Playing a short stack is a critical tournament skill. To win tournaments, you must be able to overcome adversity and a short stack is a very common form of adversity.
Here are the key strategic principles:
1. Never give up. You can win virtually any tournament with a short stack.
2. Be patient and wait for the right situation. Not just the right hand, but the right situation. If, for example, everyone folds to you in the small blind preflop, the blinds and antes are significant, you have a short stack but still have fold equity, you should consider pushing all in with any two cards. More important than your cards is the fact that only one potential opponent remains and that opponent needs a good hand to call. This is therefore a high-percentage move against all but the weakest opponents, who don't know any better than to call.
3. "Be the hammer, not the anvil." (Eric Lynch). This means being the first one into the pot with a raise and not calling without a huge hand. Callers are anvils and often get hammered because callers have only one way to win the pot. So use your chips as a hammer and don't be a caller.
4. Play your position more than your cards. The best positions to move all in preflop are the hijack seat, the cut-off seat, the button and the blinds. But be the first raiser into the pot.
5. In early position with 9 or more players at the table, any raise is likely to get a least one caller. Thus do not play for all your chips in early position without a premium hand like AK or a painted pair. Pushing with AK is a good risk as you will often get called by weaker aces like AQ. But if you push preflop with pocket tens and get called, one or more overcards will flop more than fifty percent of the time. If you push with pocket jacks, however, you have a fifty percent chance that no overcards will flop. You are therefore just gambling by pushing all in preflop in early postition at a full table with anything less than AK or a pocket pair of jacks or better.
6. Realize when you only have one move left. This one move is usually pushing preflop with all your chips when you get down to about 12-15 big blinds, while you still have decent fold equity. Your fold equity is not as good if you reraise all in as the second raiser in the pot. So be the first one into the pot and use all your chips to maximize their power.
7. Depending on position, good hands to push with preflop are pairs, suited connectors, AK and AQ. If you push with AJ and AT, you will usually be behind if called and are likely to be dominated by a bigger ace.
8. Avoid playing weak aces, including suited aces. Big aces are the most common calling hand of short stack all-ins and you are dominated as a 3-1 underdog if your opponent's ace has a bigger companion card. Having a suited ace makes very little difference and is basically insignificant.
9. Avoid pushing all in preflop with K10, Q10, J10, K9 or KJ unless you have no choice. Like weak aces, these hands are often dominated if you are called.
10. Any pocket pair is a slight favorite against two overcards and the odds are 16 to 1 in your favor that any one opponent does not have a pocket pair. Thus even small pocket pairs may be a good situation for an all-in push preflop in late position against the blinds. If called by a bigger pair you are a 4 to 1 underdog and just got unluckly, but you still probably made the right move. Most of the time you won't get called. And if called by any two overcards you are a slight favorite to double-up.
11. Play as tight as the blinds and antes allow. If the right situation is not there, don't push but play another round if you can.
12. Five times the big blind is generally the decision point for pushing preflop with any two cards. Waiting any longer is usually a mistake as your fold equity disappears.
13. The most critical point is to rely on "the math of isolation" (Sklansky) and play heads-up. Avoid multiway pots unless you have a BIG hand. Pocket tens, for example, loses 60% of the time against two opponents holding KJ suited and AQ. When faced with a multiway pot, you are better off folding a big ace or medium pair and pushing on the next hand with any two cards if first into the pot.
Here are some sample odds heads-up:
a). AK is nearly a 3 to 1 favorite against weaker aces like AQ and AJ, but is only a 7 to 5 favorite against suited connectors like 65s and 54s.
b). 98s and 87s is only a 7 to 5 underdog against AK, AQ and AJ.
c). 98s and 87s is only a 11 to 10 underdog against A6, A5, A4, A3 and A2.
d). J10 suited is an even matchup against 88 and lower pairs.
e). Pocket twos wins 53% of the time against AK and is basically an even matchup against KQ suited.
14. Focus on the most common calling hands in deciding which hands to play for all your chips. Most players will call short stack all-ins with AK, AQ and big and medium pairs. Loose players with lots of chips will often call with any two broadway cards. You want both your cards to be live against these common calling hands. Suited connectors are often live, are unlikely to be dominated, and often give you a fair chance if you are called.
Jerry Yang entered the 2007 WSOP Final Table as the second-shortest stack, but soon won enough chips to dominant the table and win it all. Joe Hachem won the 2005 WSOP as one of the shortest starting stacks at the final table. He was patient, picked his spots and gradually moved up as others got knocked out. Then he got heads up and won it all.
Copyright 2011 by K. Preston Oade. All rights reserved.