In my continuing self-education as a no-limit Hold ’em player, I think it’s fair to say that few players have been “short-stacked” in tournaments as often as me. Be it a one-table sit and go type of match or a multi-table tournament with hundreds of players, my conservative style of play will frequently find me as the low stack with four people remaining at a 9- or 10-player SnG or 11th of 11 players when the tournament pays the top 10 places. Lately I’ve been able to improve on that, but it took time to get beyond being eliminated “on the bubble”, which is – as you probably know – a frustrating experience. But take heart, fellow students; the day will come when you’re first among the final 4 at an SnG or in the top five of a multi-table tournament when everyone gets in the money. It has happened to me and, if you maintain the discipline I’m trying to teach here, it’ll happen to you, too.
Let’s face it; when you’re the smallest stack at the table, your opponents want only one thing: your financial demise. If three are paid and you’re in fourth place, knocking you out gets everyone else “in the money”, so the attacks on your stack are going to come from all directions. I know, I’ve been there plenty of times and, while I cannot take credit for inventing the betting technique I’m going to explain here, I will say that I have used it to great effect; most recently at a multi-table satellite tournament where I was 9th out of 9 players, but went on to win it.
Almost all of the advice you’ll read or hear about playing when short-stacked (which I define as having less than 7 Big Blind bets remaining) is to pick a spot and push all-in, hoping to get lucky. Well, I’m not one to depend upon luck – I welcome it, but never depend upon it. Unless you have a really great hand like pocket Aces or Kings, my advice is to avoid a pre-flop “all-in” bet, which looks like sheer desperation and attracts callers like blood in the water attracts sharks. To add to your problems, you’ll probably have to play a less-than-great hand like K-10s, A-x offsuit, etc., which is not the type of hand your opponents usually see you playing if you’re using my starting hands matrix.
So the trick here is to decide that you’re going to go all-in and (ideally) do it when you’ll be first to bet on the flop, which means you’re either in the blinds or in early position. Your 3 times the Big Blind raise from early position or from the blinds might induce everyone to fold, but more likely one or two players will call with “premium” hands, just as they might if you weren’t short. But here’s the difference: when the flop comes, you then go all-in regardless of what effect it had on your hand. There’s a possibility, especially if you have only one opponent, that the flop did not improve his or her hand, just as it may not have improved yours. But at least now your opponent has to think about what to do and we all know that forcing our opponents to make decisions may inspire them to make the wrong one. If your opponent does make a hand, the result is the same whether you pushed pre-flop or only raised the bet; you’re toast. But if the flop missed your opponent completely, s/he just might fold. Sure, it’s a long shot, but it doesn’t cost you anything to try – you’ve already decided to put in all your chips. The downside here is that everyone may fold if you bet 7 times the Big Blind bet (“folding equity”), but that might be offset by having more than one player call, thus giving you the chance to win more if this works.
The bad thing about being short-stacked is that your opponents know they likely won’t have to risk an amount above what you’ll be pushing out there, so they’ll often call with any kind of decent hand, especially if they have one of the bigger stacks. In a way, that’s good because you might well be a favorite in the hand, but the best you can do is double up if only one other player calls. By making a more modest raise, hopefully you’ll get multiple callers, which automatically reduces your winning probability, but it reduces theirs as well, yet you may still be the favorite to win the hand. It’s a fair trade to make in an effort to increase your stack by more than double.
Probably the ideal time and place for this bet is when you’re in the Small Blind and the player on the Button raises, but not enough to put you all in. Rather than re-raise, which may cause the Big Blind to fold, just call. If the BB also calls, that’s a bit worrisome, but it’s now a nice pot and you’ll be betting first. After the flop cards are shown, you push all in and cross your fingers for luck. If it’s a rag flop like 2, 5, 9 “rainbow”, your all-in bet might cause the others to fold, especially if they’re playing big cards that aren’t paired. Remember, the player on the Button is making an almost-obligatory raise and the Big Blind likely has a “random” hand, so you have a decent shot at winning. As I told you earlier, the last time I used this bet I was 9th of 9 players and in the Small Blind. The Button raised, I called and the Big Blind folded. The flop was nothing special and I went all in, which caused the Button to fold. I scooped the pot and it was enough to get me back in the game, which I went on to win. I remember that I had made a pair of 7s on the flop, but it didn’t really matter because the hand ended with my bet. Was I lucky? Perhaps, but it wasn’t my cards that won the hand – it was the way I bet them.
“Okay, GM” I hear you say, “it worked that time, but will it work against experienced players?” Fair question. Of course, nothing is going to work all of the time, but let me quote you a passage out of a great book, “Harrington on Hold ’em” (Two Plus Two Publishing, 2004 – Vol. 1) that was co-authored by Dan Harrington who is the WSOP Champion for 1995 and who made it to the final table in both 2003 and 2004. In discussing a hand where the short-stack (Player A) opens the betting with a minimum raise, he says this on Page 94:
“A had only $6000 left, just 2.5 times the pot. He had only a couple of rounds left before he’s blinded away. With any
kind of reasonable hand, Player A could easily have justified shoving all his chips in the pot and rolling the dice. But
he didn’t. Instead he made the minimum raise. That’s what a player does when he wants other players in the pot against him. He wants to make sure he gets some action before he gets all his own chips in. Conclusion? Player A has a very strong hand.”
Next time I’ll discuss the Information Bet. See you then.