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 07.04.2021 · last updated 07.04.2021

Finding ourselves short-stacked in a tournament is an inevitability, regardless of experience and skill. It’s simply part of the game. There are numerous reasons why it happens. We could have been struggling for one reason or another since the first cards were dealt, or on the losing side of a massive all-in duel sent us from being one of the leaders to have a stack that then amounts to only a dozen or so Big Blinds. A common situation is to have been doing fine, keeping our head above water for many levels, and hoping to survive long enough to get into the prizes by effectively going into hibernation. This can be a rather unambitious approach, but not always, and everyone does it.

So, however, we arrive there, being short-stacked is an everyday part of the game. The question is how do we navigate the rest of the journey when significantly low on chips.

Be Bold

A crucial mistake for most when short-stacked is that we find it hard to pull the trigger and shove. This is perfectly understandable because it’s natural to be loathed to commit what chips we have left with, say, J9o. However, if we have 10BB and we’re on the Button and it’s folded round to us, and we have that exact hand, it’s a shove! In fact, it’s surprising what starting hands are indeed all-in candidates. All suited Kings, for instance, we can shove with, and the same goes for low suited connectors like 54s. Not only can we not afford to stubbornly wait for good-looking hands when we’re down to around 10BB, but we should be prepared to shove with a wide range.

Be a bully

This might seem like an impossibility when short-stacked, but if we have around 20BB this affords us a workable level of fold equity against slightly bigger but nevertheless vulnerable stacks. For example, on the Button with 55 we are justified in re-raising all-in after a standard pre-flop raise from a 30BB stack. We have enough chips to effectively leave them in dire straits should they lose a showdown, and they have enough chips to make a pragmatic decision and fold. This example is an important illustration of how we should keep a close eye on other players’ stacks, as well as take into account how our actions can impact on an opponent’s choices. Note that if we were very short-stacked here – less than 10BB – we should be prepared to see our shove called by the 30BB stack because they would have 20BB or so behind, and our stack plus the Blinds and Antes combine to be a big enough prize to take a stab at.

Don’t Get Short-Stacked

As we said at the beginning, finding ourselves short-stacked is part of the game, and having ‘Don’t Get Short-Stacked’ as some kind of personal poker rule isn’t something we should expect to achieve. A single well-played hand, after all, can leave us short-stacked.

However, by putting some thought into game selection we can at least lessen the likelihood, over time, of being short-stacked. For tournament players, there is a wealth of variants, formats, and Blind structures from which to choose. For example, the obvious choice to minimize the chance of being short-stacked is to play in Deep Stack tournaments that offer a lot of play for your buy-in. Tournaments with 10-minute Blind Levels are obviously going to afford us more flexibility than those with 3-minute Blinds, so if we’re happy with a slower pace, these are our best way of avoiding the high(er) variance, more cut-throat structures that can see us so easily struggling with make or break situations hand after hand. I say ‘if we’re happy’ because a lot of players simply lack the patience with the slow pace of certain tournament set-ups, despite a Deepstack tournament, for example, affording the more skilled players better opportunities to see their edge through to the latter stages.

Regardless, however simplistic it sounds, putting ourselves in general situations that go some way to better avoiding being short-stacked is a good approach. But even after taking such measures, it will happen, so just as much as we should contemplate and prepare for playing under ‘normal’ circumstances, so we should invest time to think about how we might dealing with a short stack.

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