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Not on Borrowed Time

Playing the short stack at no-limit hold ‘em.

Many decisions at big-bet poker are dependent on the size of your stack. The type of hand you build, the size pot you’d like to play with it, the importance placed on your position, the amount you bet, all are heavily influenced on the amount of money in front of you. We of course are not talking about the size stakes being played for, but the ratio of the blinds to the total amount of money in play. If there is only one opponent, we are talking about the ratio of the blinds to the shorter of the two stacks (yours and your opponent’s). If it is a multihanded pot where some people have more than you and some less, the amount of chips in your stack is the important figure.

In the Money
A lot has been said and written about the huge difference between tournament play and money play. Aside from the obvious factors that come up in the money rounds of a tournament, most of the difference is due to the ratio of stack size to the blinds. Usually, the tournament setting will have a much higher blind structure relative to the stacks. The fact that you cannot buy more chips means there will be a number of short stacks at the table once the event has been underway for a while. This will have a profound influence on play.

Some have advocated deliberately playing a short stack in a money game. My opinion is this will lead to smaller profits and a limiting of needed skill acquisition. For myself, I would never have a short stack in a money game unless I had lost a big pot and were waiting for the button position before reloading. (Big stacks in the blinds are undesirable.)

With a short stack, position is not so important, because if you go with your hand, you will be all-in either preflop or on the flop. You will probably be acting first only once, or at most, twice. There is little point to playing a longshot––defined as a hand that does not improve very often, but becomes a strong hand when it connects with the board. (A small pair is a good example.) When you play a pair, the odds are not there to try getting in cheap and flopping a set. You should assume that the hand is not going to receive any help. Consequently, a pocket pair is a hand to either move in with or fold.

Stay Above Ground
Once you get really low on chips in a tournament, the worry is you’ll have to make a stand on total junk. It is better to seize a chance to gamble where you are not buried. For example, playing £500-£1,000 blinds at a seven-handed table, you are in the big blind with a pair of deuces and a £3,500 stack remaining. The button opens for £3,500 and the little blind folds. You do not have a big overlay on any hand unless the button holds a deuce (extremely unlikely), and would be buried by a pocket pair. Even so, it is probably better to take your chances by calling here than hope to pick up something good in the next few hands.

Every player with a short stack should be aware that when a good portion of your stack is already in the pot before the flop, you are committed to seeing the hand through. That point may vary with the hand and the opponent, and is perhaps a third to half of your stack. No matter who raises you all-in, if half your money is committed to the pot, you must put the other half in and hope to improve. Consequently, do not ever open for more than half your stack unless you open for all of it. You should apply the maximum amount of pressure that your stack size allows.

Weighing Options
Here are my recommended guidelines for when you have a short enough stack to narrow down your choice to folding, calling and going all-in. (The reason you do not make a smaller size raise is you are so low on money that if raised all-in, your proper play will be to call and hope for help, as you are too committed to the pot to fold.) If the game is being played with blinds only, when you have less than 10 times the big blind, scoot all your money if you raise the pot. If there are antes, I suggest adding the big and little blind together and using less than 10 times that number for your all-in guideline.

What type of hand does a short stack need to go all-in? I think with seven to nine times the big blind, you should have a real hand, such as A-Q or 8-8 in early position. With six times the big blind or less, you do not need much more than two cards and a rabbit’s foot for luck. A dry ace is certainly good enough.

With a short stack, you should be delighted to move in against the blinds if no one has entered the pot yet and you are on the button. Again, I would divide the hands into seven to nine times the big blind, where I would like to have a little something like any pair, ace, king, or two paints. With six times the big blind or less, put all your money in on just about anything, as the situation is too good to pass up.

To be a successful tournament player, you have to know how to play a short-stack. This will give you a chance to stay alive until you catch something good, and maybe get back into contention.
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