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Playing the Short Stack

Tournament Poker: Playing the Short-Stack
By Loki Luchs of

One of the major determiners of a player’s ability in tournament poker is his or her ability to stay alive when they are low on chips. When you're on the short-stack, your tournament life is on the line every single hand. Every other player sees this and is looking for any opportunity to knock you out. In addition to other players looking to move ahead another notch up the pay-scale, the blinds are stealing huge portions of your money on every rotation. A common error that players make, however, is not knowing when they have to make a move.

One thing that you need to realize about being on the short-stack is that you're still alive. The question is: for how long? When you're on the short-stack, you have two goals:

1. If you're in the money, you are trying to survive past the next player to go out.
2. You should be looking for a way back into the main running.

One of the problems with these goals is that they, in many ways, contradict each other. If you're playing conservatively, trying to outlive another short-stack, you may move up one notch in the money, but you're probably not going to do any better than that. If you're trying to get into the main-running and are playing too aggressively, you may be eliminated a spot or two before you would have. The key to surviving is timed aggression. You want to make enough money so that your stack doesn't become insubstantial, but you don't want to risk running into a big hand.

One of the fatal errors that new players make is that they are afraid to gamble when they get short-stacked. You never want to hit a point where you are so short on chips that you could double up three or four times and still not have a chance of winning the tournament. It’s often hard to know when your stack is passing into that critical zone. One theory states that you never want your chip-stack to fall below 4 times the cost per round. The cost per round, also called the “M,” (Read more about the "M" here: "Calculating the M") is the sum of the blinds and antes per rotation around the table. According to most philosophies, once you reach this 4-M threshold, your only move is all-in. If your chips get any lower than that, doubling up won't help you enough to improve your position. When you're that short on chips, you enter every hand knowing that all of your chips are probably going to end up in the pot. It’s better to do this sooner than later! If you flat call and hit the hand, your opponent may not pay you off. You may also find that if you miss and they bet, you're forced to fold even if you're still ahead. Since one of your objects is to accumulate a stack again, one of the worst plays a short-stack can make is a flat call.

One advantage to this short-stack philosophy is that it gives you more than one way to win. By still having a chip-stack large enough to do damage to your opponents’ stacks, opponents will be less inclined to call your all-in bet. Keep in mind that at a final table, where there may be more than one short-stack, you may find that by betting into the other short-stacks, even with a mediocre hand, they will fold because they themselves are on the verge of elimination. Even middle sized stacks may be afraid to call if it means that they are risking becoming low on chips. When you have at least 4 big blinds of action left, most players will have to find a real hand to call your bet. Many players won't call your bet because the pot odds are incorrect. By using your chip-stack and your position to steal the blinds, you will frequently add an additional round of play to your stack.

If a player calls your all-in, it isn't the end of the world! In fact, this is something that may work to your advantage. To win a tournament, you usually have to outdraw an opponent at sometime. If you get caught by a player pre-flop, unless they come up with a big pocket pair, you're probably only a 2:1 or 3:2 underdog. Your tournament-life may be on the line, but no more than it would be in a round more of blinds. If you get busted, you lose knowing that you gave yourself the best chance of winning. If you win, your chip-stack will be at an 8 or 9 "M" and you're back in the race. Deep in a tournament, 10 Ms is plenty of room for maneuvering, so a little “luck” while using a good philosophy may make the difference between 9th and 1st!

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Tips and Advice

Introduction to Tournament Poker - Loki covers everything from the buy in to prize payouts!

Cash Games vs. Tournaments - Hank Cashman talks about the difference between the two and notes that just because you're good at one doesn't mean that you'll win at the other.