Playing a short stack in MTTs is never fun. If you have managed to get to the point where you are now working with a smaller than average stack, it undoubtedly means things have gone wrong to one extent or another. With that in mind, however, playing a short stack will vary in strategy depending on a number of variables. For example, having a short stack in the first blind level is entirely different than having a short stack at the final table.
Being able to analyze your exact situation is the basis for short stack success. If you can do this, you will be able to play your short stack for its maximum value. The key is not winning with a small stack; most people are going to end up busting out, instead the true goal is to end up going as far as you can. This might mean winning the event or losing the next hand, but the only important thing is making the proper plays at the right time.
Defining a Short Stack
A short stack is not always a short stack. First, in MTTs, you are playing against the field, not just the other players who are at your table. As a result, you shouldn’t consider a 10,000 chip stack short because your table has a lot of 20,000 chip stacks. If the field average is 10,000, you are doing just fine. Some players tend to get caught up in their immediate surroundings and neglect to consider the fact that they are doing alright in the grand scheme of things.
A short stack is also different if you are in the earlier or later stages of an event. It is perfectly feasible that a short stack in the early blind levels will still be large enough to mount a comeback. The further that a tournament progresses, the more that luck has to do with rebuilding a stack. At the beginning of an event, though, there is still plenty of time for actual play vs. shoving all in and hoping for the best.
Playing a Short Stack-Early Stages
The absolute best time to have a short stack is near the beginning of a tournament. The start of a tournament means that the blinds are low, and (hopefully) a double up or two will put you right back at the average. Of course, losing a pot for everything but one big blind will set you in some very dire straights. Most of the time, though, you are going to lose a pot that knocks out a third or half, maybe even three quarters of your initial stack. In these instances, you have no reason to give up hope. Many players tend to unnecessarily go on tilt when they lose a big pot right out of the gate. Sure, it can be very frustrating, but you are hardly in an insurmountable position.
The strategy for a short stack vs. the strategy for a normal stack in the early stages of a tournament is rather similar, unless you are in a turbo event. You don’t want to be shoving all in at every opportunity. With that in mind, though, you can widen your range up a bit if you think you can get an opponent to call down lightly. A short stack shove is generally perceived as weaker than it really is, and with good reason. A lot of players tend to go all in prematurely and with weaker hands than necessary. If you carefully wait for a good spot and a strong hand, you will be surprised by how many players call you down with a hand that you have crushed. As mentioned previously, a stack that equates to nothing more than a blind or two isn’t worth waiting than one round of blinds with, but just about anything bigger has a shot at making a significant comeback.
Playing a Short Stack-Middle Stages
A middle stage short stack is often times the product of one of two different things. Either you never played any real pots and have been running around in circles, or you recently lost a monster pot and nothing much has happened since. If you are the player who just hasn’t been getting any truly playable hands, the best game plan is to look for a spot where your perceived tightness will work to your advantage. For example, if a player raises to 3x the big blind, you have 12 big blinds on the button with ATss, it can be well worth shoving. Not only do you have a good hand, but you are going to force folds a fair amount of the time. In this situation, a fold that earns 5 or so big blinds is just as good as risking your entire stack. It is better to lock up a decent win than it is to roll the dice on a double up.
Contrary to a card dead player, a more aggressive and active player is going to be forced to get their money in and hope for the best. If you have been playing in a lot of pots and adapting an aggressive style, you shouldn’t be expecting your opponents to give you a lot of credit when you shove all in. The best strategy in this situation is to wait for a hand that is slightly above what your opponents would expect you to have given your past play. Now, this is much easier said than done, and there is little you can do if a decent hand doesn’t come your way.
Since a shove with a strong hand is the obvious play, and having an above average hand is not on your control, the only thing you can do is make sure you push the action hard. It should be clear, but the only real option is to shove. Even if you get pocket aces, don’t try and value bet. Go all in and hope for a call. Take some comfort in knowing that the worst case scenario is a 30% addition to your existing stack if it happens to fold around. Don’t be surprised f you get one or even two calls, though, as a lot of people will call your shove with way worse hands than you would ever expect. Even in tournaments, there are a lot of true action junkies.
Playing a Short Stack-Late Stages
The late stages of a tournament are the best time to have a short stack. If you have made it this far, it means that you are already in the money, and maybe even contending for a big prize at the final table. Beyond this, a short stack at or near the final table may very well be near the chip average. Depending on the structure of your particular event, there is a legitimate chance that 10 big blind stacks are normal, and that the chip leader only has 20 big blinds. This is the first thing that you should consider; whether you are short stacked in comparison to your opponents, or whether you are in line with everyone else’s short stack.
The unfortunate aspect of a late stage short stack is that you are going to need to roll the dice on numerous occasions. There is no way around gambling at this point in the game. You have to make moves and hope that you get lucky, sometimes with many hands in a row. There is no true skill aspect to the luck element, of course, but hand selection still plays a role. You could still pick up the blinds if your shove would put a dent in the small blind or big blind’s stacks. Likewise, you shouldn’t try to steal against the biggest stack on your table. Look for the best hands you can come up with before being dwindled down to nothing by the blinds. It is always better to shove and have a chance at winning than it is to be blinded off and guarantee a loss.