Ever heard the term “A chip and a chair”? The phrase is common place now, but it comes from a real player in the 1982 Main Event of the World Series of Poker.
Jack “Treetop” Strauss, a well known player to poker historians, and a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, was playing early on the second day of the tournament, and shoved his chips into the middle without saying anything. His bet was called by a bigger stack, and he lost the hand. When he got up from the table he noticed that under his napkin was one lonely 500 chip. If he had announced “All In” when he shoved his stack, he would have been obligated to give the 500 chip to the winning player, but since he hadn’t said anything, it was agreed that the chip was still his, and he sat back down. He then went on to stage an amazing comeback, and won the tournament, and permanently earned his place in poker history.
While this is an amazing story, it is also a great lesson in tournament play. One of the most difficult, yet most important things to do in any poker tournament is to play a short stack. Most players find themselves short stacked at one point or another in most of their games, and most players then find themselves out of the tournament because they play that short stack entirely the wrong way. They panic and play all in with any two cards, hoping and praying they get lucky and win some chips. Others are scared to get their chips in the middle, and allow their stack to shrink to such a point where it is meaningless. What I want to discuss today is the balance point between those two ideas, and hopefully help you to better play the game with a short stack, and increase your chances of making the money even though the odds are obviously against you.
Here’s a perfect example of what NOT to do. In a recent game, the short stack found himself in the big blind, with around 6 big blinds left. One player raised, and I looked down to Q-Q, and being a shorter stack myself, reraised all in. It folded around to the big blind, and you could just see the dejection in his face. He had given up, and just tossed his remaining chips into the pot. He then turned over K-10 off suit. Now, if you review the action, he had a big raise followed by an all in to deal with, so he had to know his hand was way behind. But the dejection of being a small stack with two big raisers in front of him, on his big blind, caused him to basically give up and toss the rest of his chips in the pot.
When you are the small stack at the table, you are looking for opportunities to get your chips in the pot first. That is the best possible move. Your second best option is to get your chips in the pot with either a great hand or at the very least a good drawing hand. What you are not looking to do is get your chips in the pot when you are almost assuredly holding a losing hand. The goal is to at least double up and possibly even triple up, so that you are back in the game.
So having looked at an example of what not to do, here are a few points to remember when you are playing with a short stack of chips. If you don’t make these adjustments to your game at this point, you can be assured that you are making some costly mistakes that will ensure your time at the table is short also.
Never make a speculative call
Limping with small pairs in the hopes of catching a set, or suited connectors praying for a miracle flop will kill you. What happens if you get reraised? Now you are in the position of having to call all your chips on a draw, or from behind. Also, the chance of you flopping a set with your pair of twos is around 12%. That’s 8.5 to 1. The chance of flopping two to the flush is about the same. The chance of flopping the actual flush is below 1%. So, as you can see, limping in the hopes of catching these miracles is always a losing proposition. Figure it this way: If you limp to catch an 8.5 to 1 draw, you should do so in the hopes winning more than 9 times your money if you hit. Since you’re the short stack, about the best you can hope to do is double up. So the math is never right for this when you are a short stack.
Never raise with a hand you aren’t willing to commit all your chips on to the river
Since you are short stacked, you don’t have the option to raise with to begin with. When you enter the pot, you must be willing to put them all in there. If you get called, and miss the flop, you can’t afford to fold and have even a shorter stack. Silly hands like J-9, A-6, and even Q-10 will be the death of you if you try to simply raise.
When you fire your final shot, make sure it’s a bullet, and not a BB
You want to take a shot at stealing the blinds, and/or doubling up before you get so low in chips that nobody fears calling you. For example, if you blind yourself down to only two big blinds, and you shove from the button, the big blind always has the correct pot odds to call you with any two random cards. Also, when you do double up, you want to make sure it is a meaningful double up. If you have 1 big blind left, and you double up, now you have two. Nobody is ever scared of two big blinds.
Unless you have a monster, try to be the first one in the pot
When you are thinking about shoving all in with a short stack, you should make sure two at least one and hopefully two things apply. (1) You have very good cards, and/or 2) you’re the only one in the pot so far. Remember that if you still have a fair amount of chips, and your table image is not that of a maniac, players will need a better than average hand to warrant a call. This is why you should always make sure you’re alone in the pot before shoving in to steal the blinds. Force the players behind you to make the decision. If there are already one or two limpers in the pot, you’re more likely to get a call, which is a bad thing when you want to steal the blinds with just two random cards.
Playing with a short stack must be a part of your poker game. Next month they will play the final table of the World Series of Poker, and Phil Ivey is coming in very short stacked. If you want a lesson on how to play it, I suggest you watch every hand and see what he does. I can assure you that if he loses, it won’t be because he panicked and tossed all his chips in the middle out of frustration, or with two crazy cards that he hopes get lucky. He will pick his spots, and time his moves, and ensure he is doing everything he can to move up that ladder towards victory.
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