How to Play with a Short Stack in Tournaments

  • Avatar for WSOP Winner Chris 'Fox' WallaceReviewed by  WSOP Winner Chris ‘Fox’ Wallace

Players are inevitably going to be faced with a short stack in almost every tournament they play, so learning how to cope when you don’t have a lot of chips is a necessary skill to master. Playing effectively with a handful of chips requires a series of adjustments to your strategy, depending on how short your stack really is.

In this guide we will consider the following three categories of short stacks, each of which will require adjustments to your normal play:

  • Big stack envy (between 20-30 big blinds)
  • Vertically challenged stack (between 10-20 BBs)
  • Short stack complex (fewer than 10 BBs)

Identifying your Short Stack

The first step is to identify when you are short stacked. This does not mean that you have the least chips of the players at your table. Short stack is defined by the number of big blinds your stack represents.

For an online tourney that features 5,000 starting chips and an opening BB of 20, each player has 250 BBs to start with. You can lose half your stack on the opening hand and still have 125 BBs. You would probably have the smallest stack at your table, but you are not short stacked.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to call any stack with fewer than 30 big blinds a short stack. These can be broken up further into the varieties below.

Big Stack Envy

When your chip stack dips into Big Stack Envy territory (20-30 BBs), it’s time to make some subtle adjustments to your game.

Reduce Your Opening Range

Eliminate speculative hands from your arsenal. You can’t afford to chase straights or flushes, because those generally take at least two, and sometimes all three streets to hit, which means two and sometimes three more rounds of betting after the flop. Considering that bets generally tend to get higher with each successive street, you could wind up spewing 35-50% of your stack taking a chance on a hand that will most likely not connect.

So get rid of those mid-range suited connectors (J-T or lower) and concentrate on pockets that have a better chance of giving you a strong hand when you connect with the flop, such as two Broadway cards, an Ace with at least a 10 kicker, or big pocket pairs (Jacks or higher).

At this stage it is okay to set mine with middle pocket pairs (66 through TT) but only if you are in late position and can reasonably expect to see the flop cheaply (3 BB or less).

Forget About Bluffing

…at least until you can build your stack size back up. A bluff is a series of bets, not just one large, random bet, so at this stage you don’t have enough of a stack to set up a proper bluff. And if your stack has gotten this small, you may be one of the shorter stacks at the table, so you’re not necessarily going to scare away everybody with a bluff.

Don’t Waste Chips Defending Your Blinds

If you’ve got fewer than 30 BBs left, don’t waste any more chips calling with junk from the big blind, no matter what the pot odds might indicate.

Because blinds are constantly going up it is important not to fritter away a lot of your dwindling stack on speculative hands, failed bluffs, or defending blinds. Leave the gambles to the big stacks. Your job is to make them pay when they chase a straight or flush so you can get out of Big Stack Envy.

Short Stack Video Tutorial

In most tournaments there will come a point where you are short stacked and need to decide when to make a move. That doesn’t mean you should just throw your chips in the pot without forethought!

Instead, know why you’re moving all-in. Do you want calls or do you want folds? Make the best decision you can and don’t second guess it. This video shows you that putting all of your chips into the center of the table doesn’t have to be such a daunting move.

Vertically Challenged Stack

When your stack dips into this territory, it’s time for more changes.

Stop Playing Small/Middle Pocket Pairs

You are most likely going to need to flop a set for those to pay off, and the chances of that are about 13% or so, or about once for every eight pairs. If you spend 3 BBs chasing a set with a low or middle pocket pair, just twice, it could easily cost you almost half your stack.

No More Limping

Sure, it’s tempting to try to limp into a hand and see a flop for cheap, but this is a bad idea for several reasons.

First, you’re not building up a meaningful pot. When you’re in Vertically Challenged Stack territory and you win a hand, you want it to be a sizeable pot that can help you get out of this territory and at least back into Big Stack Envy range. A limped pot, even with four players, will only have 4 BBs plus another 1 or 2 BBs if antes have kicked in. Adding 5 BBs to your stack is really not going to make a major difference at this juncture; when you get into this range you are looking for a double up.

Secondly, limping allows more players into a hand, which decreases your chances of winning and also puts you at greater risk of a re-raise. A savvy player in the big blind with three limpers in front of them may decide to put in a re-raise to try and scoop the pot.

Increase Aggression When Strong

Remember that you should only be playing premium hands at this point, so when you get a hand to play it’s not a bad idea to up your pre-flop aggression. If your normal range for pre-flop raises is 2-3 times the BB, now is a good time to jack that up to 4 or even 5 times the BB.

It may seem counterintuitive to increase your normal pre-flop bet size when you have a small stack, but look at it from your opponent’s perspective – if they see a player willing to risk 25 percent of their stack pre-flop, they should figure you are really strong and are not afraid to get all your chips into the middle of the table during this hand.

Your ideal situation at this point is to be heads-up after the flop. For example, an AK suited will beat an AJ suited about 70% of the time. But throw in a third player who calls with Q-10 off, and the AK’s win percentage drops to 47%. You still have the best chance among the three players, but now you’re worse than 50/50 to win. Increasing your pre-flop aggression helps by reducing the number of players who see the flop.

Approach Blind-Stealing With Caution

Stealing blinds is very important in the latter stages of tournaments, when antes have kicked in and blinds are getting huge, but when you’ve got fewer than 20 BBs, proceed with caution. This is when you have to look at the risk/reward ratio.

Let’s say you have 15 BBs on the button and it folds to you. If you shove and both blinds fold, you have gained only 2-3 BBs. Risking your entire tournament life with marginal cards just to pick up 2-3 blinds is not a sound long-term strategy.

Think Differently About Position

Position becomes less important at this stage. In fact, an argument can be made that being out of position (i.e. first to act after the flop) is advantageous because it gives you a chance to be the aggressor and go all-in after the flop, thereby giving your opponent a chance to fold.

Quote Mark

If you’ve been a big stack for much of the event and have found yourself suddenly demoted to the “short stack” category (5-20 big blinds), stop. Breathe. Relax. There can sometimes be a feeling of pressure to immediately ship it to get back to where you once were, or maybe a feeling of defeat – that it’s all over except for the formalities. This is not the case. Patience in these situations will serve you far better than instantly beginning to shove any two. Evaluate your table, pick your spots, and realize that you are still in the tournament.

Matt Vaughan (Scourrge)
CardsChat forum member since 2008, over $250k in live tournament winnings

Short Stack Complex

Once you reach this stage (10 BBs or less), your only options are fold or shove pre-flop.

If you are at the upper end of this range, you can be a little selective and try to wait for a monster (AQ or better, JJ or better). If you are at the bottom end (5 BBs or less), you are basically looking for the first opportunity to shove all-in – any pocket pair, any ace, any Broadway pocket – and hope for the best.

Final thoughts

Learning to play with a short stack is much more important for tournament players than cash players. In cash games, the blinds are constant and players can reload if they choose. In tournaments, however, blinds are constantly increasing and you can’t simply add to your stack whenever you want.

When playing with a short-stack, you have to be patient and look for big hands. In these ranges, you are in danger of being taken all-in on any given hand, so do you really want to go out of a tournament with pocket 4s or playing 8-9 suited? Or would you prefer to go out guns blazing with an A-K suited or pocket Jacks?

Every good tournament poker player has a story about how they were down to their last few blinds and came back to win a tournament. It can be done, and mastering the short-stack techniques listed above can help you get a comeback story worth sharing.

CategoryStack sizeSuggested Action
Big Stack Envy20-30BBTighten up, play big hands and position, eliminate set mining with small pairs (<77), stop bluffing, forget about defending your big blind.
Vertically Challenged10-20BBOnly play monsters, be willing to go all-in on a pre-flop re-raise, increase pre-flop bet sizing, no limping or blind stealing, stop set mining with middle or small pocket pairs (<JJ).
Small stack complex<10BBShove first playable hand.

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