While playing a big stack is great and makes you feel like a bully, most people are going to be playing a small stack more often than a big one. That’s why knowing how to play one is crucial to staying alive and hopefully acquiring a big stack later in the tourney. There is a famous quote that applies to this situation: “a chip and a chair,” and believe me, having at least one chip and still being in the tourney means you have a shot to win.
To me, if you are playing at a full table in a tourney, one has a short stack when their total chip count is no more than 10x the current big blind. If the blinds are 100/200 and you have less than 2,000, you are a shorty. The key to managing a short stack is patience. There are so many people whom I see going all-in with horrible hands simply because the blinds are coming around to them. The thing is, you are very likely to be called because people realize you are short and desperate and probably don’t have much.
This is why patience is so important. If you do wait for a good hand, you are that much more likely to be called by someone who thinks you’ve got nothing. Your chances of doubling up and getting out of that short stack status increase exponentially. Of course, it’s very hard to sit there and wait and fold marginal hand after marginal hand, but in the long run it’s a better move in my opinion.
This strategy applies only when you are playing at a full table, however. If you are at a final table or in a shorthanded game, you need to open up the cards you’ll go all-in with. It is less likely that someone has a better hand than you, so you can play more hands. At the point where you have less than 5-6 big blinds, you need to go all-in with whatever hand you play.
Playing it coy just doesn’t give you the value you need. Go all-in and hope to get the blinds to fold. I still wouldn’t go all-in with anything less than a pocket pair or Q-10, but there is a range of hands that I would play at a shorthanded table that I wouldn’t play at a full table. Anything in that K-J, K-10, A-anything range would be an all-in at that point.
At a full table and with less than 10x the big blind but more than 5x, I would play as I normally would, only playing premium hands and not calling with marginal hands, hoping to see flops. As you would at a shorthanded table, I’d go all-in with any hand I decided to play once I got below the 5x the big blind number. I’d still only play premium hands at a full table, but would have to go all-in under 5x.
The other primary thing you have to look at as a short stack is your position at the table. If you are on the button, to the left of the button or in the small blind that definitely opens up the range of hands you can go all-in with as well. If it is folded all the way around to you, and you are in one of those three positions, you could go all-in with almost any two cards and be getting the correct value to do it. You’d need to pay attention to the players on your left to see if they play tight or loose to determine if you think they’d fold to your raise or call with almost anything.
Playing the short stack takes a lot of patience, attention to your position and what you think will happen if you go all-in. All it usually takes for you to get back into the mix is being doubled up 2-3 times, so pick your spots, be aggressive and when you do strike, and hope the poker gods treat you well!