Everybody wants to have the biggest stack when they play real money Texas Hold’em. No matter what kind of spot you find yourself in when you play online poker at Ignition, more chips is always better. But you’re not always going to have that luxury – especially in tournaments. Sometimes, you’re going to be the short stack, and you’re going to have to make the right moves if you want to survive.
How short is a short stack in Texas Hold’em? Like most things in poker, it's depending on what limit poker game you play. If you’re playing Limit Hold’em, you need only a few big blinds in order to make most of your usual moves. It’s No-Limit Hold’em where stack sizes become super-important, and as a rule of thumb, anything below 40 big blinds is going to force you to change up your game. Here are a few Texas Hold’em strategy tips to help you get the most out of your short stack.
Big Cards Matter
When you’ve got a short stack in No-Limit Hold’em, you have less incentive to play speculative hands like small suited connectors, hoping to hit a flush or a straight, or to play small pocket pairs and try to make a set. That’s because the most you’ll be able to win off any single opponent is up to 40 big blinds, which doesn’t give you the implied odds to go chasing these draws.
Focus instead on opening big cards that can make top pair right away on the flop. High-ranking cards have more “hot-and-cold” equity, meaning they’ll retain their value more when you wind up going all-in. King-Three offsuit may look like an ugly starting hand, and it is in most situations, but it also has 51.43% hot-and-cold equity against two random cards. Seven-Six suited only has 45.37% equity.
Having one (or preferably two) of those big cards in your starting hand becomes even more important as your stack gets smaller. Even with 30 big blinds, you have at least a little wiggle room to open-raise with a higher suited connector like Nine-Eight, which has 50.80% equity against two random cards. Once you get down to around 20bb, if you’re in early position, you’ll probably have to fold that hand. Ace-Four offsuit would be much better in that spot.
How to Play the Big Cards
If you’re relatively new at playing Texas Hold’em for real money, or even if you’re a fairly advanced player, it’s usually a good idea to avoid open-limping. The open-raise gives you two ways to win: Either your opponents fold, or you wind up with the best hand at showdown. This becomes even more important when your stack gets below 40bb. Open-limping can be justified in certain spots with certain cards, but you rarely want to find yourself in a multi-way pot when you’ve got a starting hand like King-Three with a big card and a small kicker.
Let’s say you do open-limp from middle position at a full-ring Hold’em game with King-Three offsuit, and you get four callers. Then a King comes out on the flop. You’ve got top pair, which is very nice, but you’ve also got a lousy kicker – someone else could easily have a better King than yours. It would have been better for you to face a single opponent in this situation, making it less likely that you’re beat. Open-raising that King-Four instead of limping would probably have gotten more players to fold pre-flop; scooping up a few chips now in a heads-up pot is much smarter than hoping to 4X or 5X your stack in a multi-way scenario.
Get That Money In
Because your stack is so small, when you do hit that top pair on the flop, it’s probably time to pile in all your remaining money if you haven’t already. There just isn’t enough maneuverability to make your opponents fold on the turn or river – or even on the flop in many cases. Just get your chips in the middle and hope for the best.
The concept of Stack-to-Pot Ratio (SPR) comes in very handy when you play poker online. To calculate your SPR, simply divide the size of the pot by the size of your stack; if the pot is 1000 chips and you have 400 left in your stack, your SPR is 1000/400, or 2.5. As a general rule, anytime you have an SPR of 2.5 or less on the flop, your best move (if you’re going to make one) is to just go all-in when it’s your turn, either by jamming the flop yourself, or check-shoving when your opponent fires a continuation bet.
Again, when you’re this short on chips, you don’t want to mess around hoping to get other people to put more money in the pot. Take what you can now, and get your opponents to fold their draws – don’t give them a chance to make a better hand and knock you out. You can even shove the flop with second pair in many of these spots. When you do shove, make sure you have enough chips in your stack so that your opponent doesn’t have the right price to call with a weak draw. Fold equity is a thing in poker; the more likely your opponents are to fold, the more chips you’ll collect in the long run.
Push or Fold When Really Short
Once your stack gets down to around 10-15 big blinds at a poker tournament, you no longer have the leverage to make your opponent fold often enough to a standard open-raise. So don’t even bother – just open-shove your entire stack when you’ve got the right cards in the right position. If you have around 20 big blinds, you can open-raise in theory, but you might want to shove anyway, especially if you have one of those janky hands like King-Three offsuit. And if you’re going to 3-bet over someone else’s open, you’ll definitely want to get your whole stack in the middle when you do.
While a 20bb shove might seem like a big commitment with a non-premium hand, it’s the best way to get the most value out of what’s already a sticky situation. The only time you’ll want to play a speculative hand like Seven-Six suited is when you’re in the big blind and you’re getting a very good price to call. Otherwise, never be afraid to put whatever small amount of equity you still have in your tournament on the line by taking a calculated risk.
If you do really well at a tournament and find yourself heads-up for the title, knowing about Nash push-fold poker strategy will help you squeeze the most value out of this very important situation. You can learn more about these ranges by consulting our treasure trove of articles here at Ignition Poker; if you’re serious about winning money, making that pay jump between second and first place should be one of your top priorities.
As for cash games, if you find yourself below 20 big blinds at any point, either put more money on the table or leave. Re-buy or rib-eye, as they say. Now that you know how to handle those sub-40bb stacks, log in at Ignition and play online poker for real money like a champion. Cash tables and tournaments are ready and waiting for you right now – we’ll see you on the felt.