Shortstack strategy

A stack is considered short when it reaches ten big blinds or fewer is it really push/fold at this juncture?

If you know you are likely to be dominated (by a bigger Ace or a good pair), surely it must be correct to protect your tournament life

Trational poker theory states that when you are first to enter a pot with ten big blinds or fewer, you should push all-in. In his books, Dan Harrington similarly advocates reducing your pre-flop play to pushing all-in when your ‘M’ (stack size/total cost of one round in blinds and antes) is five or less. Let’s look at the reasons behind these theories, and consider whether or not this is always the optimum play.

As an example, let’s say the blinds are at 400/800 with a running ante of 75. We have 8,000 in chips. So at the start of each hand there is 1,875 of dead money in the pot (assuming a nine-handed table). We are in mid-position, the action is folded to us and we have A-9.

The basic reasoning behind pushing all-in here is that with our stack size we don’t want to commit a portion of our stack and then be put to a serious decision either pre-flop or on the flop that could lead to us passing and leaving ourselves with even fewer chips.

Indeed, pushing all-in prevents (1) any player, especially from the blinds, feeling committed to calling us with a marginal holding (in this case something like 6-6) because our raise size won’t hurt their stack; and (2) someone calling us from the blinds, the flop missing us completely and seeing our opponent make a bet that leaves us with the decision of calling off our remaining chips with no hand.


Before we can decide if this is our optimum play, let’s look at our options if we do decide to play this hand. Limping to see a flop is certainly not an option. Now that the blinds are significant, and given we’re in mid position, I would hate this play with any stack size. It could only ever be justified when stacks are deep and implied odds come into our calculations. With our stack, our only other option is to make a standard raise.

A raise to 2,200 would leave us with 5,800 behind. In this position we are trying to make the raise size as small as possible so as to leave ourselves with something to work with either on the flop, should we get there, or even on a future hand. We need to balance this with making the raise size sufficient as to prevent the big blind from playing without a real hand. The advantages of this play as opposed to an all-in bet are as follows:

  • It allows us to potentially get away from the hand if a tight player behind us makes a re-raise.
  • If we get called and the flop comes down K-J-4, it allows us to potentially bet a player, who has called us pre-flop with a small or medium pair, out of the hand. If we push all-in pre-flop and they call, they will see all five cards and we can’t win without improving our hand.
  • From the point of view of our opponents, this bet may look a lot stronger than a typical short-stack all-in push. Someone in the blinds may call an all-in bet with a wider range of hands (any pair, any Ace) than they might do a standard raise from the short-stack as they may suspect you have a monster holding and are looking for a call. I can recall numerous occasions where my opponent has folded saying: ‘I wish you had bet more, it would have been an easier call.’


Making this play may provide you with tougher decisions. In this spot if you raise to 2,200 and someone behind you pushes all-in what should you do with your remaining 5,800? In many situations I would say the correct thing to do is pass, depending on your opponent and their stack size.

Many players will disagree with me on this point – they cannot see how I can put over 25% of my short-stack in and pass for the rest. However if you know you are likely to be dominated (by a bigger Ace or a good pair), surely it must be correct to protect your tournament life and wait for a better spot.

I have seen many top players do this and as Praz Bansi reminded me recently, there is no better example of someone who does this than Swedish hotshot William Thorson. If you ever see Thorson playing the short-stack, he will often raise to an amount to show he’s pot committed, before immediately passing to a re-raise. He is trying to pick up the dead money in the pot that will significantly increase his stack, whilst recognising when he is in bad shape and protecting his remaining stack for the next hand.

Consider the numbers. Can a bet of 8,000 to attempt to win 1,875 be a good bet? Is it necessary to risk all of your chips to pick up the blinds and antes, running the risk of walking into a monster hand? Of course there has to be a line somewhere that is drawn when you need to put in all your chips to try to win the pot.

I would however suggest that 10 big blinds is not it. In the above example, if I am re-raised and pass I am left with 5,800. Remember the blinds are at 400/800/75 meaning that a standard raise will be around 2,400. My remaining 5,800 is still therefore enough to push all-in on the next hand I play, and not small enough to force the blinds to call with any hand. If I manage to win this hand uncontested then I am back up to 7,675 and can try again.

There are better ‘rules of thumb’ that you can employ than to open push when you have ten times the big blind or less. The overriding factor is to not let yourself get low enough so as either the big blind is priced in to call with any two cards, or so as you are likely to get more than one caller.

At a recent GUKPT final table one player steadily got blinded away until he almost had no chips. When he finally moved in, he was up against two other players but said this was just the scenario that he was looking for because it was his chance to ‘treble up’. I could not disagree more with this – your equity in a heads-up pot with any two cards is generally much better than a multi-way pot, even if you have a premium holding.


So when is the best time to abandon all other options, and commit all of your chips pre-flop? The best idea is to experiment and find something you are comfortable with (given your table image and your ability to read the players around you) but some that I would suggest include having two times the standard opening raise at the table (this may vary between five and seven big blinds) and when the standard raise commits 40% or more of your stack you might be better to move all-in.

Having said this, you should remember that there is a subtle difference between being all-in before the flop, and considering yourself to be all-in. Even if, in the above example, I did have 5,800 left and decided to play the next hand when I am dealt K-Q, I will rarely push all-in. I will make a raise to, say 2,400, but this time I know I am committed to the hand either pre-flop (if someone re-raises), or on the flop regardless of which cards come. Again the idea is to show as much strength as possible.

If I can get someone to pass A-3 one time out of ten by raising to 2,400 as opposed to pushing all-in (as they think I have a stronger hand than I do) it must be a profitable play to make. It is hard to put the rest of your chips in when the flop completely misses you but if you consider yourself all-in before the flop anyway, you are just giving your opponent an extra incentive to pass.

The key point to remember is you shouldn’t panic when you hit that much talked about ten times the big blind mark. Be patient, continue to play in position and try to exude as much strength as possible. Always make sure you have enough to make the other players pass, but don’t rush into pushing your whole stack in at the sight of your first Ace.

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