When it comes to learning how to play short-stack poker in cash games, it can be difficult to know where to begin. I remember back in 2010 when I first tried short stacking. There was literally no good information available out there. After basically figuring it out on my own, I ended up writing a book on the subject in 2013. This article will cover the basics of what I have learned.

Short stack poker cash game guidelines

  1. Memorize profitable 3-bet and 4-bet shoving ranges.
  2. Almost always open raise for the 2 times the big blind.
  3. Play loose-aggressive, and do not tighten up your open raising range.
  4. Almost never call pre-flop; either raise or fold, and avoid trying to set mine or nut camp.
  5. Capitalize on weak opponents who do not know how to adjust to short stacks.
  6. Follow a solid “vacuum” strategy and then adjust based on the dynamic.

Adhering to these guidelines can quickly turn a losing player into a winner. In fact, most players would benefit from learning how to short stack before they even tried playing a deeper stack. Short stacking offers an inexpensive way to learn in a much easier-to-navigate low SPR (stack-to-pot ratio) environment. Keep reading to learn more.

1. Memorize Profitable Shoving Ranges

While adhering to charts will get you most of the way there in your 3-bet and 4-bet shoving ranges, it’s really hard to codify every single situation you can possibly face. Therefore, if you really want to get good and know which hands to shove with, you need to work with some software that will teach you the math.

The software that I recommend is Cardrunner’s EV. It is what I use to study 3-bet and 4-bet situations and build the bulk of my own charts with its assistance. The good news is that the free version will allow you to do almost all the pre-flop calculations you ever need.

Cardrunners EV Example

Once you have a lot of experience short stacking, you may want to build detailed charts for the games you play in that tell you exactly what range to 3-bet versus every opening range percentage possible.

However, I don’t recommend doing this right off the bat. You need to learn why and how ranges change based on the tendencies of your opponent. Blindly following a chart based solely on raw percentages will limit your progress.

2. Open Raise for the 2 Times the Big Blind

One of the entire reasons I like playing a short stack is because of how it simplifies post-flop play. Navigating low stack-to-pot ratio (SPR) environments is a lot easier (and more fun), in my opinion. Complicated multi-street situations get really tiresome after a while.

The way SPR works, in a nutshell, is that if you hold a hand with a qualifying stack-to-pot ratio for stacking off, you can confidently get the money in and know that it is profitable the vast majority of the time.

Achieving a low SPR is simple when you play a 20-40 big blind stack. You simply min-raise, and you’re all set. Here are the general SPR guidelines for playing the flop:

SPR: Hands to commit (try to get all-in with)

  • 1 or less: Any piece of the board or 6+ outdraw
  • 1-3: Any top pair or 8-9 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

Here is an example of how this works:

You have 27 big blinds and min-raise to 2 big blinds after it folds to you. The player in the small blind calls, and everyone else folds. The pot is 5 big blinds, and you have 25 big blinds left. 5 into 25 goes 5 times, so your SPR is 5. That means you can stack off with any top pair, strong kicker, or better.

This makes playing the flop easy. If you have a strong top pair or better, you bet and then shove to a raise. If you have a made hand, you may choose to check back to pot control. Since you can’t profitably stack off with a typical draw, you may choose to check that back as well to realize equity.

Pretty cool, huh? I love using SPR to make decisions. It keeps things simple and keeps me out of trouble (well, it helps anyway).

3. Play Loose-Aggressive

I realize that my recommendation that you play loose-aggressive contradicts every single other article you may have ever read about how to play a short stack. Trust me, when people came up with that notion back in the day, they were just making stuff up and pulling information out of their, you know what.

Today, being overly tight is a bad idea, no matter what stack size you play. You’ve simply got to apply pressure to opponents and be able to credibly have both weak hands and strong hands in your range when you bet. Otherwise, you are very easy to play against.

Imagine you have a player on your table with a 10 VPIP, 20% aggression frequency, and a 3% 3-bet. What’s the best strategy against him?

You just widen your stealing range, pick his pocket, and then fold to all of his 3-bets if you don’t have a hand that beats his 3% range. Post-flop, if he reraises at any point, you snap-fold if you don’t have two-pair or better. Easy peasy.

My typical HUD stats are typically something like 27/22 with 45% AGG% and 15% resteal. Trust me, those stats are really hard to play against. If you see someone on your table with similar stats, you definitely don’t want them on your left.

4. Almost Never Call Pre-Flop

Calling too wide before the flop, especially out of position, is one of the biggest leaks that your average player will have. In fact, if most players never used their call button before the flop, they would lose less (or win more) money than they currently do. This is because making calls violates the basic fundamentals of poker.

I was the first person to establish definitive fundamentals for poker when I published my book in 2013. Doing so was actually not that hard. All I did was think about what strategic elements of a poker strategy contribute most to making +EV plays in poker.

In other words, what guidelines can a player follow that will most directly impact his or her ability to win at the poker table? I was able to come up with the 3 most important things that contribute to making a theoretical profit in poker.

  • Position- Acting last
  • Initiative- Having the lead going into the next betting round
  • Pressure- Being active with bets and raises versus being passive with checks and calls

If you adhere to these fundamentals more than your opponents, you almost automatically profit. In other words, if you play against players who are not fundamentally sound it will be almost impossible for them to beat you.

It’s important to understand that the key to using the fundamentals to profit in poker is relative to what your opponents are doing. In other words, you must play in position more often than them, have initiative more often than them, and apply pressure more often than them. To put it another way, if everyone follows the fundamentals perfectly, there is no room for profit since no one is making any mistakes.

Now, before we get too far afield and go down a theoretical rabbit hole, I’ll get to the point. Calling before the flop, or anytime for that matter, violates two of the three fundamentals. You will have neither initiative nor will you have applied pressure if you make a call. This will make profiting in the hand an uphill battle.

Case in point, I made very, very few pre-flop calls between 2013 and 2016 and had a win rate of 8bb/100 during that time. If it works for me, why can’t it work for you?

5. Capitalize on Weak Opponents

When I am playing poker, I view my opponents like obstacles on an obstacle course. There is an optimal way to navigate each and every obstacle, and once you learn how to do it correctly, it’s all about execution.

Poker players are creatures of habit. People seem to cluster into one camp or another, based on their experience, and form their strategy based on what they think is the best way to win. All you need to do is learn the tell-tale sign of what each player type looks like, and then it’s all about executing the correct strategy to exploit their weaknesses.

And while every player type will have weaknesses, the degree to which you can exploit them will vary based on just how glaring their weaknesses are. In other words, the weaker the player, the more profit there is to win from them. Therefore, you should seek out the worst players you possibly can and play as many hands as possible against them.

I know I made this sound easy, but it isn’t. Save for the occasional Friday night. The days of multiple fish on every poker table that you play are mostly gone. That’s why it’s super important to both table select and prioritize where your opponents are seated on the table in relation to you.

What I mean by this is that certain player types are easier to exploit when they are on your right, and others are easier to exploit when they are on your left. As a rule of thumb, you want tighter players on your left and loose players on your right.

Tight players on your left allow you to steal wide and capitalize on dead money. Loose players on your right allow loose passives to make the maximum mistakes out of position versus you. It also makes managing loose-aggressives a lot easier to manage. You can pick them apart with your 3-bet shoves and outplay them after the flop while in position.

Here is a helpful graphic that will give you the 12 best possible table dynamics based on having loose passives (fish), tight players, and aggressive players on your tables:

Green= Fish, Blue= Tight Player, Red= Aggressive Player

Helpful tip: If you play on a site that has very few fish, try to keep an ultra-tight player directly to your left at all times. If you do that, everything else will tend to take care of itself. You will keep a steady stream of stealing profits coming in while avoiding a lot of common tough spots. You will be guaranteed that all loose players stay mostly to your right.

6. Follow a Solid “Vacuum” Strategy

I always recommend that my students codify both their pre-flop and post-flop game plans. I have them place easy-to-follow charts under their tables while they play. Having a sound default vacuum or “readless” strategy for every action that you take has numerous benefits.

  1. It’s hard to make huge mistakes- You’ve done the math ahead of time. You know what to raise, what to 3-bet, what to 4-bet, what to c-bet, etc. When you have no reads, there are very few difficult decisions.
  2. You have a baseline to adjust from- Once you establish a vacuum strategy, you can use reads to either loosen or tighten your ranges at every decision point.
  3. It speeds up your decisions- Since you already know what your default play is, you can execute your actions very quickly. I get comments all the time when I play live about how I could possibly act so fast when it’s my turn. I literally average about 3 seconds per decision.
  4. You can focus on the dynamic- Since you already know what the most profitable default play is, you can concentrate all of your attention on adjusting to your opponents. After all, the key to maximizing profit is countering other players and not reinventing the wheel every time you make a decision.

As promised, and to make things easier for you, I have created a free baseline strategy that I give away to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter. Just sign up for my newsletter below, and I’ll immediately email it to you.

Free Short Stack Strategy and Charts

[wd_hustle id=”2″ type=”embedded”/]

The basic charts included have been tested by real players over the years and been proven to win at the micro-stakes. It’s basically a profitable “plug and play” strategy. Just promise me you won’t let anyone know about it. If word gets out about this, the games will become unprofitable really quickly.

By the way. If you decide to build your own vacuum strategy, make sure you attune it for the typical dynamic you find in the games you play. The optimal baseline strategy can vary wildly from poker room to poker room and from live to online. Think about it. Would you use the same strategy in a really soft live 200NL game that you would in a reg-heavy online 100NL game?

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide to playing as a short stack has been helpful and gets you off to a running start. If I missed anything or you have any questions, be sure to comment below. Thanks for reading!

Related Questions

How many blinds is a short stack? In cash games, a short stack would be someone with less than about 40 big blinds. In tournaments, a short stack is usually 30 big blinds or less. However, in turbo tournaments with fast blind levels, 40 or even 50 big blinds could be considered a short stack.

What is short deck poker? Also known as six-plus hold ’em, short deck poker is played with a 36-card deck that has the 2, 3, 4, and 5 cards removed. The game mostly plays the same as normal Texas Hold’em. The major differences are that the low straight is 9-8-7-6-A, and a flush ranks higher than a full house.

Jim James

Jim James is well-known as the world’s leading expert on playing short or mid-stacked poker. He has over 15 years of experience playing poker professionally, has written extensively on the topic, and is the author of the best-selling poker strategy book Automatic Poker.

Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, he has won 7 figures at the poker tables. His innovative simple poker charts make the game easier for everyone willing to learn. Today, he helps other players demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em and has helped countless people become winning poker players through his Online Poker Academy.