How to Play When Your Chip Stack Gets Short in an MTT
Tournament poker is a high-variance format. Not only do the relentlessly increasing blinds put pressure on all players, you’ll find plenty of unskilled players who will sometimes suck out on you. At some point in your multi-table tournament career, you’ll end up with a short stack relative to the blinds and antes. This guide covers your options and the key strategy concepts related to short-stack tournament play.
Here is what you will find below:
Many tournaments start with 100 or even 200x the big blind for each player. When I talk about a short stack, it is always in relation to the average stack at that point in time. If you lose some big pots early, you might be down to 50x or 60x the blind. It can feel like you are short, though realistically there is plenty of room for post-flop play with this level.
In fact, you might consider that same 50x the big blind to be a big, or at least average, stack when the blinds and antes start to grow.
Your strategy will be different depending on the exact size of your stack. Here are some of the key differences:
Sometimes you’ll be happily cruising through a tournament, picking spots with a big or at least above average stack. You’ll have a big hand, get the chips in, and *boom* you lose the pot and are left with only a small chip stack.
At these times, it can feel like all your hard work has been undone in an instant.
The most important factor here is that you resist the urge to tilt. It can often feel like you need to act immediately and get ‘your’ chips back. I have seen otherwise solid players push their entire stack in with any 2-card the next hand many times over. Take a deep breath, fold a couple of hands, and focus on playing the stack that you have now – not worrying about the one you had 5 minutes ago.
Tournaments are never over for you until your chips have gone. Many players have bounced back from this spot – using the strategy ideas outlined below. In poker there is a saying ‘a chip and a chair’, this has stuck for good reasons!
Another way you can end up short stacked is by playing too tight. Everyone will get bad runs, where the only semi-playable hands you get need to be folded to action ahead of you. If you find yourself frequently nursing a small stack simply by blinding down, then you might have a problem. Tournament poker involves risk – you need to play to win and not to cash. If you are too timid and find yourself short-stacked too often for this reason, then you need to rethink your entire approach.
Early in a tournament, the ratio of ‘fish’ to solid players is at its highest. You’ll find some crazy players, calling down hands and winning big pots they had only a slim chance of winning. This is a double-edged sword. You have a great chance of taking pots from these players using your skill advantage. At the same time these early stages can be a bit of a minefield – and you can easily find your stack devastated.
If you still have 40x the big blind (or even 30x), then the key thing to consider is that you have time to wait for a good spot. With the blinds low, and the antes not yet in play, the pressure is small. Even if you need to wait a few orbits, an opportunity will likely come your way.
I recommend sticking to solid ‘ABC Poker’ here. Play from position, avoid easily dominated hands and fire post flop when you have a range advantage. While you won’t have enough chips for multi-street bluffs, you can certainly play some post-flop poker. 30x the big blind is too big a stack to go all-in pre-flop. All but the worst players will be able to play ‘perfectly’ against you – calling when they have you crushed and getting away when they are weak.
There are a lot of varying poker strategy considerations when you get down to the 20BB zone depend on the state of the tournament and the chip-stacks of your opponents.
To give two examples; the tournament could be in the later stages, with an average stack of 50x the blinds and many opponents between 10x and 40x. Alternatively, it might be a long way from the money, with the bigger stack still around 80bbs.
If the bubble is approaching, you should consider your stack big enough to do damage to anyone with less than 35 blinds. If they call your all-in re-raise, they will switch positions with you – and the pressure to make the money will be theirs instead of yours. You should avoid playing pots against opponents with very big stacks with this type of stack. They can take the hit if they lose – and know that you can’t – you’ll find yourself under pressure too often.
This type of stack is great for a re-steal. The most common form of this is called the ‘squeeze play’. A loose opponent raises 3x the big blind in middle position, a late position player flat calls that raise – and you now shove all in for your 20x stack. The later position player only called, suggesting they don’t have a big hand. You know the opener is loose and could hold a wide range of cards. If you ‘squeeze’ with the best of the hands you don’t want to raise for value, you’ll have plenty of equity when called – making the squeeze play a profitable form of semi-bluff.
If you succeed, you can add 6BBs + the blinds and antes to your stack. I would caution against making this play too often. Your chances of being looked up right go up if you repeatedly squeeze.
There is no room for post-flop play when you are down to 10x the big blind. Your options are to go all-in or fold. If you are folded to in later position (Hijack, Cut-off or Button) then I recommend a wide shoving range. You’ll need to pick up your fair share of blinds and antes to keep alive.
You have limited re-steal equity. There are players who will fold to a re-steal after opening, though their stack size is a big factor. If someone raises 3x and you shove 10x, they only need to call 7x to win a pot of 16x the big blind (counting the blinds and antes). These odds are simply too good for most players – especially when they have enough chips to take this obviously +ev situation.
If the bubble is approaching, you could look for a min-cash. My preference is to go for it, taking a spot which gives you a double. Min-cashing won’t make you money over time. Giving yourself a fighting chance of a viable stack for the later stages is the bigger consideration.
Your strategy is simple when you get this short. You need to take any reasonable holding – and get your chips in the middle. Any ace, king or two reasonably high cards fit the bill – and pairs would be a bonus. You can expect to be called of course and will have to get lucky to double your stack to the point it could do some damage!
If you have reached the money bubble, especially in a big tournament with multiple tables, your can try and fold to the money here. Your chances of getting a viable stack for the later stages are tiny, so you might as well take the smaller win and try again another night. If there are smaller stacks than yours, and especially if the blinds just passed you, then give this serious consideration. Generally speaking, folding into the money will not be profitable long-term – though there are always exceptions.
In a satellite qualifier, where everyone gets an equal prize of entry into a bigger tournament – trying to fold into the money is your default strategy. You need to weight up your chances of blinding away vs your chances of getting a prize. If you are the smallest stack by a big margin, players with small though more viable stacks will often wait for you to bust. If there are other short stacks, then I’d certainly take the ‘squeeze into the money’ option.
The single most important aspect of short stacked tournament strategy is never to give up. Countless players have taken a beat, been reduced to a short stack, and gone on to the final table. If you simply shove all-in, your chances of a comeback are small. By picking the right spots and adjusting to the situation and how short your chip stack is, you’ll find that the old saying of ‘a chip and a chair’ exists for some very good reasons.