It's an all-too-familiar problem: You're starting with a small stack, and you’re keen to play for big poker pots. A short stack player is typically defined as any poker player with less than the typical amount of chips required for a specific game. The number of chips needed to qualify somebody as a short stack player depends on the buy-in, and the blinds. If a game requires 50 big blinds (50bb), and a player has less than that available for a cash game, that player is regarded as a short stack player. Most every poker aficionado agrees that a poker bankroll is one of the most important resources a player can have. Without it, you cannot compete, and your poker game will be hamstrung, despite your talent.

If you go into a poker game, or you find yourself with less than the usual number of poker chips available, you may soon be unable to compete. In cash games, players typically have the option to rebuy if their chip stack falls below a certain threshold. This may be 100 big blinds for example. If you happen to be that player, don't fret. There are ways to effectively play poker with a short stack. In gaming circles, the short stack player usually has less than 50 big blinds available. Any player in a cash game with > 50 but < 100 big blinds is considered a medium stack player a.k.a. mid stack player. Nowadays, online poker rooms and live poker rooms allow players to rebuy at 40 big blinds. This is commonly seen in poker games.

What Strategies do Small Stack Players Implement to Compete with Big Stack Players?

The most obvious strategy is also the most implemented strategy: careful selection of poker hands that are played. The shorter the stack, the more important it is to choose which hands to fold and which hands to play. As a rule, short stack players will fold many more hands than they play. The objective is to compete with a strong starting hand, to increase the likelihood of growing your stack in anticipation of stealing the blinds, and playing for big poker pots. It's difficult for a short stack player to go up against a big stack bully – no doubt about it. That's why all elements of a short stack player’s game must come together synergistically. These include mental acuity, strategic game play, maximizing position, poker psychology, and advantage play.

Poker experts advise short stack players to bide their time. There is no substitute for patience in poker. Variance is the great leveler, it can work for you and it can work against you. Whether you're the big stack player or the short stack player, it's coming and it will present you with situations where you're in the money, or you’re having a bad beat. Too many players confuse big stacks with great poker players. Truth be told, Lady Luck has an outsized part to play in determining who gets to have a big stack at any point in time. Sometimes a bully is successful in getting other players at the table to fold, sometimes the bully’s bluff gets called and the bully becomes the short stack player.


Effective Strategies to Blunt Big Stack Players When You Have a Short Stack

First things first. If you play poker long enough, you will be a short stack player more often than not. It is easy to spot a short stack player – your poker chips don't pile up as high as the players around you. But that's not quite the full story. We have already established that the short stack player usually has less than 40 BB. Depending on how much firepower you've got in your stack, your short stack strategy will change. Some short stack players have 10 BB, 20 BB, 30 BB, or 40 BB, et al. Of course, you should always be mindful of the value of poker chips when evaluating who the short stack player at the table really is. 

There are many reasons why players get relegated to short stack status – you may have had a poor run of form, known in poker parlance as a Bad Beat, or you may simply prefer to be the short stacked player for strategic reasons. Regardless, it is crucial that you implement an effective short stack plan to win big. Since the short stack player is measured against the blind requirements, you can still be a short stack player even if you have more chips in your stack than your opponents. It is possible for several short stack players to compete in a poker game. Without delving into the intricacies of short stack poker strategy too much, we can attest to the following game plans:

•    Short Stack players invariably cut all or many risky moves from their game. Think of the bluff as a classic case in point. With so little cushioning, you certainly don't want to be risking your bankroll on a hunch, or the hope that your opponents will fold to your bluff.
•    Short Stack players are limited in terms of which hands they decide to play. Mistakes can blow you out of the water and relegate you to the poker rail. That's not where you want to be as a poker player.
•    Short Stack players focus most of the action on the pre-flop period of play. Every poker veteran knows that post-flop play gets pretty expensive. If you're attempting to cash in on the action, you have to outmuscle the competition early on. This is challenging with a limited bankroll.

Limit Play to Strong Starting Hands as a Short Stack Player

A great analogy to a short stack in poker is a car with a limited amount of fuel, and lots of errands to run. What trips do you prioritize? What trips do you eliminate? Essential items are equivalent to premium starting hands. As a poker player, you're going to want to play the best starting hands in Texas Hold’em with 40 big blinds or less: AA-KK-QQ-AKs-AQs-JJ-AK-AQ-AJs. Now, if your chip stack is less, say 30 big blinds or under, you will want to limit your action to the following hands: AJ-TT-ATs-KQs. With 20 big blinds or less, you would go with the following opening hands: AT-KQ-KJs-KJ. And with less than or equal to 10 big blinds you would play the following premium hands: AXs-AX-QJs-QJ.

*(A=Ace, K=King, Q=Queen, J=Jack, T=10, s = Suited)

 If given the option, never buy in for less than the maximum. Becoming a short stack player should never be your choice; it should be up to lady luck and variance.
 Understand everything there is to know about your pre-flop ranges including 3-betting, and open-shoving.
 Understand the value of the effective stack size (the least number of chips in front of a player in a hand).
 Tight play is different to passive play – don't fold every hand because of the short stack. Raise to gain from calls and win the blinds.
 Make the decision about post-flop play, such as whether your hand will perform poorly post-flop.
 Try to limit yourself to standard-size raises, rather than going all-in from MP (Middle Position) at 25 BB for example.

These short stack strategies all serve you well as you navigate through your poker sessions. Remember, you have lots of control over the hands you play and the amount that you bet. When you cannot control the money, the focus should shift to poker strategy as your ‘get out of jail free card’. Let other deep-stack players tear each other apart as you watch from the sidelines of the game, biding your time until the opportunity is right to strike. Mastery of short stack play can be incredibly beneficial to your poker career.

About the Author

With digital marketing strategies in his blood, Louis Wheeler has traveled around the world, exploring gambling cultures and gaining experience in casino games from 2003. If you are in a casino anywhere around the planet, you may find him right next to you, playing blackjack, roulette or texas hold'em. 

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