What is Short Stack Poker? Learn how to Play

Playing short stack poker, by choice or by circumstances, requires making some tweaks in your strategy. Mastering short stack poker strategy is particularly important in tournaments, as the increasing blinds and antes will often force you to play short stack. So, first, let’s see what is short stack poker.

What does Short Stack mean?

Short stack poker means your stack is short compared to the big blind, generally less than 40bb. Of course, playing with a 10bb stack differs a lot from playing with a 40bb stack. 

However, there are some general principles of playing short stacked that we can examine. When needed, we will review how you can adjust your play according to your stack size.

What if your opponents are short-stacked, and you are not?

Keep in mind that what matters is effective stacks. Playing heads-up with a big stack versus an opponent with 30bb is the same as if you also had 30bb. This is because the effective stacks are 30bb in both cases, forcing you to play short stack. 

How to play with a short stack?

Starting with a short stack means that the amount of betting that will follow in the different betting rounds is limited. In poker, you want to play “small hand small pot, big hand big pot.” Since a big pot is no longer a possibility, strong hands like sets, straights, and flushes, lose in value!

As a consequence, drawing to make a big hand, often becomes unprofitable. What makes drawing hands profitable is the implied odds of getting paid-off big when they arrive. If you have little or no chips remaining by the time you make your hand, you lose this opportunity.

Therefore, middle connectors, one-gappers, and suited cards, like 8♦7♥, 9♠7♠, or A♣5♣, that have the potential of flopping a strong hand or a strong draw go down in value. The same is true for small pairs, like 5♦5♠. Small pairs rarely hit the flop but hit it hard when they do. They can flop a set or better that are very strong hands. Since they can no longer win big pots when playing short-stacked, they also go down in value.

On the contrary, hands that win a lot of small pots but rate to be behind when the pots get very big, profit from playing short stack poker. Hands like A♦J♠ or K♠Q♠ that often make top-pair, top-kicker kind of hands are excellent candidates. 

Playing short also means you have less room to make sophisticated plays like floating or double and triple barreling, plays that require multiple betting rounds to unfold. So, expect most of the betting to take place preflop and on the flop, and stick to playing ABC poker.

Play aggressively

In general, in poker, you want to play your hand aggressively preflop on most occasions. This is even more true when you play short stack. Firstly, winning the blinds and antes to stay afloat is a big deal when you are short. Also, limping is more suited to speculative hands to try to see flops cheaply, hands that you will not be playing much when you are short stacked. So, when possible, enter the pot by open-raising.

Particularly in tournaments, it is essential to take the right risks and try to re-build up your stack. You cannot afford to wait for premium hands. Try to find the right occasions to pick-up the blinds and antes, or to re-steal. For example, you can steal from a late position or re-steal from the blinds against a late position steal attempt.

Use Nash Equilibrium to be Unexploitable

How you play depends significantly on your opponents. For example, some opponents are too tight and only call with premium hands. Against them, you can increase your aggression and steal their blinds more often, as they will fold enough of their range to make it profitable.

If you don’t know your opponent’s style, you can adopt a strategy that is close to game theory optimal strategy. Such a balanced approach is unexploitable by your opponents, so you can also use it against skilled players as a defense. Start with GTO ranges and adapt as soon as you start gaining intuition about your opponent’s tendencies and play an exploitative style.

Below you can find the Nash equilibrium open shove range percentages, depending on your position and on your stack size, for stack sizes smaller than 12bb. You can calculate the Nash equilibrium for different situations using SnapShove software.

When are you pot committed with a short stack?

One thing that you should be cautious about when playing short stack is pot commitment. As you play short stack, pot commitment issues may often arise. So, plan your betting accordingly to avoid getting trapped and be the one to make the last bet to have fold equity on your side. For example, if you have 9bb and open raise to 3bb, you are pot committed to calling an opponent’s all-in. In similar circumstances, it may be best to go all-in in the first place.

When does pot commitment arise preflop?

Your stack size will determine how much preflop betting you can expect before becoming pot committed. Below is a general guideline. The exact threshold will depend on the betting amounts, on your hand, and on your opponent’s presumed range of hands.

stack size number of raises an example
<12bb one raise if you open-raise to 3bb you become pot committed in most cases
12bb-25bb a raise followed by a 3-bet after a raise to 3bb, if you make a 3-bet of 8bb you become pot committed
26bb-40bb a raise and a 3-bet followed by a 4-bet after a raise to 3bb and a 3-bet of 8bb, if you make a 4-bet to 20 bb you become pot committed

As you can see, with very short stacks you are not much concerned with post-flop play. The most money may go into the pot preflop, leaving you and your opponent pot committed and making post-flop decisions more straightforward. As playing post-flop becomes more trivial, the importance of position in post-flop choices decreases. Thus, playing out of position is less of a concern.

When you have bad position and hands that play poorly post-flop, aim to commit most or all of your stack preflop to ease any post-flop decisions. For example, hands like small pocket pairs play poorly post-flop short-stacked, as they will miss most flops and see two or three overcards on the board! However, when you are on the blinds and a player from late position open-raises, with a stack of 12bb-20bb you can choose to shove! 

Also, from the small blind, you can shove against the big blind with a stack of up to 15bb when you have a small pair. If you only raise in this spot, you risk getting called and having to play post-flop out of position. 

The sweet spot

There is a sweet spot when your stack is around 12bb-15bb. With such a stack, you can 3-bet all-in against an open-raise and have a lot of fold equity. In particular, against players that open-raise wide, so from late position or loose opponents, this move can be very profitable. With a short stack of 12bb-15bb, you achieve a lot of fold equity when you shove and, at the same time, limit the amount that you risk.

Should you play short stack by choice?

You can choose to play short-stacked if you do not have much experience. Playing short stack achieves risking less and playing a more basic game, as playing deep stack poker requires additional skills. However, be careful as if you double up, you may no longer be a short stack!

Another reason for choosing to play short stack is when you are the only short stack at the table. This is because your opponents cannot afford to adjust their game to your stack. It is vital for them to play optimally against the big stacks, as the big stacks are more in number and the stakes against them are higher. So, they may play sub-optimally against you, leaving you opportunities to exploit their game.

For example, big stacks may open-raise with many speculative hands that play well deep stack poker, like 76s, hands they will have let go when you shove. So their opening range is not balanced. If they were also playing short-stack poker, their opening range would be better adjusted.

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments, or if you have some experience of playing short stack poker that you want to share!


This tutorial is part of the Advanced Poker Strategy Course. You can continue to the next tutorial on Deep Stack Poker!

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