How to Play Poker With a Short Stack

Learn how to play poker with a short stack, that is, not many chips in your stack

Knowing how to play a short stack optimally is often the difference between a winning and a losing player. Cash game players spend the majority of their time sitting behind a big or deep stack. Tournament players have to contend with rising blinds, which continually alters their stack size. MTT grinders do not have the option to add to their stack when they lose a pot, cash players do.

What is a Short Stack in Poker?

A short stack is the same regardless of you playing cash games or tournaments. Most online poker tournaments start with 100 or 200 big blind stacks. The blinds constantly increase meaning your stack size dwindles if you do not win any pots.

Any stack that is 20 big blinds or less is getting into short stack territory. Ten big blinds or less is definitely short, while under 10 big blinds sees you on life support.

Why is Nursing a Short Stack a Negative?

Playing poker tournaments with a short stack is far from an optimal situation for three main reasons. The first is any mistake is likely to end your participation in the tournament. No-limit hold’em players know they risk losing their entire stack each time they play a hand. This risk is far greater when you have fewer chips at your disposal.

Your expected value is far less when you have a short stack in front of you, too. Flopping a set massively increases your chances of winning a sizeable pot, but it will be far smaller than if you were a big stack.

Perhaps the most limiting factor of being a short stack is your play is restricted. By all means continue playing like you have heaps of chips, but you are not playing optimally. Most professionals poker players like to be offered odds of at least 10-to-1 before calling a raise with a small or medium pair hoping to flop a set. This is because the odds of flopping a set are around 7.5-to-1 and you do not always get paid off with full stacks.

You simply do not have the correct implied odds to try flop a set when you are short stacked. The same is true for chasing flush and straight draws.

Are There Positives to Being Short Stacked?

The negatives of being short stacked outweigh the positives, but there are some of the latter. Playing with a short stack can be more straightforward with less taxing decisions to make. Mistakes are less costly, in terms of chips, when you are a short stack.

Bigger stacks are more likely to pay you off with your big hands because your short stack cannot damage them too much. Being dealt aces, kings or queens is the thing dreams are made off when you are not armed with many chips!

Between 15 and 20 big blinds is when you are considered to be in short stack territory. You have now lost the ability to set mine and profitably chase draws. It is also a good idea to not raise with a hand that you are not prepared to go all-in with. This is because raise-folding reduces your stack by a large percentage and you are short to begin with.

15 to 20 Big Blinds

All is not lost, however, because you still have a powerful move in your arsenal: the three-bet all-in. This works best with 15-20 big blinds and is exactly what it sounds like. A player opens with a raise and you re-raise all-in instead of calling or making a typical three-bet. The reason you move all-in is because you are priced in to call if you make a standard re-raise.

For example, a player on the button raises 2.5 big blinds and you have 18 big blinds in your short stack. You decide this is the time to make a move and three-bet to eight big blinds, leaving 10 big blinds behind. Your opponent moves all-in, meaning you have to call off your 10 big blinds to win 22 big blinds. There are almost no hands you should not be calling here getting almost 2-to-1 on your bet. It is much better to raise all-in as the aggressor because you give yourself an additional chance to win the pot. You can either raise all-in and win the pot uncontested when your opponent folds, or have the best hand at showdown when you are called.

Likewise, you can raise all-in when first to act, especially when you are in late position or in the small blind. Try making these moves against stack that have the most to lose if they lose the hand. Fellow short stacks and big stacks are a no-go area (unless you have a legitimate hand). Medium-sized stacks are perfect targets.

10 Big Blinds or Less

You now only have one move left to you: moving all-in. There is no more standard raising or calling, all you can do is shove and hope for the best. Still, be aware of your position at the table and be tighter in early position than in late position. But when you bet, make sure it is for all your chips.

The only slight exception to the rule is when you have a tiny stack of say 3-to-5 big blinds. Here, you need to be more selective about which hand you push all-in with because you are being called. Also, satellite tournaments are another exception as you can often fold hands as strong as aces in specific circumstances.

Accumulating chips is the only way to avoid being short stacked. Do not panic if you suddenly become a short stack. Bide your time, play your hands aggressively and know you are only one or two double-ups from being back in contention.

Matthew Pitt

If it’s something you can play online for real money, chances are Matthew knows a bit about it. He’s been writing about slots, craps and poker for the better part of the last decade. He’s written for PokerNews, PartyPoker and many other respected online gambling websites during the last nine years.


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