Playing a short stack in poker is one of the most fun things you can ever do in Texas Hold’em. I have been a short and mid stack pro for almost 10 years and have beat as high as 600NL. In this article, I will cover the meaning of short stacking strategy for both cash games and tournaments. Think of this as a brief crash course on playing a small stack.
So what is a short stack in poker? A short stack means having a smaller number of chips in comparison to the average stack size at the poker table. For cash games, a short stack typically has less than 40 big blinds and for tournaments less than 20 or 30 big blinds, depending on the speed of the event and how fast the blinds go up.
Short Stacking in Cash Games
Many players misunderstand what short stacking is all about. If you read any of the mainstream poker forums out there you will generally see nothing but negativity when it comes to short stackers. Most think that anyone who does not buy in for a “full” amount (typically 100 big blinds) must have some deficiency in their game. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While it is true that unskilled recreational players will choose to play a short stack, there are now numerous players out there who play a variety of stack sizes. It really all comes down to personal preference. If you prefer a fast-paced style of play that capitalizes more on the pre-flop mistakes made by opponents, short stacking may be right down your alley. However, if you prefer a slower game based around intricate post-flop play, then you would probably be happier playing a deeper stack size.
What Are the Various Stack Sizes for Cash Games?
Before we discuss the details of short stacking, let’s talk about the various stack sizes that you might see at a cash game table. First off, there is some debate over how to quantify various stack sizes. However, in my experience, it seems most logical to divide stacks based on shifts in strategic considerations. This makes sense as it allows for someone to formulate different strategies as their stack size grows or shrinks.
The 4 Stack Size Categories
- Short-Stacked: <40 Big Blinds
- Mid-Stacked: 40-80 Big Blinds
- Full-Stacked: 80-150 Big Blinds
- Deep-Stacked: 150+ Big Blinds
Each stack size range calls for a shift in strategic and tactical approaches to the game. In simple terms, the shorter your stack, the more the game is about pre-flop play. Conversely, the deeper your stack, the more the game revolves around post-flop play.
Of course, it’s the effective stack that matters in any hand. Just because you have 200 big blinds doesn’t matter if your opponents all have 50 big blinds. Trying to play a deep stack strategy on that table is suboptimal since you are effectively forced into mid-stack poker based on how much money your opponents have.
To learn more about how to approach playing the various effective stack sizes, I recommend a book called Professional No-Limit Hold’em, one of my recommended books. In the book, the authors cover how to adjust your strategy and plan hands based on the effective stack in big blinds.
What Are the Reasons to Play a Short Stack?
There are innumerable reasons players choose to play a short stack in cash games. The most obvious is that you have less money to lose on the table and thus, compared to 100 big blind players, require a smaller bankroll to play the various stakes. In fact, you usually need as little as 1/3 the bankroll that deeper stacked players typically employ to manage risk of ruin. In other words, short stackers need a much smaller bankroll to play the same stake. For example, most 100bb cash game professionals would want to have at least $3,000 to play 100NL. Personally, I comfortably play 100NL with a bankroll of $900 while playing my typically 30bb stack on Bovada.
Here are 5 more reasons short stacking is an attractive option for some people.
- Mistakes and coolers are less punitive
It’s the big pots that cause the worst sessions to happen. Therefore, if you make a bad call or lose with a monster hand, it hurts a lot less if you only have 40 big blinds or less to lose.
- Fewer difficult decisions
Turn and river decisions for large amounts of money take a lot of skill to navigate profitably. Having a short stack means that you can often choose to either commit or not commit on the flop and not have to call several big bets over multiple streets.
- You are less bluffable
This one ties into #2. Skilled deep-stacked opponents cannot leverage their big stack against you since they are forced to play your effective stack size. As a short stack, you never have to deal with making an incorrect fold in a huge pot on the river, since you would have been all in either on the flop or turn.
- Set mining is ineffective versus a short stack
Set mining is when players call pre-flop with a small pair, hoping to hit a set and win a huge pot against a top pair or overpair. to be effective, set mining requires a player to win a big pot when they actually do hit a set to make up for the times they miss and fold. Since they cannot win a huge pot versus a short stack, their strategy is effectively obsolete when a player under 40 big blinds open raises.
- Shorties can commit a wider range of hands post-flop
When you flop a medium-strength hand, like top pair, it is often a mistake to get all-in with a full or deep stack. However, the shorter your stack is, the more valuable one pair hands become. Therefore, it is often a mistake not to try to get all-in with top pair as a short stack.
What Is a Basic Cash Game Short Stack Strategy?
The major sources of profit unique to short stacking are two-fold, with the first occurring before the flop and the second after the flop.
Pre-Flop Source of Short Stack Profit
First, short stackers try to capitalize on pre-flop mistakes made by opponents by 3-bet shoving a mathematically correct range against them. If they do not counter with a correct calling range when they shove, it can lead to massive profits.
The beauty of the strategy is the simplicity it brings to the 3-bet 4-bet game. When playing a small stack, you can follow a chart that gives you effective shoving ranges based on your stack size and the presumed opening range frequencies of your opponents. In other words, you 3-bet shove a different range versus a tight opening range than you would versus a looser one. Mind you, this is an oversimplified assumption, since the calling range of your opponents does affect which range can be shoved. However, in the vast majority of circumstances, the general principle of shove tight against tight and loose against loose, does hold true.
Post-Flop Source of Short Stack Profit
The second major strategic concept that short stacks rely on is their flop decision making. Deciding which hands to commit and which hands to pot control with is perhaps the leading contributing factor to the ultimate success of a short stacker. You can do everything else perfectly, but if you fail to maximize profit after the flop, your win-rate will be limited.
A good rule of thumb is that if you divide the amount left in your stack by the size of the pot (called the stack-to-pot ratio, or SPR), you can follow these guidelines:
SPR: Hands to commit (try to get all-in with)
- 1 or less: Any piece of the board or 6+ out draw
- 1-3: Any top pair or 8+ out draw
- 4-6: Any top pair strong kicker
- 6-8: Overpairs or better
- 9-10: Big overpairs or better
- >10: Better than an overpair
Keep in mind that these numbers are only meant as an example and are not hard and fast rules. The type of opponent can cause these ranges to change.
Overall, except for the few inherent advantages short stacks enjoy, the rest of their strategies are basically the same as every other player at the table, regardless of stack size. The same methods of strong poker that lead to profit are the same for everyone. Whether it be stealing, c-betting, or just exploiting weaker players, every really good poker player is generally thinking about the same things when attacking a table. The only difference is in the weapons you can use based on your stack size.
Short Stacking in Tournaments
Tournaments differ from cash games in many ways. First of all, you do not use money to play, you use chips. And, everyone starts the event with the same number of chips. Therefore, you don’t really choose whether to be short stacked. Indeed, stack size tends to fluctuate wildly during any tournament. One minute you can be deep-stack, and the next, the shortest stack at the table. It’s the players who adjust their play correctly based on their stack size and the speed of the tournament that flourish.
Therein lies the major difference between short stacking in cash games and tournaments. In tournaments, you don’t get to choose your stack size. In fact, everyone will be short stacked at various points during an event. Therefore, it is imperative that any aspiring tournament pro becomes familiar with how to play all the various possible stack sizes.
How Tournament Speed Affects the Shortness of a Stack
All tournaments are not created equally. The speed in which the blinds go up is a major factor in determining the optimal strategy of different stack sizes. In slower events, 50 big blinds could be considered an ample amount that allows for a very selective strategy. However, in a really fast turbo event 50 big blinds can be a downright desperate stack size.
In order to be successful in a tournament or sit and go, you must constantly be adjusting your strategy based on your stack size. All successful tournament players are very good at having a sense of when to switch gears. Profiting at this format is all about gathering as many chips as you can at an appropriate speed. In general, the shorter you get, the more aggressive you must play. Letting a chip stack dwindle and blind away is by far the worst thing you can do, for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this article.
The main thing to keep in mind is the de facto size of your stack in relation to the structure. The speed of the tournament is determined by how fast the blinds go up, which is another divergence from cash games. In cash, the blinds never change in your chosen stake. But, in tournaments and sit and go’s, the blinds are constantly increasing based on the speed.
What I am getting at here is that it is much different to have a 40 big blind stack in a slow tournament versus a fast one. In fact, 40 big blinds is fairly healthy if the blinds are not going up for another hour. However, if you are playing a tournament with 10-15 minute blinds, you cannot be so patient, since you very likely will have 20 big blinds when the next level hits.
Therefore, to establish the different stack size categories for tournaments, we need to break it down by the structure of the event. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say there are 3 different possibilities: fast, medium, and slow tournaments.
Fast Tournaments (<20-minute blinds)
- Short-Stacked: <50 Big Blinds
- Mid-Stacked: 50-100 Big Blinds
- Deep-Stacked: 100+ Big Blinds
Medium Tournaments (20-40 minute blinds)
- Short-Stacked: <40 Big Blinds
- Mid-Stacked: 40-80 Big Blinds
- Deep-Stacked: 80+ Big Blinds
Slow Tournaments (> 40-minute blinds)
- Short-Stacked: <30 Big Blinds
- Mid-Stacked: 30-60 Big Blinds
- Deep-Stacked: 60+ Big Blinds
An excellent two-book series that covers how to adjust to various structures is called Poker Tournament Formula, by Arnold Snyder. His first book is about faster-structured tournaments, and his second book breaks down playing mid-speed to slower tournaments. Check out my list of recommended books to find both.
How Do I Play a Short Stack in Tournaments or a Sit and Go?
Once your stack is considered short in a tournament, you are generally looking to get all of your chips in, usually pre-flop, for a double up. The shorter you are, the less your tournament life is worth, and the more you want to gamble it up for a bigger stack. Go big or go home is a common motto of strong tournament poker players.
With a stack of around 12 big blinds or less, you are generally open shoving any hand you choose to play. With greater than that, you can still occasionally fold to a 3-bet and are often better off doing a smaller raise rather than shoving. Of course, the faster the tournament, the more inclined you should be to get involved in more marginal situations. Here are example open shoving ranges with 10 big blinds, listed by position.
- Early Position: 20% of Hands
- Middle Position: 25% of Hands
- Late Position: 50% of hands
With a short stack, you also want to widen your 3-bet range considerably, especially in resteal spots. The best players to attack are the ones who are obviously aggressively stealing wide. Also, you almost never want to do a small 3-bet but, rather, just shove all your chips in. First in vigorous is the name of the game when you are short.
Ultimately, short stack play in all formats of poker is about being aggressive. Passive play simply won’t do, unless your goal is something other than making money.
No matter what format of poker you play, short stacking can be a blast if you understand the strategic adjustments that must be made. I have been playing a short stack for the vast majority of my poker career and couldn’t imagine buying in for more than 40 big blinds at a cash game table. I would miss all of the special “moves” that short stackers get to use in order to beat their opponents.
Besides that, I love the fact that you don’t really have to worry about being coolered. After all, it’s only a few big blinds, right? Nothing hurts worse than losing set under set to someone for a huge stack at the cash game tables. As a short stack, that simply will never happen!
Short Stacking Demonstration
Learning Poker with a Short Stack
If all of this sounds interesting and fun to you, be sure to browse the rest of my website. I wrote a book on short stacking and will even give you a “turn-key” free basic strategy that includes detailed charts when you sign up for my newsletter. Thanks for stopping by!
Jim is the author of the best-selling book called Automatic Poker. He has been playing professionally for over 15 years and has helped countless people become winning poker players. Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, Jim has helped demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em.