One of the most enjoyable aspects of Texas Hold’em is playing with a little stack. For almost ten years, I’ve been a short and mid stack pro, and I’ve beaten as high as 600NL. In this essay, I’ll explain what short stacking strategy means in terms of cash games and tournaments. Consider this a crash tutorial on how to play a short stack.
So, in poker, what is a short stack? A short stack refers to a stack of chips that is smaller than the typical stack size at the poker table. A short stack in cash games is often less than 40 large blinds, whereas a short stack in tournaments is typically less than 20 or 30 big blinds, depending on the speed of the event and how quickly the blinds rise.
Cash Games Short Stacking
Many players have a misunderstanding of what short stacking is. When it comes to short stackers, you’ll find nothing but hate if you visit any of the major poker forums. Most people believe that anyone who does not buy in for the “whole” amount (usually 100 large blinds) has a flaw in their game. The opposite could not be further from the truth.
While it is true that inexperienced recreational players prefer to play with a small stack, there are currently many players that play with a variety of stack sizes. It’s all a matter of personal preference. Short stacking may be exactly up your alley if you favour a fast-paced style of play that capitalizes on opponents’ pre-flop blunders. However, if you enjoy a slower game with more intricate post-flop strategy, a larger stack size may definitely suit you better.
What Is the Difference Between Stack Sizes in Cash Games?
Let’s talk about the different stack sizes you might encounter at a cash game table before we go into the mechanics of short stacking. To begin with, there is some disagreement about how to characterize various stack sizes. However, in my experience, dividing stacks based on strategic considerations seems to be the most rational. This makes sense because it enables for alternative tactics to be developed as the stack size grows or shrinks.
The Four Stack Size Groups
- 40 Big Blinds Short-Stacked
- 40-80 Big Blinds: Mid-Stacked
- 80-150 Big Blinds Full Stack
- 150+ Big Blinds Deep-Stacked
Each stack size range necessitates a change in the game’s strategic and tactical methods. Simply said, the shorter your stack, the more pre-flop play is important. Conversely, the deeper your stack, the more post-flop play becomes important.
Of course, in any hand, it’s the effective stack that counts. It doesn’t matter if you have 200 large blinds if your opponents all have 50 big blinds. On such a table, trying to play a deep stack strategy is counterproductive because you’re practically forced into mid-stack poker based on the amount of money your opponents have.
I recommend Professional No-Limit Hold’em, one of my recommended books, to learn more about how to approach playing the various effective stack sizes. The writers explain how to change your strategy and plan hands in big blinds based on the effective stack.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Playing a Short Stack?
There are numerous reasons why players choose to play cash games with a small stack. The most obvious benefit is that you have less money to lose at the table and, as a result, require a lower bankroll to play the various stakes when compared to 100 big blind players. In reality, to control the risk of ruin, you only need a third of the bankroll that deeper stacked players do. To put it another way, short stackers require a lot smaller bankroll to play the same stake as long stackers. To play 100NL, most 100bb cash game pros would need at least $3,000 in their account. Personally, I can comfortably play 100NL on Bovada with a bankroll of $900 and a 30-bb stack.
Here are five more reasons why short stacking appeals to some people.
1. Mistakes and coolers have a lower penalty
The worst sessions occur when the stakes are high. If you just have 40 big blinds or less to lose, it hurts a lot less if you make a mistake call or lose with a monster hand.
2. There are less challenging judgments
Making profitable turn and river decisions for significant sums of money necessitates a high level of competence. With a tiny stack, you can typically commit or not commit on the flip, rather than having to call numerous large bets over multiple streets.
3. You’re not as bluffable as others
This one connects to the previous one. Because they are obliged to play your effective stack size, skilled deep-stacked opponents cannot use their large stack against you. Because you would have been all in either on the flop or turn as a short stack, you never have to deal with making an incorrect fold in a big pot on the river.
4. When compared to a short stack, set mining is ineffective.
Set mining is when a player calls with a tiny hand before the flop in the hopes of hitting a set and winning a large pot against a top pair or overpair. To be effective, set mining necessitates a player winning a large pot when they do hit a set in order to compensate for the times when they miss and fold. When a player under 40 big blinds opens raises, their approach is practically obsolete because they can’t win a big pot against a short stack.
5. Post-flop, shorties can commit a wider range of hands.
It’s common to make the mistake of going all-in with a full or deep stack when you flop a medium-strength hand like the top pair. One pair hands, on the other hand, become more valuable as your stack gets lower. As a result, failing to go all-in with the top pair as a small stack is a common mistake.
What Is a Basic Short Stack Cash Game Strategy?
Short stacking main sources of profit are two-fold, with the first occurring before the flop and the second occurring after the flop.
Short Stack Profits from the Pre-Flop
Short stackers first aim to take advantage of opponents’ pre-flop mistakes by 3-betting a mathematically correct range against them. When they shove, they can make a lot of money if they don’t counter with the right calling range.
The strategy’s appeal lies in how simple it makes the 3-bet 4-bet game. When playing with a tiny stack, you can use a chart to determine effective shoving ranges based on your stack size and your opponents’ estimated opening range frequencies. In other words, if the opening range is tight, you’ll 3-bet shove a different range than if it’s loose. This is an oversimplification, though, because your opponents’ calling range influences which ranges can be shoved. The overall notion of pushing tight against tight and loose against loose, however, holds true in the great majority of situations.
A Standard 3-Bet Shoving Chart vs. a Steal Post-Flop Short Stack Profit Source
Short stacks’ flop decision-making is the second main strategic idea they rely on. Choosing which hands to commit and which ones to pot control with is likely the most important component in a short stacker’s eventual success. You can do everything else flawlessly, but your win percentage will be limited if you don’t maximize profit after the flop.
You can use the following rules if you divide the amount left in your stack by the size of the pot (called the stack-to-pot ratio, or SPR):
SPR: Raise your hands if you’re ready to commit (try to get all-in with)
- 1 or less: any board piece or 6+ out draw
- 1-3: Any top pair or an out draw of 8 or more
- 4-6: Any powerful kicker from the top duo
- 6–8: Better than overpairs
- >10: Better than an overpair 9-10: Big overpairs or better
Keep in mind that these figures are only meant to be used as a guideline and are not set in stone. These ranges can alter depending on the type of opponent.
Except for a few inherent benefits, short stacks’ strategies are nearly identical to those of any other player at the table, regardless of stack size. For everyone, the same strong poker tactics that lead to profit apply. When attacking a table, every very good poker player is generally thinking about the same things, whether it’s stealing, c-betting, or simply abusing weaker players. The only distinction is the weaponry you can utilize depending on the amount of your stack.
Tournament Short Stacking
In many respects, tournaments differ from cash games. To begin with, you do not use money to play; instead, you utilize chips. Furthermore, everyone begins the game with an identical quantity of chips. As a result, you don’t really have a choice about whether or not to be short stacked. Stack sizes are likely to fluctuate a lot throughout tournaments. You can be deep-stacking one minute and the shortest stack at the table the next. The players who modify their play appropriately based on their stack size and the tournament’s speed are the ones who succeed.
The main distinction between short stacking in cash games and tournaments is this. You don’t get to choose the amount of your stack in tournaments. In reality, at some point throughout an event, everyone will be short stacked. As a result, it’s critical for any aspiring tournament pro to learn how to play all of the different stack sizes.
How the Speed of a Tournament Affects the Shortness of a Stack
Not every competition is made equal. The rate at which the blinds rise is a significant aspect in selecting the best strategy for various stack sizes. In slower tournaments, 50 big blinds may be deemed sufficient, allowing for a highly selective strategy. In a particularly quick turbo tournament, though, 50 large blinds can be a desperate stack size.
You must constantly modify your strategy based on your stack size in order to be successful in a tournament or sit and go. All successful tournament players are excellent at knowing when to shift gears. Gathering as many chips as possible at an adequate speed is the key to winning in this style. The shorter you get, the more aggressive you have to play. Allowing a chip stack to decrease and blind you is the worst thing you can do for a variety of reasons that are outside the scope of this post.
The most important thing to remember is the stack’s de facto size in relation to the structure. The tournament’s tempo is governed by how quickly the blinds rise, which is another difference from cash games. Of cash games, the blinds in your selected stake never change. In tournaments and sit-and-gos, however, the blinds are constantly growing as the game progresses.
What I’m driving at is that having a 40 large blind stack in a slow tournament versus a quick event is vastly different. In fact, if the blinds aren’t going up for another hour, 40 large blinds is rather healthy. If you’re in a tournament with 10-15 minute blinds, though, you won’t be able to wait that long because you’ll almost certainly have 20 huge blinds when the next level starts.
As a result, we must separate out the different stack size categories for tournaments by the structure of the event. Let’s pretend there are three options: fast, medium, and slow tournaments, for the sake of simplicity.
Fast tournaments (blinds of 20 minutes)
- 50 Big Blinds Short-Stacked
- 50-100 Big Blinds: Mid-Stacked
- 100+ Big Blinds Deep-Stacked
Tournaments of a Medium Size (20-40 minute blinds)
- 40 Big Blinds Short-Stacked
- 40-80 Big Blinds: Mid-Stacked
- 80+ Big Blinds Deep-Stacked
Slow tournaments (blinds > 40 minutes)
- 30 Big Blinds Short-Stacked
- 30-60 Big Blinds: Mid-Stacked
- 60+ Big Blinds Deep-Stacked
Arnold Snyder’s Poker Tournament Formula is an outstanding two-book series that discusses how to adjust to varied setups. His first book is about tournaments with a faster structure, and his second book is on tournaments with a slower structure. To find both, look through my list of recommended books.
How Do I Play a Sit and Go or a Tournament with a Short Stack?
In a tournament, once your stack is considered small, you should try to get all of your chips in before the flop for a double up. The shorter your tournament life is, the less valuable it is, and the more you want to risk it all for a greater stack. Strong tournament poker players have a motto: “Go big or go home.”
You are normally open shoving any hand you choose to play with a stack of approximately 12 large blinds or fewer. With more than that, you can still fold to a 3-bet on occasion and are often better off raising rather than pushing. Naturally, the faster the event progresses, the more likely you should be to get involved in riskier circumstances. The following are some examples of open shoving ranges with ten big blinds, organized by position.
- 20 percent of hands are in the early position.
- 25% of Hands are in the middle position.
- 50 percent of hands are in a late position.
When you have a little stack, you should also broaden your 3-bet range, especially in restal areas. The players that are clearly aggressively stealing wide are the best to attack. Also, you almost never want to make a little 3-bet, preferring instead to throw all of your chips in. When you’re short, being first in vigor is the name of the game.
In the end, short stack strategy in all poker forms boils down to being aggressive. Unless your purpose is something other than making money, passive play will not suffice.
No matter what type of poker you play, short stacking can be a lot of fun if you know how to make the necessary strategic modifications. I’ve spent the most of my poker career playing short stacks and couldn’t envision buying in for more than 40 large blinds at a cash game table. I’d miss all of the unique “moves” that short stackers have access to in order to defeat their opponents.
Aside from that, I like how you don’t have to be concerned about getting cooled. After all, it’s just a couple of large blinds, right? At the cash game tables, nothing hurts more than losing set after set to someone for a large stack. That will never happen with a short stack!