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Playing the Short Stack



As Benefield enters the WSOP final table on Monday, he has the least amount of chips in front of him. This is known as the “short stack” in poker lingo, and it is obviously a vulnerable place to be. Chips always equal power, and in tournament poker chips represent life itself. When you run out of chips, your game is over.

Until then, though, you have “a chip and a chair.” This axiom, often said to players encouraging each other, points out that as long as you have a chip in front of you, you are alive and so can theoretically win it all. The saying traces back to the 1982 WSOP when the eventual winner Jack Straus pushed in all his chips and lost. As he got up to leave the table he discovered he had one chip under his napkin. Because he hadn’t said “all in,” the tournament directors allowed him to sit back down and he eventually won it all.

When you are playing a tournament and find yourself as the short stack, your strategy should intentionally shift. First, do some math. When you are down to around ten big blinds, you should start looking for a place to make your move. Your move then should always be “all in,” and it is imperative that you don’t wait too long. Why? Because you still want to have enough chips to scare people out of the pot. If your final all-in is a small amount of money, you will have lots of callers. Lots of callers who want you out of the game. The more hands you are up against, the more likely you are to lose. Even if you have a monster pocket hand like aces, they are much less likely to hold up against several callers. It’s possible that you will feel disappointed if everyone folds and you thought you were going to win a bigger pot, but it is always “better to win a little than lose a lot” (in this case, all). Just stealing blinds is better than going up against several callers for your tournament life.

Now you may be thinking, “but every person you survive makes your payout higher, so shouldn’t the short stack try to just hang on as long as possible, folding everything, so maybe a person or two goes out before them?” No. Poker players play to win, not to place one higher. Circling the drain for hours until you are forced in is wussy poker. Much better to take control of your own situation and force others to make decisions in response to your actions.

So Benefield’s hope as the final table begins is that he gets a very strong hand fairly quickly, gets all his money in the pot against one caller, and then beats that caller. If this happens then his stack doubles and he is no longer the short stack. This would buy him some time then to settle in and be patient once again.

One other note on tournament play…

The object of tournament play is to get other players out. For this reason, it is customary that if one person is all-in then the rest of the players in the hand check it down rather than betting into a side pot. Why? You may think your hand is so great that you simply have to keep betting and this makes everyone else fold except the all-in hand. If that person ends up with the better hand then you have just allowed them to live. You may very well regret this later when this person takes you out of the tournament! When someone is all-in, the more callers they have means the more likelihood they are walking away from the table. This trumps any possibility of short term gains in a side pot.


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Poker is easy. Just never go all in and you'll win every tournament.

(sorry, back to TFH after 18 months and am checking out all the stuff I missed).

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Most short stackers play until they have doubled their stack and leave. Sometimes they end up playing a 30-b stack. This leads to some interesting situations. Firstly, if you min-raise the button and a shortstacker is in the blinds, for them to shove it becomes pretty huge overbet, which they are not happy to do with a wide range. Exploit this and start raising with a higher frequency when they are this stack size, you will get more folds. Also, when they have a 30-b stack size you can actually flat some of their raises and play post-flop poker.

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