Does stack size matter in poker?

The answer – perhaps not surprisingly – is that it depends on the context. Obviously, if we’re sitting very short-stacked in a tournament to the point where the upcoming Big Blind is going to eat into most of our chips, our days could well be numbered. However, in some situations, it’s fine to be short-stacked, and one such is no Limit Hold’em cash games (within reason, of course – here we can define a short stack as being 20BB).

The amount of chips we sit down with in a cash game is a key part of the game, and for the most part, determines the kind of strategy we adopt. Or, to put it in a different but more appropriate way, the strategy that best suits us, which we feel the most comfortable with, influences how much we join a cash game with. Some players simply need to be playing with the biggest stack allowable in order to be afforded maximum flexibility in terms of bet sizing and, crucially, earn the most that they can in those precious few times when they get monster hands. There’s no denying that the bigger the stack, the greater the advantages. But there are many players who, for whatever reason, feel rather uncomfortable playing with a big stack in a cash game. The main reason is that this also means ‘risking’ the maximum. This isn’t necessarily the healthiest way of looking at the game, it should be pointed out, but it’s by no means uncommon.

Meanwhile, there are those who prefer playing cash games with a short stack. However, there’s an important distinction to be made here in terms of reasoning. If it’s purely borne out of a lack of confidence – which tends to be the case with new and inexperienced players – then rather than playing ‘scared’ I would strongly recommend taking that same amount to a lower stakes game where that same amount of money will convert to a big stack. After all, big stack poker affords us plenty of options and is the best way to learn the game.

Short-stacking can lead to Big wins…

But if – far from feeling intimidated – we have confidence in carrying out a well-defined, no-nonsense strategy, there is a logical argument to playing short-stacked in a cash game. Of course, there are plays and approaches which aren’t available with a limited stack, but at the same time, we take away key advantages from big stacks, too.

Let’s say we buy-in at a 6-max $0.10/0.20 NL table with $4 (20BB). Clearly, any player with a full buy-in has enough firepower to enable them to engineer a bluff, float, value bet, semi-bluff, bully, and so on – and (crucially) at each round of betting. We, on the other hand, are quite limited in comparison and, if we do want to get busy at any point, need to be willing to see all our chips go in the middle. Usually, this is either pre-flop, or on the Flop itself.

It is this restriction that we can, in fact, turn to our advantage, and this forms an important part of the justification of short-stacking, because in having to deal with us, big-stack players also lose their flexibility. This might at first seem counter-intuitive, but once we take into account the fact that, when there’s an all-in pot, for example, the larger stack is effectively rendered a short stack, then this new dynamic becomes clear.

A key point, then, is that even strong big stack regulars can find good short-stackers very difficult to handle. Meanwhile, not-so-strong players who bought in full not because they know how to use a big stack, but because they read somewhere that it’s the best option, often can’t cope.

Big hands make for an effective short-stack strategy. The more speculative starting hands such as small pocket pairs and suited connectors are perfect when armed with a big stack thanks to implied odds but, with a ceiling on potential winnings when playing short-stacked, these odds are not justified. Instead, we must avoid over-investing with such holdings and concentrate on premium hands and big suited cards.

To justify entering into battle pre-flop we really need to have been dealt strong starting hands. And when this does happen, and we have such a hand that performs well all-in (e.g. AK), we should be making a point of being the aggressor. For example, someone holding a good – or even stronger – hand might fold because they’re afraid of getting involved with a big stack who’s yet to act. Meanwhile, by assuming the initiative we’re putting the question to someone who would have got in cheaply with a speculative hand. And it’s always good to use aggression to intimidate or simply unsettle or even frustrate and annoy players in order to throw them off their game – this is a surprisingly effective policy, in fact, because it’s almost fashionable nowadays to take a dislike to short-stackers!

Indeed aggression is a key part of a short-stacking strategy, so remember to open with sizeable raises pre-flop that hit home we’re willing to commit – in fact, not just willing, but we’re actively looking for trouble! So 4xBB at least rather than mere min-raises. The idea here is to build the pot in preparation for getting the rest of our money in with bet sizes that ‘justify’ calls from opponents whose hands we have the better of.

Conclusion about playing cash

While there is considerably more flexibility playing with a big stack, short-stack play is certainly a viable and potentially very profitable approach, and one that presents an opportunity to play at higher stakes than our bankroll would allow if we had to come in with a full stack. Try to go with only made/strong hands pre-flop and don’t be afraid to shove with big draws or combos post-flop. Aggression is key…

Have fun!



AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 11.12.2020 · last updated 27.07.2023