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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008 - by Maurice Lefort

Playing short-stacked

In no-limit hold'em, the "short stack" strategy consists in buying in for the minimum buy-in. For example in a standard $0.25/$0.50 no-limit holdem game, the minimum buy-in is 20 bb or $10, whilst the maximum buy-in is usually $50, sometimes $100.

In no-limit hold'em poker, optimal strategies differ significantly if playing with a short stack or with a deep stack (Harrington on Cash Games), both in cash games and in tournaments. For instance, big pocket pairs are very valuable to short stackers, but they lose their appeal versus drawing hands such as suited connectors as the stacks get deeper and deeper.

The short stack strategy was popularized by Phil Hellmuth's Play Poker Like the Pros and Ed Miller's Getting Started in Hold'em, who introduced it as an opening method for beginners. There are mostly two reasons for playing a short stack strategy, (i) its low risk profile and ease of implementation is recommended for holdem newcomers and (ii) it can be a profitable low variance strategy when mastered by good players.

Note that this method applies to full ring games with at least 7 players. There are also short stackers at 6max but they cannot play profitably the simple strategy that we describe here.

texas holdem poker short stack

The core short stack strategy is the simplest holdem strategy that you can imagine, as it eliminates all the complexities of betting at the turn and river. Buy in for the minimum and play "fold or allin" preflop. What this means is that you only play your strongest hands preflop, and for these you bet allin. You fold anything else.

This is a very systematic approach where the difficult decisions are left to your opponents. The only question for you is what hands to play. In our article about starting hands, we showed that Phil Hellmuth recommends his top 15 starting hands {AQ+,22+}.

These hands occur 8.3% of the time, so following a fold/allin strategy with them hands produces a short stacker's statistics of 8.3/8.3/0 (VPIP/PFR/AG). The advantage of this approach is that it can succeed in a number of different ways.

For instance if you are in the cutoff with JJ, and two limpers precede you, you raise allin. The blinds will fold most of the time unless they have a very strong hand, and the limpers will usually fold as well because their limping corresponds to a weak hand. You collect a pot of 3.5 bb without a fight.

If you are called instead, you can still win the hand. As you only play your strongest hands, you are not afraid to get called.

Some interesting situations arise when there are two deep stacks involved in the hand. The first one may be reluctant to call your 20 bb bet because he is afraid that the other deep stack calls as well, which may lead to these two doing their own fight involving their entire stacks.

Additionally, if two players call your JJ for the same size bet, you obtain excellent pot odds because you paid 20 bb hoping to make 40 bb, i.e. 2:1 pot odds.

The reason why this short stack strategy is so effective is that it exploits specific opportunities as described above. Many players do not know how to adapt against this strategy, by folding too much for example. The unusual large bets inherent in the strategy make the average player incomfortable, as he does not welcome the increased variance.

Aggressive allin preflop is a technique known to level the playing field. The skill of the poker pros stems from they ability to outmaneuver less experienced players postflop. The short stack strategy negates these advantages.

Note that if you lose a few chips and drop below 15 bb stack, you need to rebuy to 20 bb, otherwise you will not get the full chip count when you double up. If you double up, you should leave the table and sit at another one, as you do not have a short stack anymore, just a small stack. With such a small stack of 40 bb, observant players will wait to call you with their monster hands and will grab your entire stack more often.

A softer variation of the short stack method consists in just raising your strong hands preflop with the goal of pushing allin at the flop. For example you can raise your starting hands preflop by 4 bb. If there is a raiser before you, you reraise him by three times the size of his bet. And you almost always push allin the flop.


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