Being the short stack is never fun. Everyone tries to pick on you and when you’re four handed everyone has their fingers crossed that you’ll go broke so they can cash in. While your overall mindset should be outright victory, when you’re short stacked your first priority is to make the money.
One of the keys to four handed play, and SNG play in general is avoiding confrontations where your tournament life is at risk. Sure if you’ve got a big pair or an ace with a good kicker you have to take you chances. But, if you’re constantly in 50/50 or 60/40 situations with all of your chips on the line, you’re going to go broke sooner or later. Usually, once the blinds get big, and especially when you’re running low on chips you’re much better off picking up whatever you can before the flop. If at all possible you want to be one raising, rather than the one calling. By raising you have two ways to win: everyone folds or you get called and make the best hand. If you’re the one calling your only way to win is by showing down the best hand.
One of the best ways to pick up some easy chips is to attack the next shortest stack. The player one chip position ahead of you isn’t going to want to gamble. They’re hoping somebody else will take you out so they don’t have to risk anything. Raising when the next shortest stack is in the big blind is a great way to pick up chips without a confrontation.
On the other hand, raising when the big stack is in the big blind can be dangerous. Of course, if you pick up a strong hand you should go with it, but in marginal situations you should avoid attacking the big stack. Not only is the big stack the most likely to come after you (and potentially knock you out) with a marginal hand, but even if you double up you haven’t made much progress. You have more chips, but you still need to lose one more player to make the money. If you double up through the next shortest stack, however you’ll often have the added bonus of seriously damaging or virtually eliminating one of your opponents.
One mistake many players make when they’re running low on chips is waiting too long to make a move. Sometimes you have to get your chips in there, not because you have good cards, but because the situation is right. A simple example should help to explain this point. Imagine you are playing four handed with blinds of 200/400, you are first to act and you have 1500 chips. Both blinds have 2500 chips and the big stack on the button has 7000 chips. Clearly you are in an all in or fold situation. So what kind of hand do you need to move in with here? The answer is almost anything. This gets back to the point of trying to avoid confrontation. If you move in now there’s a good chance that everyone will fold and you’ll pick up 600 chips.
Furthermore, those chips aren’t just added to your stack out of thin air. They are coming from the stacks of your opponents. Now, instead of the race for third being 1500 to 2500 to 2500, it’s 2100 to 2100 to 2300. You’ve gone from a clear last to effectively a three way tie for second. Let’s say you raise and you do get called. You’re not dead yet. If you don’t run into an over pair to both of your cards you’ll have at least a 25% chance to win the pot and in most cases it will be much better than that. The key here is that when the action is heads up and one of the players in all in, the difference between great unpaired hands and terrible unpaired hands isn’t as substantial as most players think. I’m sure many regular players would be surprised to learn that in an all in situation, 72 off suit will beat AK suited 31% of the time!
Getting back to the example, if you look at the alternative to raising the play in question looks even stronger. Let’s say you fold and next hand you’re in the big blind with 400 of your 1500 already in the pot. If someone raises now you’re the one doing the calling and the only way you can win is by showing down the best hand. If you fold, now you’re down to 1100 with 200 in the small blind and the big stack in the big blind. From that point on you can just about forget about wining a pot without getting called.
Certainly if another player has around one big blind or less and will be forced all in during the next two or three hands you want to give them a chance to go broke. But, make sure you’re not waiting too long to move in when you’re running low on chips. If you do go broke, remember that you weren’t in good shape to begin with and don’t kick your self for making a good move that just didn’t work out this time around.
Another mistake many players make is when they lose a pot and find themselves very short stacked they give up. They just send in whatever chips they have left of the very next hand no matter what it is when in fact they should be trying to hang on for a few more hands. When it’s four handed anything can happen. If two of your opponents each get a big pair or a big ace, chances are their money is going in no matter how few chips you have. Give them as many chances as you can to eliminate one another. Furthermore, if you’re short stacked to the point you have less than one big blind (and usually when you have 2X the big blind or less) you’re better off waiting to go all in on the big blind unless you pick up a strong hand. The logic here is that not only will it give your opponents one more hand to potentially go broke, but if you win you’ll often have enough to make it through the small blind and survive a few more hands. Whereas if you get your chips in before you’re in the big blind you’ll have to win the pot and then immediately make it through the blinds
For example, let’s say you find yourself first to act before the flop with 250 chips and blinds of 200/400. If you move in now and win on the next hand you’ll find yourself with about half of your chips in the big blind (the most you can end up with after winning the previous hand is 1,000 and you’re more likely to have 750) and you’ll be obliged to call with almost anything. But if you wait until you’re in the big blind to go all in and you win you’ll have enough chips to fold in the small blind if you pick up weak cards and then look at two more free hands. Every extra hand you can survive is precious. You never know when you’ll find a big pair or someone else will go broke. With that said, don’t start dumping monster hands just because you’re waiting to go all-in in the big blind. If you get a great hand go with it.
While you never want to be the short stack, playing well when you’re running low on chips is an integral part of winning sit-n-go strategy. Do whatever you can to attack the next shortest stack. If you have enough chips to potentially steal the blinds, don’t wait too long to get them in there and if you’re almost dead don’t give up! If you play it right, with a little luck you can turn the tables and go from short stack to big stack!
Playing four handed in a SNG when you’re the big stack is great. Not only are you very likely to make the money, but you get the chance to use your opponents’ fear of getting fourth place against them. When you have the most chips at the table no one mistake can cost you your tournament life so there is less pressure on you to play perfect and you’ll often find yourself with easy decisions. On the other hand, when you have an average sized stack one wrong move can take you out and the decisions you’re faced with are often difficult.
One of the main reasons why playing an average sized stack four handed is so difficult is that you’ll frequently find yourself in a position where moving all in is too drastic, but making a smaller raise (with the intention of folding to a reraise) will put a significant chunk of your chips at risk. A good rule of thumb is if you have 6 times the big blind or less you should either move all in or fold. That doesn’t mean if you have seven or eight big blinds you shouldn’t go all in; it means if you have six big blinds or less it doesn’t make sense to put chips in the pot if you’re not willing to go all the way with that hand.
Conversely, when you have 10 times the big blind or more it rarely makes sense to move all in. When you move in with a stack that’s 10 times the big blind or more you’re risking a lot to win a little. If someone behind you picks up a monster hand they’ll potentially take all of your chips and if no one has anything you’ll just pick up the blinds. If you have such a strong hand that you want to get called it’s more likely that you’ll get action when you make a smaller raise and if you have a weaker hand you’ll give yourself the chance to get off of it if someone happens to find a monster hand behind you. If you’re in a tough game where you think a smaller raise with encourage another player to move in with a wide range of hands, then you should avoid making smaller raises in an attempt to steal the blinds and wait for a good hand.
Maybe the most difficult situation is when everyone has about the same number of chips and the blinds are big but not huge. In a spot like this you should have at least a 75% chance of making the money if you’re not outclassed by your opponents so you should certainly do what you can to avoid 50/50 situations where all of your chips are at risk. Think about how your opponents are playing and adjust your style accordingly. If they are playing passively and it seems like everyone is just trying to squeak into the money you want to be more aggressive, play more hands and try to accumulate as many chips as you can. If you’re up against a bunch of maniacs who are moving in on every hand you should stay patient, wait as long as you can for a real hand, and give the other players a chance to make a costly mistake. At the very least after a few hands the chips stacks will shift around and you’ll find that someone (hopefully you) is the big stack, someone is the short stack and it will be more clear what you should do with various hands. When this happens you should attack the players with fewer chips than you and in close situations avoid attacking the player with more chips than you.
When you’re short stacked or even average stacked your first priority should be to make the money, but when you’re the big stack you need to focus on outright victory. It’s worth taking some chances in an effort to grind your opponents down so that when someone eventually goes broke you’ll be so far ahead that you’ll be an overwhelming favorite to finish in first. Usually the blinds will be so big that just picking up a few sets of blinds (and more importantly taking them from the stacks of your opponents) can be a big deal.
While it might be tempting to do plenty of folding and just cruise into the money, that is the exact opposite of optimal strategy. You want to do a ton of raising when you are the big stack four handed. The key factor here is the idea that no one wants to finish in 4th place. In fact some players are so afraid of going broke in 4th place that they’ll fold very strong hands even when they know the big stack could be raising with anything. And certainly only the very worst players will put all of their chips at risk with a marginal or weak holding playing four handed. Equally as important is the fact that if you do get called and lose you’ll still be in the tournament. However, if your opponent loses they’re out.
The best players to attack are the ones whom you have significantly covered, but who are still in fair to good shape chip wise. Frequently the short stacks will decide they’re in trouble one way or another and decided to call with marginal hands and if an opponent has almost as many chips as you it might not be worth the risk to go after them. But if everyone folds to you in the small blind and you’ve got twice as much as the player in the big blind, put the heat on.
The best case scenario when you’re the big stack is to have one player who is very short stacked and should go broke in the next hand or two. Knowing they’ll almost certainly make the money if they just fold, the other players will play extremely tight and allow you to walk all over them. On these occasions it frequently becomes correct to raise all in with any two cards.
For example, let’s say with blinds of 200/400 you’re on the button with 7,100 chips, the small blind and the big blind each have 3,000, and the under the gun (UTG) player has 400. The other players know that the UTG player is going to be all in on the next hand with two random cards and aren’t going to risk all of their chips unless they pick up a huge hand (probably AK or a pair JJ or higher). You should move all in here without hesitation no matter what two cards you get dealt (yes, even with 72). Almost every time it’s going to be 600 more chips in your stack and 600 less in your opponent’s stacks. On the rare occasions you do get called, you’ll still have a chance to win the hand (which will put you in fantastic shape), and even if you lose you’ll still have 4,100 and with the super short stack about to take the big blind you’re still a massive favorite to make the money.
Of course it’s not always such a clear cut situation, but you still need to move in with more hands than you might be used to. Imagine the same scenario except now the UTG player has 1500, you have 6,000 and the blinds still have 3,000. What kind of hand do you need to move in here? Now you have fewer chips and since the UTG player has more, it’s less likely that he’ll go broke right away. In this spot, while it doesn’t make sense to move in with every hand, most hands will do. Any hand that contains at least one ace or face card and all of the pairs are good enough to move in here. I would also move in with hands like T9, T8 suited and 98 suited, but would fold any hands worse than that. If you happen to know for a fact that you’re up against tight players you can add more hands to the list and if you think you’re likely to get called because the players in the blinds are loose then you should be a little more selective.
Remember, when you’re playing 4 handed you need to take on a fearless attitude. If you’re afraid of finishing in 4th place it will be difficult to stay aggressive and take the risks it takes to be a long term SNG winner. Don't kick yourself if you make a mistake or get unlucky and miss the money by one spot. Getting a few fourths is fine as long as you have enough top three finishes to make up for it.