Short Stack Meaning & Strategy – How to Adjust When Running Low on Chips
When it comes to playing poker, there are many different things you must consider in forming your strategy.
Stack size is one of the most important elements that are often neglected by novice players.
Playing with 100 big blinds or with 10 big blinds in your stack is obviously going to be much different, but playing with a short stack is generally much easier to handle.
In this guide, I am going to talk about different topics related to short stack poker play, the strategies you should apply in cash games and tournaments, and ways to adapt as your stack gets small compared to the blinds.
Before we go into too much strategy talk, let’s talk briefly about what short stack play is and when such strategies should be applied.
What Is Short Stack Poker?
The relation between your stack size and the size of the blinds is a very important element in forming your poker strategy.
The fewer big blinds you have in your stack, the fewer options you actually have to make fancy plays or even play on turns and rivers at all.
For that reason, the short stack poker strategy comes down to playing pre-flop and on the flop for the most part, while later streets are less relevant in such scenarios.
For all intents and purposes, you can consider any stack under 20 big blinds as a short stack, as your play should drastically change once you get into this territory.
In poker tournaments, short stack play is very common, while in cash games, it is quite rare for players to have such small stacks compared to the blinds.
One thing to note is that you should always be looking at the effective stack size, not just your own stack.
This means that even if you have a big stack, but all the other players at the table are short-stacked, your strategy should adapt.
How to Play a Short Stack in Early Positions?
Your short stack strategy should depend heavily on your position at the table and not just your stack size and the stack sizes of other players.
If you have fewer than 20 big blinds in your stack, you should definitely not be playing too many hands in early positions.
In fact, you should be opening the pot almost exclusively with value hands and be willing to go all the way with the majority of the hands you open.
Big pocket pairs like JJ, QQ, KK, and AA will all be in your range, along with big suited aces, as well as hands like AK and AQ off-suit.
You can also open hands like KQs, KJs, and QJs if you have about 20 big blinds, but you should refrain from doing so if you are getting closer to 10bb.
If you get re-raised by another player at the table, you should be very confident about getting it all in with JJ+ and AQs+ while folding the suited broadways and hands like AJs or 99.
Small pocket pairs should simply be folded straight-up, although many players do get the itch to play these hands in an early position.
If you are getting very short, it may be profitable to simply go all-in with hands like 55 or 66 from early positions. I highly suggest referring to some simple push/fold charts to find out what’s +EV in terms of sheer chip value.
However, I don't really recommend simply going all-in or folding with a stack of over 15bb, as there are better and more profitable ways to play against most players.
Middle Position Strategy Adjustments
As you get into the middle positions at the table, you will get more opportunities to play more hands and start attacking the blinds.
The fewer players are left in the hand, the more likely it will be for everyone to fold if you make a raise or you simply go all-in.
For that reason, simply shoving all-in with a pretty wide range of hands, you will be able to pick up quite a few blinds and antes with very little resistance.
This makes going all-in from middle positions instead of opening the pot more reasonable. It is an easy way to play a hand in a profitable way without risking getting exploited by competent opponents.
I still recommend opening for a min-raise with hands like AA, KK, QQ, and AKs and balancing that out with some suited broadways or pairs like 88 or 99 that you might still fold to a re-raise, depending on your actual stack size.
Other hands like small pocket pairs, suited aces, and off-suit broadways can be profitable to simply go all-in. Thus, you should learn which hands are profitable shoves and still include some opens with the best of hands and some suited broadways.
How to Play a Short Stack from Late Position?
As we move into the late position, especially when we are on the button, we can start playing a lot more hands than we could from all the other positions.
Stacks between 10 and 20 big blinds can be easily pushed all-in with over 50% of all poker hands, and the players in the blinds will have no way to counter this and exploit your shoves.
Still, since you want more value with your big hands, I definitely do recommend opening the best poker hands for a min-raise and balancing out with a selection of other hands that you may fold to a shove.
Hands like KQs, 99, and AJs dramatically improve in value when we are in late position, and you will often be able to open and still call a re-shove with these hands as well.
The reason for that is that the players in the blinds may see your min-raise as weak and try to re-steal against it with a weaker range of hands.
When you have a short stack in the late positions, you should play very aggressively and look to get it in against the players in the blinds with quite a few hands while regularly stealing the blinds.
You definitely don’t want to miss too many opportunities to steal the blinds from the cutoff and the button when your stack gets short. This is the best way to grow your stack and give yourself a real shot at going deep in the tournament.
Playing the Flop with a Short Stack
When you are playing with a short stack, you will get all the money into the pot before the flop quite often.
However, some hands will still go to the flop as you will open the pot, and one of the players will call you, most often the one in the big blind.
When a hand does go to the flop, you will usually only get an opportunity to make a play on the flop, while play on further streets will be seriously constricted.
There are several good tips I can give you in regards to playing the flop when you have a short stack, and these should make your life pretty simple:
- Play draws aggressively: If you raise with a short stack, get called, and flop a draw, you should play it very aggressively. Whether you have a flush draw, open-ender, or a gutshot with overcards, you should bet out and call off the remaining chips if your opponent does end up raising you.
- Play top pairs for all of it: If you flop a top pair and are sitting on a short stack, you should almost never get away from it. There is really no reason to fold the top pair for 10-15 big blinds, and you should always stack off and hope for the best.
- C-bet small: Whether you flopped big or missed completely, you should c-bet small when you have a short stack. This will allow your opponents to play back at you with bluffs while also folding the hands they missed the flop with, giving you some free chips.
- Don’t be afraid of trapping: If you flop a big hand like a set or a flush, you definitely want to trap. While trapping isn’t always a great idea with deep stacks, doing so with a short stack will print you money in the long run.
- Play for the win: Whenever you find yourself in a decent EV situation in a tournament, and you have a short stack, you should be looking to gamble it up. You need chips to reach the final table and win, so don't be too conservative with your short stack and avoid a chance to build up a stack that gives you a real shot at a win.
When you combine these five tips, you will end up often c-betting small on the flop and getting all the chips in with top pairs, strong second pairs, and a range of draws very often.
The value of building up a stack in the middle stages of the tournament is massive, and you should always be looking to play for a deep run and for the win.
Avoid being conservative with a short stack. This will diminish your chances of running deep, and small cashes don't really have a lot of value in the grand scheme of things.
Playing Against Opens
There will be some hands in poker tournaments where you are sitting on a short stack, and another player opens the pot before you get a chance to.
In these situations, you will be faced with an option to fold, call, or raise, and I highly recommend almost never just calling, other than if you are in the big blind.
Your best play in this kind of situation will be to either fold your cards if your hand is not good enough or go all-in to maximize your fold equity.
You will want to be going all-in against opens at these stack depths a lot, especially against medium stacks.
The reason for that is the fact that medium stacks will still be opening a reasonably wide range of hands but will fold many of them to your shove.
For instance, a medium stack may open a hand like K♠10♠ or 9♥8♥ from the middle position and then fold it to your all-in to avoid damaging his stack significantly.
While a big stack may easily call you off with a hand like KTs and look to eliminate you, a medium stack will be more likely to fold and preserve his stack size.
You should be looking to re-shove a lot when you are in the blinds or on the button, and the player who opened the pot is also in a late position and likely to have a fairly wide range himself.
If you are playing in a relatively soft poker tournament, you may want to just call with a hand like pocket aces or KK against opens, even on a short stack.
Keep in mind that if you are only calling with super-strong hands, your opponents may be able to exploit this, which makes going all-in with these hands as well the safest play to avoid losing value.
Playing a Short Stack in the Big Blind
The big blind is an interesting position to be in when we have a short stack because we will get more opportunities to see a flop in this situation.
In modern poker tournaments, most players are opening the pot for a 2x or 2.2x raise, giving us an amazing price to make a call when we are in the big blind, especially with the antes in play.
Even sitting on a 15bb stack, we will definitely want to call the one extra bb to potentially win a pot of 5.5bb with hands like 87s or K9s. The price is simply too good to fold.
While we can re-shove with some of these hands against late position openers against earlier positions, these hands might not be profitable to shove with but are definitely profitable to call with.
You will want to defend your big blind with a variety of suited and connected hands and try to play some flops and win some chips on the later streets.
Again, you should be happy to get your chips in anytime you flop a top pair or a decent draw while also shoving over a c-bet with some second pair hands or over cards on occasion.
The big blind is actually one of the most complicated positions to play with a short stack.
You will be forced to play more hands than you do from other positions, and you will be out of position against all other players at the table.
If you can master the art of playing the big blind with a short stack, this should greatly improve your long-term results in poker tournaments and your bottom line.
Playing a Short Stack in a Nutshell
When playing tournament poker, you are going to find yourself running low on chips quite often, regardless of how good you are.
With the escalating blinds, your stack is going to get short every now and again, and you will need to learn how to play a short stack if you want to do well in tournament poker in the long run.
Fortunately, short-stack play is a lot simpler than deep stack poker, and there are some simple strategies you can adopt to play close to perfect in these spots.
I highly recommend learning the push/fold ranges for various stack depths and positions first and then introducing some min-raises into your strategy as well.
Make sure you play quite aggressively with your short stack and only put chips into the pot if you are willing to get it all in for the most part, along with some small c-bets as bluffs.
You won't get to make too many plays with your short stack, so make sure that the ones you are making are effective.
Finally, don't give away any of your chips when you are riding a short stack, as every chip you put in the pot is worth so much more than usual!