What to do as the Short-Stack in a Tournament

With online poker sites offering more and more tournaments these days, I thought you folks might find it helpful to get into some of the more strategic aspects of the latter stages of a tournament.

You’ve held your own, took down some pots and knocked your share of players out. But now, things have taken a negative turn and you find yourself as the shortstack of the table. What do you do? Out of frustration, many players have just simply thrown all their chips into the ring and hope to double up, only to run into a monster hand and get knocked out prematurely. This is the wrong approach. Just because you’re the shortstack, doesn’t mean all hope is lost. It just means you need to pick your spot and then attack. I’ve come all the way back from only having a single $100 chip to win a tournament and I’ve seen many others do the same.

Over the years I’ve gotten some backhanded compliments on my shortstack play. Not enough has been written about shortstack play for SnGs or multi-table tournaments, so hopefully, you will find this column as a resource, because at some point, you will find yourself in this predicament. Of course, all of this is moot if you’re not the shortstack at the table. But we’ve all been there…I’ve seen desperate shortstack play (i.e. all-in on QTo), when with proper planning and table awareness, there really is no reason to be desperate. If you pay attention to the three things below, I think you’ll probably do better in the endgames, where the cash is separated from the bubbles.

Here are some quick tips and explanations:

1. Know the blind structure and when they are going up- This is an extremely important thing to take into account. All sites have some mechanism that helps you keep track of these changes. You need to be aware so you can judge how much time you have before you get blinded off. Your strategy needs to be tied to clock/blind management just as much as it needs to be tied to cards and position. Think of shortstack play as the two-minute offense in football. If the blinds are about to go up, you need to be more aggressive and loosen up your starting hands.

If you’re one of two shortstacks and you’re on the (timed) blinds, take your time. Your money is already in the pot, you have nothing to gain by playing quickly. If you take your time (cynics would say “stalling”), the blinds will soon go up and the other shortstack will have to commit a greater percentage of his stack to the blinds. Figure that each hand takes about a minute and plan accordingly.

2. Know your opponents. – How simple does this sound. You should always be learning about your opponents, no matter what part of the tournament, but at this time, it’s crucial. When you fold, don’t watch TV or go get a beer… watch. You’ll be able to see who is trying to back into the prize money by staying clear of confrontation and who is pushing their big stack to establish dominance and steal blinds. We’ve all played tournaments where the people around the bubble start folding every hand, hoping that the other guys will bust first. While you’ll be tempted to steal blinds, beware! The blinds will usually only call when he’s probably got you beat. On the other hand, the bully with the big chip stack is ripe for the picking since he’s usually freer with his marginal calls.

3. Don’t get desperate no matter what – If you have more than 4 times the big blind, you have two full rotations to get a decent hand. You do not need to go all-in the first time you see an Ace in your hand. Remember, as shortstack, your goal is to cash, not necessarily win the whole thing, unless you are fortunate and skilled enough to make a strong enough comeback. When you have a good starting hand, it is OK to limp with it. This is to give you the opportunity to get more callers.. The converse is to push with mediocre hands where you really only want one caller or, better yet, no callers giving you a blind steal and some more hands to pick your spot.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say blinds are 100/200 and you have 700-800 chips and get AK or AQ. The temptation is to go all-in. But what happens if everyone folds and all you do is steal the blinds with a solid starting hand. You may very well limp and hope to pull a couple of callers. After all, you’re pretty sure you’re taking this hand to the limit, so why not maximize your odds by limping? This is the exact time where you want more people in. Ideally, someone else will limp and the big stack will raise, enabling you to possibly triple up. Even if it’s just called around, if you catch any piece of the flop, you’re going to push all-in after the flop with a big advantage over the Ax and Kx calling hands. If the flop misses you horribly (like T85 or something), you have the choice of folding on the hand or making a bluff at it, depending on your opponents.

In the situation above, you should push all-in preflop with small-to-medium pockets, trying to isolate the overcards. If called, you’re probably down to a race with you holding a slight advantage (around 54-46 depending on the overcards). I’ve also seen bigger stacks call with A-rag just because they think the shortstack is desperate, improving your odds even more (ie. 99 vs. A7s is 67-33 in your favor). Funny, but people seem to forget that A2 is pretty much the same as J2 against pocket pairs.

Hopefully this will help you out during desperate times in tournaments.

Until next time, may the chips fall your way.