Playing Against Short Stackers

January 7, 2015 Poker strategy

I was playing poker recently in Atlantic City, when I noticed that I was sitting at a table of short stackers. Meanwhile, one table away, my buddy was playing the same stakes, but with players who mostly had deep stacks. We were planning to call it a night in a short while, so I decided to play the rest of the session at the short stacked table. About four of the players had near the table minimum (30BB), and a few others had around 50BB. As I played, I was reminded about the difference between playing against regular stacks and short stacks. Today, we will discuss how to play against short stackers in ring games (aka cash games, as opposed to tournaments) to maximize your success.

What is a Short Stacker?

In most no limit hold’em games, there is a minimum buy-in and a maximum buy-in. A short stacker is a player who buys in for near the minimum or has few chips relative to the blinds. Sometimes, that may be as small as 20x the big blind. For instance, in California, there are ½ No Limit Hold’em games where you can buy in for $40 (i.e., 20x the $2 big blind). Arguably, any stack less than 50x the big blind may be considered a short stack. Generally speaking, though, any player with a small amount of chips relative to the blinds is playing a short stack.

Why is Your Opponent Playing a Short Stack?

Not all short stackers are created equal. Therefore, the first order of business is to assess why your opponent is short stacked. There are primarily three different reasons why a player may be short stack.

The first reason why a player may be short stacked is that he bought in short due to a lack of cash on hand or confidence. Often times, these will be new players or players that lack a significant bankroll to back up their play. They are averse to losing and therefore have chosen not to place a significant sum of money on the table. In other words, they are scared money. These players are therefore generally tighter than the other two groups of short stack players.

The next type of short stacker is the losing player. To be clear, the losing player may be a lifetime winner with skills, but for whatever reason he or she has lost enough of their starting stack that they have become a short stack. Key features of this type of short stacker are tilt and desperation. Players always have the option to rebuy in a ring game; therefore, if a losing player has a short stack, they are either out of available funds, have lost confidence, or are planning on leaving relatively soon. The tilt factored usually suggests that these short stackers are desperate and willing to gamble, in order to double up or go home. Expect them to be looser than the first category of short stackers, but not as loose as the third.

The last group is the serial short stackers. Serial short stackers will play a short stack and then immediately rebuy for another minimumbuy-in or short stack each time they bust. This makes them different than either of the other two groups, because they have chosen to be short stacked, despite the availability of funds. Usually, these players are willing to gamble in order to double up and build a stack from their meager short stack, and are willing to lose several short stacks as part of this pursuit.

As you can see, there are different motivations for the three different groups of short stackers, so assessing what type of short stack and you are facing may be crucial to your success.

How to Play Against Short Stackers

Once you know your shorts stacker’s motivation, you can begin to exploit their weaknesses. For newer players and losing players, one area that is ripe for exploitation is their lack of confidence. Losing players often have a losing mentality (losing begets losing) and inexperienced players are often scared of the game and the risk associated. As a result, you may benefit from more frequent pre-flop raises to push them out of pots. Of course, this will usually only net you the blinds against such players, since they are unlikely to raise preflop without good cards. Still, forcing them out of pots with frequent raises may further their lack of confidence, which you can benefit from later, particularly from trapping.

Short stack players do not have a lot of room for nuance in their game. They are basically in a position where calling or making most preflop raises will force them all in by the time the last community card is dealt if they want to see the river. As a result, if you find yourself with a premium hand against a raising short stack or pre-flop, the best strategy may be to give the short stack enough room to hang themselves. Rather than be aggressive with re-raises pre-flop or bets post-flop, moves that may get your skittish short stack to fold, play passively by flat calling them and checking. Often, this will lead to the short stacker placing himself all-in. Then you can call with confidence with your premium hand.

When you do not have strong hands against these types of short stackers, there is often the temptation to call bets light, since the amount of chips you can lose is limited by your opponent’s short stack. This is usually a bad idea, since these players are often scared of losing their money and are only willing to bet or raise with strong or premium hands. You essentially create a situation where you are behind and there is no opportunity to force your opponent to fold the better hand. Therefore, be ready and willing to fold to bets from the scared money short stack players.

In stark contrast, the serial short stack player or the player who is ready to leave are more willing to gamble. This essentially reverses all of the earlier advice for scared money short stack players. For instance, whereas the scared money short stackers will fold more frequently to preflop raises, the gambling short stackers are more likely to raise back at you, often all in. As a result, bullying preflop is ill-advised.

Also, serial short stack players are more willing to bet and raise with frequency, often with drawing hands, since they are hoping to gamble and double up. Therefore, you should be ready to call them lighter than you would the other types of short stackers.

Finally, although it should be obvious, you must consider the implications of a short stack when assessing implied odds. For instance, set mining is less profitable because the maximum amount that you can win from the short stack is by definition limited. As a result, drawing hands may lose some value due to the diminished implied odds. Finally, although it should be obvious, you must consider the implications of a short stack when assessing implied odds. For instance, set mining is less profitable because the maximum amount that you can win from the short stack is by definition limited. As a result, drawing hands may lose some value due to the diminished implied odds.

Putting it into Action

Hopefully, this article has given you some things to think about when facing short stacks. Many people complain about short stackers because of the way that they can change the tables dynamic. However, sometimes you do not have the option of changing tables or there are other table dynamics that make changing tables a bad move. As a result, these tips will help you embrace and benefit from short stackers where others may fail.


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