hand that could be beating you. And, depending upon your stack, you may be pot-committed by that point anyway.

For example, you have 10 times the big blind and pick up K-Q in midposition. Your best play here is often to move in. If you make a normal 3x raise and someone pushes over the top, it will cost you seven big blinds to call into a 14 big blinds pot. Being given 2/1 odds pre-flop almost forces you to call (your opponent needs to have a huge hand for this to be a good fold), so it’s better to move in initially and not even put yourself in this position.

Also, bear in mind that your all-in move may force hands that currently have you beaten to fold – for example, 6-6 or A-9. A standard raise when you have 15 times the big blind just doesn’t commit you in the same way.

Don’t fear the reaper

It’s true to say that many players wait too long before committing all their chips, and it’s always for one of two misguided reasons.


The first is that they think they should hang on for a big hand before pushing because they don’t want to miss their chance to squeak into the money.

The second is that they believe they’re not short- stacked when they actually are. Not many players will move a stack of 10 big blinds into the pot when they pick up a hand like 9-10 when the action has been passed to them in middle position. But that’s exactly the kind of move you should be making, especially in a fast-structured tournament.

The problem with waiting for a premium hand is that your stack can become so short that you lose all fold equity. In other words, your bet will not force other, probably better, hands to fold. Even worse, if you become very short (five big blinds or less) you can move all-in, win your coin toss and double-up, but still be short-stacked and still in a lot of trouble.

Take your chances

If you can admit to yourself that you’re one of those players that struggles with moving in until it’s too late, take some time to convince yourself that it’s the correct and logical thing to do. One thing to remember is that you’re never that far behind if the money goes in pre-flop. Even if you were holding the worst starting hand in Hold’em, the infamous 7-2 offsuit, and were called by one of the best, A-K, you still have a 33% chance to win the hand. If there’s significant dead money in the pot, this may be an even better proposition than it sounds.

An argument currently in vogue is that you shouldn’t move in with a low Ace hand like A-4, as it will often be called by a better Ace and you would have been better off moving in with live cards. This is only partly true though. If you hold an Ace, the chances of someone else holding one are obviously reduced. Also, when called you have a 25% chance to win if they have a bigger Ace and a 30% chance to win if you’re called down by a monster like K-K or Q-Q. So it is certainly better to push with an Ace than, say, 8-3 or getting eaten up by the blinds!

And, of course, these calculations only come into effect if you’re called, which, if you haven’t waited too long, won’t be often.

You should be acutely aware of the principle that being first into a pot will put you way ahead long-term. It may seem obvious, but moving your chips into an unraised pot puts you in a far better situation than calling all-in. This is because you have a chance to pick up the pot uncontested, and to force hands that currently have you beaten to fold.

Sometimes it’s right to call all-in when short-stacked, but only if you have a big pair or feel that your current stack has no fold equity and you’re willing to gamble. Judging when you should do this can be difficult. You have to consider the strength of your hand, the range of the player that’s raised, the amount of dead money in the pot (in blinds and antes) and how likely it is that anyone yet to act may call behind you.

This is an inexact science, but to give you a feel for it, let’s say you have A-J on the big blind and an aggressive player raises on the button. Clearly, you should be moving your short stack in, as your hand is likely to be a long way ahead of the button’s opening raises. By contrast, if you had a hand like K-10 in late position and a very tight player has opened under the gun, you’re almost certainly behind his range and it may be better to fold and look for a spot where you can be first into the pot.

Pick your spot

Finally, the key to playing a short stack successfully is picking your spots. This involves knowing when you’re getting short and when a hand is strong enough to make a move with. It also involves picking your position at the table to do it.

Remember, if you’re almost certain to be called, either because there are loose players with big stacks behind you, or loose defenders in the blinds, you lose nearly all your fold equity, so you need to tighten up your hand standards. Conversely, if you have tight players behind you, particularly in the blinds, or the tournament is close to the money spots, you can move in with a far wider range of starting hands.

The most important thing to remember is that you must pick your spots carefully. Be the first into the pot, don’t be afraid of going broke and above all, don’t wait too long to make your move.

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