My last few articles have been about the advantages that short stacks have over deep stacks in no-limit and about how to harness those advantages to beat wild games. I want to step back now and explore what I mean by the advantage a short stack gives you.
A few issues back, I said that short stacks get two main advantages over deeper stacks: They avoid mixed stack play, and they gain fold equity without risk. Strategies differ depending on the stack sizes: You might play a hand very differently with 200BB than you would with 40BB. So if you have two opponents, one with 200BB and one with 40BB, often you have a problem. You can’t play perfectly against either of them for fear that the other one will get the better of you. So you have to compromise. Mixed stack “compromises” ultimately cost you money. If you play short, generally you will never have to play these mixed stack situations, and thus you never have to compromise.
Furthermore, if you are the short stack against two deep stacks, sometimes your opponents will still be duking it out in a side pot after you’ve gotten all-in. If one gets the other to fold, you’ve gained winning chances without risking anything extra. That’s a bonus you’ll get only if you’re a short stack.
Typically I like practical poker advice. Theoretical discussions make my eyes glaze over. But I’m going to break that pattern here by going theoretical for a bit. I think it’s worth the effort.
Say you are playing a sixhanded game against five copies of yourself. You play well with deep and short stacks, and your opponents play exactly as you do. It’s a $1-$2 no-limit game, and you each buy in for $200 (and rebuy every time you dip below $200). Thankfully, this game isn’t raked. If you play it for a long time, you should expect to break even, and you should expect the same for each of your five opponents. Getting a long-term edge in poker depends on imbalances. It depends on exploiting weaknesses. If you play the same way your opponents do, you won’t get an edge, and ultimately you’ll just break even. So you against five copies of you is a break-even game for everyone.
Now say you are playing a sixhanded game against five copies of yourself, but you buy in for $100 while your opponents all buy in for $200. You play only three hours at a time, so after every three hours of play the stacks are reset to their original sizes. You should expect to make a profit in this game. Even though you’re playing against players as good as yourself, the inherent advantages of playing a short stack will win the day and make you money over time.
Now say you are playing a sixhanded game against five copies of yourself, and you are allowed to buy in for $2 (just a chip and a chair) while your opponents all buy in for $200. You always rebuy for $2 if you go broke, and after three hours all the stacks are reset to their original sizes. You should still expect to make a profit at the expense of your normal-stacked opponents! Perhaps this conclusion seems ridiculous to you. After all, how can you “beat the blinds” if all you have is one big blind in your stack?
When you play with one big blind, the table stakes rule says that your opponents play with only one big blind as well when they’re in a hand with you. Imagine a game where you play against five copies of yourself and everyone has only $2. It’s a break-even game for everyone. Sure, someone this hand has the crippling disadvantage of posting the blind, but next hand that will rotate, and eventually everyone will share the burden of the blinds equally. Since no money leaves the table and no one has an inherent advantage, everyone breaks even.
Because of the table stakes rule, however, when you play with $2 it is, to you, as if everyone were playing with just $2. Sure, they have more money that they play against other players with, but to you that money is irrelevant. So if you would break even at a table full of $2 stacks, you will at least break even against bigger stacks. But you’ll actually do better than that, as the advantages of a short stack will once again kick in. For instance, say you limp in, someone raises, the blinds fold, and you’re heads-up. The pot will be $7, and you have only one opponent. You’re getting 5-to-2 on your money, and you only have to beat one player. Those are very attractive odds, and they come from the short stack advantage.
When I say that short stacks have a natural advantage, this effect is what I’m talking about. Obviously, you won’t find yourself in a sixhanded game against five copies of yourself very often, so one might dismiss this entire exercise as impractical. But it’s not. Sure, if you’re the best player at a table full of gamblers looking to drop their stack on the first gutshot they see, you’ll probably make the most by buying in for the maximum and waiting for your payday. But if you find yourself at a wild game full of cagey players (and plenty of these exist), remember that you can get the best of a table of players just as fine as you merely by buying in short.
There are two other real-life lessons from this mythical game against five copies of you. First, when you’re in a tournament and you have just a tiny stack, don’t give up! You may have lost most of your winning chances, but remember that your remaining chips are more powerful and more valuable than they might at first seem. Second, don’t take the short stacks too lightly. If you try to “bully” them too much with loose raises, you may just be playing into their hands.
So while you perhaps shouldn’t try to buy in to every game for just one big blind, know that if you could and if you tailored your strategy to make the most of your miniature buy-in, your chip and chair would ultimately rule the day.
[This article appeared originally in the January 2, 2008 issue (Vol. 20, No. 26) of Card Player.]