The question of how to play with a short stack in a tournament is never an easy one. We’re so close to the felt with our sorry looking collection of chips that it’s a constant struggle to survive and we don’t get any respite, yet while we’re still in the game we’re in with a fighting chance of glory – ‘a chip and a chair’ and all that…

And what constitutes a short stack, exactly? For example, 10BB is short however we look at it, while 15BB doesn’t seem much of a substantial improvement. But there can indeed be a significant difference between the two in the way they can be played. For example, adopting a Raise/Fold policy as opposed to All-in/Fold means that by ‘just’ raising we’re not immediately putting our tournament life on the line. Being able to make a play for the perhaps few but nevertheless potentially valuable chips in the middle without endangering our tournament equity is preferable to putting our head on the proverbial block time after time by shoving. In contrast, a Shove/Fold strategy with 10BB involves a real chance of exiting the tournament every time we commit, but this can essentially be an obligatory course of action given that increasing blinds could see our very short stack effectively get even shorter and, in so doing, rendered pretty toothless, with a barely existent share of tournament equity. Remember that a 10BB of 10,000 chips with blinds at 500/1,000 is demoted to being a 5BB stack when the blinds increase to 1,000/2,000!

As is often the case, the choice between Shove/Fold and Raise/Fold isn’t necessarily going to be a simple one, as various factors can come into play. With a strong hand we might want to induce aggression by just min-raising, for example. Indeed, min-raising would be the perfect, risk-free policy were we able to keep getting away with it. It also has the advantage of conveying to some players that in our willingness to invite just a call we’re strong enough to contest the pot, thus ‘scaring’ off the opposition and enabling us to steal for a minimal risk. On the other hand, with just decent hands we don’t want our pre-flop bid for the pot to be spoilt by inviting aggressive opponents to shove over the top of our raise – against these players we should be taking the sting out of their tale and removing their weapon of choice by shoving ourselves.

Some hands suit one approach over another. With small(ish) pairs up to 77, for instance, shoving is best because these are not the kind of hands we want to be inducing with. Antes, of course, need to be factored in, as what might not be justified without antes could be a different kettle of fish with them. Min-raising rather than shoving becomes more of an attractive option here because the modest investment for the steal attempt means having to be successful a lower percentage of the time than when only the blinds are at stake. Passive players who overfold will still be overfolding with antes added to the booty, so a min-raise is still going to successfully bully them and pick up the pot without having to put our tournament lives on the line for the same result.

Crucially, it’s important to find a balance between aggression and prudence, while not drifting into a level of passivity that leaves us toothless. Maintaining sufficient fold equity should be an aim, while also reminding ourselves that we’re literally a couple of hands away from seeing our short stack transformed to a more workable and formidable one that we can take on to the final table…

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About the Author


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.

Latest changes

The last changes of the page “Tournament Short-Stack Thoughts: Raise/Fold or Shove/Fold?” was made by AngusD on October 02, 2021