Sadly, there will always be times when we have to play the short stack. In cash games, it’s not such a great handicap. If you run out of chips, you can always buy in for more—and if you don’t have enough money to buy in again, it’s a clue that you never should have been playing those stakes in the first place.
But playing short-stacked in tournaments, that’s another situation altogether. Now there’s no question that being low on chips is a major disadvantage. Escalating blinds put enormous pressure on those who are short of stack, and replenishment is not an option. Once you’re out of chips, you’re out, period. And yet, for anyone who plays regularly in no-limit tourneys, playing a short stack is inevitable. So learning how to deal with this situation is critical to becoming a good tournament player.
If there is a plus side to being a short stack, it’s that your decisions become simplified immensely. Fewer chips equal fewer options. Most of the time your choice boils down to one of two moves: Fold or shove. If you’re sitting behind a runty little stack, putting in any kind of a raise will place such a high percentage of your chips into the pot that you’ll almost certainly be pot-committed anyway. So if you intend to play the hand, better to move in now and give yourself that extra bit of fold equity. With so few chips to your name, you’d generally prefer to avoid confrontations and coin flips; better to take down the pot uncontested when you can. Pushing all in while you still have enough chips to make opponents think twice about calling is the best way to accomplish this.
The good news is that if you’re called, you’ll get to see the river card, giving you the maximum chance to make your hand. The bad news is that you must make the best hand to win. Short stacks cannot bluff. Opponents don’t fear you, and the odds are just too great that somebody will call—if only to have a shot at knocking you out.
Because options are so limited when you’re the short stack, you would prefer to wait for strong starting hands—big pairs, face cards, any ace with a decent kicker—before committing your chips to the pot. That is, until your pile of chips really starts to shrink down to nothing, at which point desperation creeps in. In that case, you’ll be forced to loosen up and take a flyer with any semi-decent starting hand, or else face being blinded off and getting the last of your money in with a random hand. The lower your stack gets, the looser you need to be.
Exactly when you should begin to lower your standards for shoving, and by how much, depends on a lot of different variables. Starting with how close you are to the money. There’s also how short you are in relation to the blinds and antes. Another critical factor to consider is the number of opponents left to act in the round. In fact, depending on how short-stacked you are, the question of how many opponents have folded to you and whether you’ll be first in the pot is just as important, if not more important, than the actual cards you hold. And then, of course, there’s the playing style of the opponents you’re up against and how they see you, a.k.a. your table image.
Each and every one of these factors needs to be considered before deciding if this hand is the one where you make your stand. Because inevitably, when you’re playing the short stack, you will be forced to pick two cards, push, and pray.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.