In this article, I will make the case for playing a short stack in NL Hold’em cash games, at least in the beginning of a poker career. Many of you reading this might scoff at the notion. Even so, please hear me out and, at least for a bit, and forget everything you know about a so-called “correct” buy-in amount. It is my stance that there is no reason that you have to sit down at the table with the maximum allowed in order to succeed at poker. Your goal should be to make money, not try to adhere to an arbitrary set of rules that someone established before many of us were born.
Through recent history, there has been a popular misconception that short-stacking players are relying solely on some kind of pre-flop shoving chart or “system” that has been purchased and downloaded from the Internet. Therefore, the prevailing belief among “mainstream” players is that all short stackers have no skill or talent and are generally dismissed as nothing but an annoyance. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
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- An important factor in Texas Hold'em is your position at the table. The dealer is always the strongest player at the table because he is on the button and has the ability to bet last. The player who bets last has the most information, and therefore can make the most educated decision about how to continue in the course of the game play.
- Check out this infographic to learn more about the basic poker concept of fast-playing vs slow-playing. Tip #5: Defend Your Big Blind (with the Right Hands) The big blind is a special position because you already have 1 big blind invested in the pot.
Short stacking is actually a microcosm of deeper-stacked play, and top small stackers are skilled poker players in their own right. They are just playing a different strategy based on buying in for less money. And, while stack size fluctuations necessarily affect everyone’s strategy, we are all effectively playing the same game.
In truth, short stackers play by the same rules and post the same size blinds as everyone else. They can raise, fold, check, and call. They use math to make their decisions and plan hands just just like deeper-stacked players do. It is still poker, no matter what your chosen buy-in is. As a matter of fact, a distinct skill set is needed for playing each of the various stack sizes, and strategy must change as a stack grows or shrinks. Consequently, shorter-stacked players typically have more competence when it comes to adjusting to varying stack sizes than do 100 big blind players, who always keep their stack topped off.
Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, while there are significantly fewer difficult decisions, small-stack play is not purely a “shove fest,” and still requires a great deal of finesse. With 30 to 50 big blinds, you have plenty of room to maneuver both pre-flop and post-flop. Just like deeper stacked play, short stacking requires planning every single hand based upon your opponent’s range and tendencies, as well as your commitment level.
Even today, when your average poker player thinks of a short stacker, he likely conjures images of desperation all-in moves by players without any skill, who are resigned to being a one-trick pony. While this may sometimes be the case, as I do often see poor players buying in short, this stereotypical view creates a powerful weapon accessible to those willing to wield it in the form of a favorable image. Beyond that, there are many other reasons that buying in short is advantageous:
Reason #1: Your Strategy Is a Mystery
Full stackers generally spend all their time trying to figure out what other full stackers are doing. As a result, a lot of regular 100 big-blind players will view you solely as a nuisance. One cannot blame them. No-limit hold’em is a difficult game, and trying to “master” full-stack play is all they want to focus on. They feel that spending time understanding a short-stack strategy would detract from their learning process. To them, you are just another annoying shove bot.
The thing is, even skilled full-stack players tend to have trouble winning versus short stackers. This is likely because they are either too lazy to attempt to figure out what you are doing or do not see any merit in doing so. Their focus is solely on deep-stacked poker. That’s their story, and they’re stickin’ to it. Consequently, the majority of the time regulars will play pot after pot incorrectly against you. Even if they do attempt to adjust, often it will be in the wrong manner, and even more money will be spewed your way.
Reason #2: Mistakes are less punitive
During the learning process, a novice is bound to make numerous errors. Paying less for each blunder is a nice side effect of short or CAP stacking. Because the costs of mistakes are diminished, a novice can more freely and confidently make the difficult decisions he or she faces. One also no longer has to worry about a single “bad beat” ruining an entire session. Having KK run into AA or having someone flop a set against your top pair, hurts a lot less when it’s only for 30 big blinds.
Reason #3: You Face Fewer Difficult Decisions
Having decisions become much more straightforward and obvious is a positive thing in almost every endeavor in the world, so why not in poker? If you normally play a 100 big blind stack, how often have you had to fold to a river raise or shove and wonder whether or not you were bluffed? How often have you hesitated to value bet the turn because you were afraid of the pot getting too big by the river?
We have all been in this spot. You flop top pair or an overpair and get raised on the turn. Did he just make a straight? Did he flop a set? Is he bluffing or semi-bluffing? Is it worth another 70 or 80 big blinds to find out? While playing a traditional 100 big blind stack, most sessions include multiple similar “tough” decisions.
Reason #4: The ever-present threat of an all-in bet
On all streets, short stacks wield the threat of an all-in bet that can come at any time. Well-timed reraise shoves cause multiple headaches for your competition. Most players will not know how to correctly react and will unknowingly concede a veiled edge to you each time you stick all your chips in.
As a case in point, 3-bet shoving is a decisive pre-flop weapon. If your opponents are not well versed in the nuances of range battles, you will be at a significant advantage anytime you sit down with them. An expert 3-bet shoving strategy seeks to take advantage of multiple tactical mistakes that unskilled players commonly make. Among them are: Free casino slot machines with free spins no deposit.
- Opening raises that are too large, especially from late position:
Open raising too large while we are sitting behind them can be a giant leak for our opponents. We exploit their incorrect opening raise size by widening our 3-bet ranges based on the size of their bet. If they do not similarly adjust their calling ranges, we profit.
- Loose opening ranges coupled with tight all-in calling ranges:
Calling our shoves too tightly will cause money to leak away from this type of opponent in the form of non-showdown earnings. In other words, the dead money we win when we shove and are not called, more than makes up for the few times we are called and have inferior equity.
- All-in calling ranges that are too loose:
Our superior equity versus loose calling ranges yields a net profit via showdown winnings. We just have to make sure we do not 3-bet light against these players and that our shoves are mostly for value.
- An incorrect interpretation of Hero’s 3-Bet range:
Opponents who are employing a HUD will often fail to realize that we are 3-betting a different range against various players. For example, we may have a raw 3-bet stat of 8% against the field but 3-bet much higher against certain opponents. If those players base their actions on a range of 8%, the profit over time will be immense.
After the flop, a short stack’s commitment range is generally much wider than it is for a full-stacked player. Unskilled players will tend to fold many times tighter or looser than is correct due to their inability to comprehend commitment decisions. Clever players will think they need to call your all-in bets with weaker holdings, as they may assume you are stacking off lighter in any given situation than you actually are. This provides more abundant opportunities for you to get paid off when you have a strong hand. As long as we take note of our opponents’ commitment ranges based on their HUD stats or through keen observation, we can fairly easily exploit them via minor adjustments.
Additionally, profit in poker comes from our ability to consistently make decisions superior to those the field is making. Therefore, we should create as many opportunities for opponents to make mistakes as we can. The frequent barrage of all-in decisions coupled with our wide opening range and constant aggression otherwise, guarantees more profitable opportunities per hour than our counterparts can muster.
If you want to know a few more reasons, I cover this topic a bit more extensively in my first book. I also lay out my own personal way of playing poker, which has given me success all the way up to 600NL. In fact, I can’t imagine playing any other way. As of this writing, I have been short stacking for about seven years now and over the past few years have experimented with playing a 100 big blind stack again from time to time. Invariably, what I always seem to miss most is the ability to isolate bad players with pre-flop committing plays, such as shoving or 3rd & going. And while I otherwise feel comfortable deeper stacked, I still always come to the same conclusion.
Contrary to popular belief, playing a full stack severely inhibits a player’s route to maximum profit against most bad players. This is because a short can use his stack size as leverage to obtain much more profit against the weaker players than a traditional 100bb stacked player can. My stance on this is almost certainly going to be viewed as a radical one, since the number one reason full stacked players tell other players to never play a short stack is the ability to win the maximum against weaker players. There are certain instances that I do agree with putting as much money on the table as possible and in fact do as a matter of course. However, these situations are few and far between.
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In particular, should you face a deep stacked maniac who is willing to get it in both pre-flop and post-flop for 50 plus big blinds with extremely weak holdings, either pre-flop or post-flop, then you definitely want to buy in for the maximum possible. However, you will seldom see this type of opponent, so sitting down with a deep stack as a matter of course just doesn’t make sense in most situations or table dynamics. Currently, I play on a sitewith numerous loose and weak players, and I sometimes play sessions without seeing even one of this player type.
One other exception is that if you are a tight full-ring player that builds his or her entire strategy around set mining. In that case, you also want to play a bigger stack. You would, of course, want to be as deep as possible in order to attempt this approach. However, since this style of play is highly unlikely to win in today’s games, I discount the idea as a viable argument against playing a shorter stack in fishier games.
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Inevitably, due to a great frequency of facing awkward SPR situations which lead to numerous awkward turn and river decisions, full-stacked players seem to be resigned to spending most of their time looking for spots to either cooler their opponents, or avoid being coolered themselves. Therefore, in my opinion, playing a full stack seems to be much more of a “one trick pony” style of playing and infinitely less fun. Indeed, I would much rather play 250 big blinds than anywhere near 100! In my opinion, really deep stacked play is almost as fun as short stacking, since SPRs are always so high. However, that is another story for another day.
Why 30 big blinds?
Short stacking is so misunderstood that even the amount which constitutes a short stack is up for debate. Some people feel that anything under 50 big blinds is a short stack, while others feel that a “true” short stacker sits down with 20 big blinds. Among knowledgeable poker players, it seems that most are in the camp that less than 40 big blinds is a short stack, 40-80 big blinds is a mid stack, 80-150 big blinds is a full stack, and anything greater than 150 big blinds would be considered deep stacked.
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Traditionally, most short-stacking “systems” concentrate on 20 big blind play. In this book I have focused on playing any stack size under 45 big blinds and suggest a buy-in of 30, if possible. After experimenting with many different stack sizes, I have concluded that 30 big blinds seem to provide the perfect balance between allowing for three streets of poker while remaining small enough that a player can comfortably 3-bet shove a wide range before the flop. The importance of having 3-betting and 4-betting simplified during the learning process cannot be overstated. Even so, a 40 big blind starting stack is fine as well, along with a few minor adjustments.
Another good reason for learning with a 30 big blind stack is that a 20 big blind buy-in is no longer an option on numerous poker sites. In the last couple of years, many sites have raised their minimum buy-in from 20 big blinds up to 30 or even 40 big blinds. For your info, I have compiled a list of the best short stack friendly sites out there.
The changes were made mainly to appease full-stacked players who are intolerant of players who use a short-stack strategy, since they collectively have trouble beating them. They do not want to have to spend time learning how to beat short stackers and would rather segregate themselves from them altogether. And when “forced” to play against anyone with less than a full buy-in, full-stacked players often quite openly let it be known that they feel short-stack players are the scum of the earth.
It’s rather unfortunate that a player’s chosen starting stack can be such an object of contempt. In fact, sitting down with less than the “standard” buy-in has become such an anathema, that if you post a hand on an online poker forum that has you starting with less than 100 big blinds, you will likely be ridiculed to no end and receive no advice on the hand itself. Some of the vitriol spewed is so intense that you would think short stacking is against the rules.
My thought on the subject is that a lot of these bitter feelings are a carry-over from the “old days.” A generation ago, the thought of buying in for a short stack would have been unthinkable for a good poker player. Before the advent of online poker, a top professional always wanted to have more money in his stack than less-skilled players. This allowed him to wield the full force of his “skill” against them.
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Additionally, such a strategy would simply not work in live poker rooms. Once you obtained more than 50 or 60 big blinds, a shift in strategy would have to occur. And sitting out and getting back on a waiting list would not work as a solution. Not only is it a waste of valuable time, it would likely be frowned upon by opponents and the poker room as a form of “going South.”
Today, online players have the ability to come and go as they please, with no such rules of etiquette in place. With the ability to play multiple tables, comes the option of leaving once you hit a goal amount of money. You can simply bring in a new table and start fresh with your chosen starting stack size.
When learning, we should be inclined to make matters less complicated, not more. It is much better to play a simple strategy well than a complicated one poorly. Therefore, buying in short provides a superb starting point for someone fairly new to NL Hold’em cash games. Playing a smaller effective stack instantly solves numerous problems beginner and intermediate players face. In fact, it solves many of the problems all players face.
One common problem confronted by full stacked players is how to proceed with one pair hands when raised on the flop or turn. For short stackers, stack-to-pot ratios will always be lower and decisions considerably more straightforward. Therefore, when you flop top pair or an over pair as a short stack, you can cbet with confidence, since you are almost always committed. In fact, you want to be raised! Let them fire away since you can profitably call it off nearly every time.
For advanced players or grinders, small stacking also offers a simpler, crisper decision-making process. Almost every decision at the poker table is much clearer when wielding fewer chips. Once armed with the right information, a skilled short-stacking player will find that he can make decisions faster, play more tables, and increase his hourly rate. This is all done in a more stress-free poker environment that is conducive to less variance due to less money being in play.
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Beyond tactical considerations, short stacking has multiple passive benefits that occur without having to actively do anything. Sitting in with a small stack not only removes potential leaks from our game, it also significantly alters the dynamics of a table. Our mere presence potentially creates leaks in opponents who fail to adjust correctly.
Overall, the key arguments for buying in for less than 50 big blinds are the inherent beneficial image, the lessened frequency of difficult decisions due to lower SPRs, and the ability to play higher stakes on a smaller bankroll. As a matter of fact, that last one might be a big enough reason over all others, as moving on to higher stakes as quickly as possible when building a bankroll, should be the number one priority of any poker player.
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So if you are fairly new to poker or have struggled and are looking for a fresh way to approach the game, give short stacking a try. Good luck at the tables!