Short Stack Poker Tournaments

If you want to succeed at poker MTTs, you need to learn short stack poker tournament strategy. Things won’t always go your way, but don't give up!

If you want to succeed at poker tournaments, you need to learn short stack poker tournament strategy. Things won't always go your way, and you will end up with a shallow stack - but don't give up hope.

This article will teach you the basics of making the most of what you've got!

Short Stack Poker Tournaments Explained

A short stack in poker is one with a small number of chips relative to the blinds - usually ten or less. But like most things in life and poker: it depends. There are different degrees of short stacks, from the relative luxury of 20 big blinds to the abject horror of a single chip.

There are two main kinds of short stack poker tournament situations:

  • Tournaments where everyone starts as a short stack (usually these are shorthanded and/or turbos)
  • Regular tournaments where everyone starts deep-stacked (e.g. 100bb or more) where you find yourself short-stacked.

The first is intentional, but the second should only happen when later in the tournament. Unless, of course, you buy in at the end of late registration.

Your strategy for both is fairly similar, but the presence of opposing big stacks in the latter scenario makes things a little more interesting.

Profitable Short Stack Strategies for Poker Tournaments

If you do end up with a short stack, here are some strategies that will help you win back some chips:

Do Not Get Blinded Out

The first rule of short-stack poker strategy is by far the most important: DO NOT GET BLINDED OUT!

Getting blinded out doesn't mean allowing the blinds to wear you down to nothing - it's practically as bad to get blinded down to a point where you have no fold equity when you go all in. You definitely don't want so few chips that your opponent cannot make a mistake by calling your all-in.

It's rarely wrong for the big blind to call a 2bb shove as they only have to pay 1bb, giving them 3.5-to-1 pot odds, even without antes. With antes that add up to 1bb, it's 4.5-to-1. Those odds mean the big blind only needs to win 18% of the time to break even - and they are guaranteed to see all five community cards. There are very few match-ups where you'll have less than 18% equity!

If your stack gets smaller than 3bb you have let yourself get blinded out - and broken the most important rule.

Fold Equity is Key

Equity is the percentage of the time you would win the pot if you got to showdown. Fold equity is the percentage of the time you can win the pot by making your opponent fold before then.

The second rule of short-stack poker strategy: FOLD EQUITY IS KEY!

Without fold equity, you can only win by making the best hand - that's not a good place to be. As the short stack, you do not have the luxury of waiting around to make the best hand. And you must do all you can to avoid getting blinded out so that you can retain your fold equity.

It is preferable to go all-in with any two cards rather than allow that to happen. It may feel wrong to go all-in with 72o but unless your opponent has a pair of sevens or bigger you still have around a 30% chance of winning - compared to a 100% chance of being blinded out. And of course, they may just fold.

Recognise the Danger Zones

Not all short stacks are equal. It's important to understand exactly how short you really are.

In Harrington on Hold'em Volume 2, Dan Harrington explains that your tournament falls under one of five zones:

ZoneStack Size
Green Zone40bb+
Yellow Zone25bb-40bb
Orange Zone10bb-25bb
Red Zone3bb-10bb
Dead Zone<3bb
Poker Danger Zones By Stack Size

The Orange and Red Zones are the "danger zones" where you have a short stack. However, the strategy for Orange Zone play is different from the strategy for Red Zone play.

The Dead Zone is where you've been blinded out and you are in deep, deep trouble. It bears repeating: you must do all you can to avoid ending up in the Dead Zone - even if it means shoving with any two cards.

Red Zone strategy is fairly simple, so we'll look at that first.

First in Vigorish

When your stack gets into the Red Zone (e.g. you have 9bb) there is no point in doing anything except pushing all-in or folding. This is because you are pretty much pot committed in any hand you get involved in any way. You have no room to maneuver post-flop. You may as well get it all-in preflop because you can make everyone fold and pick up the blinds uncontested. Getting all-in guarantees you see all five cards when you're called.

However, there is one important caveat. If you are first to put any money in the pot then this is an excellent strategy, but if someone has raised - or even limped in - before you it becomes much riskier (unless you want to get called). If you're not first in then you lose your advantage, as your fold equity is massively reduced.

Dan Harrington calls this principle of being first to put money in the pot "First in Vigorish" in Harrington on Hold'em Volume 2.

It's important whatever zone you are in - as your opponent needs a better hand to call than you do to bet or raise (aka the Gap Concept) - but it takes on critical importance in the danger zones, especially the red zone.

Rule three of short-stack poker strategy: BE FIRST INTO THE POT!

Push/Fold Charts

Of course, even if you are first to act, you shouldn't just push all-in with any two cards - unless you're under threat of entering the danger zone. The more players there are left to act after you, the more likely it is someone will have a hand good enough to call and beat you. And the fewer players left to act, the less likely it is. So if you are the small blind and it folds to you, you can push all-in with a very wide range.

Working out what hands should be shoved from where is a complicated maths problem that has been solved using the work of John Nash (played by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind). You can easily find charts that show you what hands to fold, shove or call a shove with, depending on your stack size and position. And there are apps too.

Rule four of short stack poker strategy: STUDY YOUR PUSH/FOLD CHARTS!

But remember that push/fold charts are designed to be mathematically unexploitable against thinking opponents and that's not always who you're playing against!

Observe Your Opponents

Poker is not a one-size-fits-all game where you can learn a magic formula and print money. It's a game of cards, but it's also a game between people.

It's really important to take your opponent tendencies into account - some players will overcall all-ins and others will overfold. Bully the nits and avoid shoving into the calling stations. There is nothing worse than seeing your game-theory-approved all-in get called by a fish with a junky hand and them sucking out on you.

Another thing to take into account is your opponents' stack sizes. A really massive stack or really small stack is much more likely to call an all-in than a medium-sized stack. The medium stack has the most to lose by calling you - so they are the perfect target to bully!

Another key consideration is whether or not your opponent is a thinking player. If they are just clicking buttons randomly, you are actually at a disadvantage when you play a balanced preflop strategy. This is because the thinking player will understand things like position, ICM pressure, and pot odds whereas the fish who is there to gamble just wants to see some cards.

If a thinking player tries to steal your blinds from late position, then you know they are doing it with a wide range of cards - because that's what the correct mathematical play is. And this means you can call wider - or better yet, shove over the top of them and make them fold.

Rule five of short stack poker strategy: PLAY YOUR OPPONENTS, NOT YOUR CARDS!

Play with Top-Range Hands During Pre-Flop

An ace next to a pile of chips

The Orange Zone is where things get more complicated. You do have a bit of room to maneuver, pre-flop and post-flop.  

But that doesn't mean you can play any old hand. You need to stick to hands that make strong pairs. A pair is the most likely hand you will make post-flop. You will make a pair on the flop about 1 in 3 times.

One of the most important concepts in poker is implied odds. Implied odds are based primarily on the effective stack size, which is the most you can win if you get it all-in by showdown.

Playing speculative hands - such as suited connectors, small suited Aces, and small pairs - is profitable because of implied odds rather than pot odds. Implied odds are based on the amount of money you can win later if you do hit your hand, rather than the amount in the pot right now.

You won't make a straight, flush, or set very often - so when you do, you need to get paid enough to make it worthwhile.

For example, you only flop a set 1 in 8 times, so it's no use paying 3bb with pocket threes if your stack is only 10bb. The seven times you don't hit will cost you 21bb, and the time you do hit only nets a profit of around 7bb. That's an Expected Value loss of -11bb - in other words, a losing play!

When you get to the red zone, suited aces and small pairs become very strong as you will be shoving with them - but in the orange zone you usually need to fold and wait for a better opportunity.

Shove your Draws

Even with a 20bb starting stack, you are going to be in a low flop SPR (stack-to-pot ratio) situation if you get involved in a hand. Even if you min-raised to 2bb and only the big blind called you, the pot will still be less than four times your remaining stack. Neither you nor the big blind has any incentive to give up with any decent-made hand or draw, simply because the risk/reward ratio is so low.

If you flop a draw then it makes sense to shove rather than call to chase: you are committed anyway so you may as well realize your equity - and more importantly, you are adding fold equity on top.

This is even more true when your opponent leads into you - if you're not getting the correct pot odds to see the next card then shove raise them and make sure you see two. You have about 1/3 chance of making your hand, and there's always the possibility your opponent folds.

You can even shove your gutshot draws if you're really desperate - at least you have around a 17% chance of making your hand if your opponent decides to keep you honest and call. That's much better than bluffing with complete air.

Backdoor draws - where you need two specific cards to come on the turn and river, aka "runner-runner" - are only about 4% to come. Which is still better than nothing, but barely better! 

If you have a combo draw, then you are actually ahead of a lot of made hands. The mighty open-ended straight draw has 15 outs, which gives you about a 55% chance of hitting by the river. If you have an overcard as well it goes up to 62%. Get the money in!

Resteal and Squeeze

Blind stealing is a big part of poker. If you're in the blinds and a late position player raises then there's a good chance they're trying to steal your blinds - they know they'll have position and range advantage on your postflop even if you do call. And depending on the raise size, they will automatically profit if you fold more than half the time anyway - so they might as well try to steal with any two cards!

Re-stealing is the art of turning the tables on the blind stealer by reraising them. If you're a short-stack this usually takes the form of a shove. It's very effective because a) they are very likely to fold and b) even if they call you still have a chance to win.

Squeezing is 3-betting an open raiser and any cold callers. It's even more profitable than re-stealing because there is more money in the pot. And although you do have to get through two players, the cold caller shouldn't have a very good hand, else they would have 3-bet!

Now, there is a big difference between re-stealing or squeezing late position players and doing it against early position players. Someone getting involved from an early position is doing so with a much tighter range. If you are bluff shoving into a tight range, you are not going to have a good time. Of course, late position players can sometimes have a good hand too - but it's much less likely.

A list of different short stack poker tournament strategies
A rundown of profitable short stack poker strategies

Losing Mentality to Avoid in Short Stack Poker Tournaments

An important lesson for poker tournaments (and poker in general) is "scared money can't win". You cannot be afraid to bust out of a tournament if you want to succeed as a short stack. You must have courage else you will end up blinded out.

In tournaments, each chip does not have a direct cash value. The more chips you have, the less each additional chip is worth. The fewer chips you have, the more each additional chip is worth. You simply cannot pass up opportunities to gain chips when you are short-stacked, even though you should avoid such gambles when you are deep stacked.

Of course, the opposite is true: losing chips hurts the smaller stack a lot more than the bigger stack. And when someone else busts out of the tournament, the value of your chips goes up even though they don't increase - because you are one step closer to making the money.

These two factors combine to make players very cautious, especially on the bubble if they are medium stacked.

As a short stack, you do not have the luxury of worrying about this. You are already close to death with the odds against you. You need to go out fighting and take advantage of other players' caution. Play to win, not to min-cash. Fortune favors the brave, after all. 

Always remember that being blinded out is much worse than busting out in a blaze of glory!

Short Stack Poker Tournaments

If you want to practice playing with a short stack then you can either play a bunch of normal tournaments and wait till you get into the Orange and Red Zones - or you can specifically choose to play a short stack poker tournament.

Here are some of the best options.

Spin & Go's

These are three-handed short-stacked tournaments where the prize is randomly chosen after all the players registered. You can win from 2x to 1000s of times your buy-in - although the latter is very rare

You can find them on Pokerstars, as well as GGPoker (called "Spin & Gold", they have both 3 and 6 handed options), Partypoker ("Spins"), iPoker ("Twister") and 888 ("Blast", these have an automatic all-in after a set period).

These are fantastic for practicing short stack play, shorthanded play, and heads-up play - three key skills for any serious tourney player. They have a wide range of buy-ins, good traffic, and attract a lot of recreational players as well.

The basic strategy for these is to keep your bet sizing small (2bb is fine), never fold top pair, and to master your heads-up game as these are winner takes all (unless you are lucky enough to hit a very high jackpot, in which case everyone gets something). These are very high variance so you will need to put in the volume!

Double or Nothing

Double or Nothings are tournaments where the top half of the field win double their buy-in (less the rake), and the bottom half get nothing. Because of this, it creates some interesting strategical scenarios and a lot of very short-stacked play.     

They are good practice for satellites, where the prizes are tickets rather than a cash ladder.

One basic strategy for these is to play tightly until the stacks get really short. Then you have to steal blinds like your life depends on it - because it does! But if you are not in the bottom three or at risk of being blinded out, then don't do anything crazy - wait for someone else to make a mistake.

It's about survival, not accumulating the most chips. You can win in this game by never playing a hand. This is a game where it's right to fold pocket Aces if another player is about to be knocked out.

Hyper Turbos

The faster the blinds go up, the quicker the stacks become short. Choosing a tournament with a fast blind structure is one way of guaranteeing you can practice shallow stack play. And most of these tournaments start with short stacks too, making things even more frantic. Some even start with as little as 10bb. Expect a lot of variance.

Aggression is the key here. Try to avoid calling raises, and only call shoves if you are confident that you are well ahead of your opponent's range. Raising only to fold to a shove is a recipe for disaster - and if you're willing to call, why didn't you just shove in the first place? Hyper Turbos turn into a push/fold game very quickly, so you need to be comfortable with this else you will get blinded out.

All-in or Fold

These are a great way to practice your push/fold game, as that is all you are allowed to do. You can find both cash and tournament formats. Don't accidentally pick an All-in-only tournament though - here you don't get the choice to fold and are just gambling. That's fine if you like that sort of thing - but you won't improve your short stack game!


Freerolls usually have very fast blind structures and encourage extremely aggressive play. A word of warning though - if you aren't putting your own money on the line then it's not really poker, so expect a lot of crazy plays. But the advantage is these are free and you can even build up a bankroll as you practice your short stack strategy.

Late Registration

Any tournament can be a short stack tournament if you register late enough. Poker sites are offering later and later registration periods - some you can buy in with less than 10bb. This is great for a number of reasons: you save a lot of time, you get Red Zone experience, and you can find softer tournaments where it's pretty easy to make the money if you can double up quickly.

Find a large field tournament, wait for the end of late reg and look to double up by shoving pairs and premiums. It's a pretty great feeling late registering and immediately stacking someone who's been grinding an MTT for hours, sending them home with nothing while you go on to get paid - not for them obviously, but poker is a dog-eat-dog game!

Common Short Stack Mistakes in Poker Tournaments

These are the common mistakes people make when playing with a short stack:

Defending the Blinds Too Often

In tournament poker, it makes a lot of sense to defend your blinds widely, even with fairly junky hands like J4 in the big blind. This is because:

  1. You are getting excellent pot odds due to the 1bb discount and small raise sizes (especially if there are antes)
  2. You act last so can't be squeezed out of the pot
  3. You need to defend a certain amount to prevent your opponent being able to auto-profit by raising any two cards
  4. You don't pay rake on each hand as in cash games.

However, this is not the case if you have a shallow stack. Do you really want to put in 10% or more of your stack with a hand like K6, where you're out-of-position and won't even know where you're at if you hit top pair on the flop?

Wouldn't it make more sense to save your chips and wait for an opportunity where you can bully a medium-stacked nit?

Cold Calling

Cold calling is where you call without having put any money in the pot, e.g. any player before you open raises preflop and you flat from anywhere but the blinds.

David Sklanksy's Gap Concept states that you always need a better hand to call a raise than to make a raise. This is because the raiser will be opening in an earlier position, so will have a tighter range - and they have fold equity, whereas you don't. They will also have an uncapped range on the flop, whereas you are essentially saying, "My hand is too good to fold but not good enough to 3-bet". This makes you much easier to play against.

And let's face it, playing middling hands like that only makes your life harder anyway. You can't represent anything good and if you do hit you can't be sure you're not dominated by the preflop raiser, who could easily have a monster.

Now that's not so bad if you can afford to lose some chips to see if their c-bet was a bluff. But if you are short-stacked then you are pretty much pot-committed with your mediocre hand. And it's no fun getting knocked out of a tournament by a better kicker.

Limping Towards the Flop

Limping is a lot more acceptable in tournaments than in cash games. However, although limping seems like a play-it-safe strategy, it's actually pretty risky as you are running the risk of getting raised.

Similar to cold calling, you are saying, "My hand is good enough to limp but not good enough to raise", which is a green light for aggressive players to punish you. Now you have to put even more into the pot if you want to continue, and you are at a range disadvantage - and often a positional disadvantage too.

This becomes even more painful when you are short-stacked. You thought you were saving money by only risking 10% of your stack but now you have to put in another 30% or 40% to continue - which will cripple you if you don't hit the flop hard.

Even if you don't get raised, limping usually means more players will come along, which reduces the chance you will win. And if they don't, then the pot will be tiny. It's a lose-lose.

Stay aggressive and avoid getting into multiway pots!

Short Stack Poker: FAQ

We've collected and answered the most common questions about short stack poker.

What is a short stack in poker?

A short stack in poker is where you have 20bb or less - giving you a lot less room to maneuver. This can happen in a regular tournament because things have gone wrong, or in a short-stack tournament where everyone starts out with a few chips. If you have less than 10bb you have a super short stack and things are even dicier.

Why should a short stack player stick with top pairs during pre-flop? 

If you're short-stacked you need to stick to making big pairs and avoid speculative hands - this is because you do not have the implied odds to make small suited connectors, small suited aces, and small pairs profitable.

What is a backdoor draw and should you go all-in when you have this hand with a short stack?

Backdoor draws need a specific card to come on the turn and the river to make a hand - for example, if you have one heart and there are two on the flop you will need two more to make a flush. Flush draws and open-ended straight draws are much better candidates to go all-in with.

How does a poker tournament player enter a losing mentality with a short stack?

Trying to protect your short stack at all costs is a losing mentality in tournaments. You must be fearless and punish other players who are afraid to gamble. Busting out is always better than being blinded out - if you're going out then you may as well go out fighting. Scared money cannot win!

What is limping and why should you avoid it when short-stacked in poker tournaments?

Limping is where you only pay the blind pre-flop instead of raising. It can seem like a safer option when you are shallow stacked but in fact, the opposite is usually true - if you get raised it will cost you even more to see the flop, and if you have to fold it's wasted a decent chunk of your stack. You're more likely to go the flop multiway, which reduces your chances of winning.

It can feel like the end of the world when you're reduced to a short stack in a poker tournament. But once you get the hang of short stack strategy and put some practice in short stack poker tournaments, you will soon learn to love the short stack life!