Here’s a question I hear all the time:
“How short a stack can you play before it’s not profitable anymore? At some point the blinds eat you away too fast and you can’t wait for a good hand anymore, right?”
This question is based on a false assumption that is the subject of today’s article. Yes, there are some stack sizes too short to play profitably, but the culprit isn’t the blinds. It’s the rake. Depending on the rake structure, at some point the house is taking too large a percentage out of each pot for you to profit with some short stack sizes.
But say you’re paying time instead of a rake, and the charge is relatively small compared to the game size. (For those who don’t know, live cardrooms often charge a flat fee of, say, $7 per half hour in lieu of taking a rake.) Now you can play any stack size profitably, from 1BB on up. The blinds are never so big that they will “eat you alive.”
The simplest reason why it’s impossible for your stack to be so short the blinds “eat you alive” is the table stakes rule. If you have a 10BB stack, then as far as you’re concerned your opponents all have 10BB stacks as well. The same rules apply to everyone. When poker is zero sum (as it mostly is in a time game where the charge is small compared to the stakes), if the same rules apply to everyone then no one can be inherently unprofitable. If I’m bound to lose money because I’m playing a 10BB stack, then who am I losing it to? The guy across the table who is also playing effectively a 10BB stack whenever he’s in a pot with me? If we’re both playing effectively the same stack size, then how can someone have an advantage? It doesn’t make sense.
No stack size is inherently unprofitable. It all comes down to what strategy you employ.
The reason the “blinds will eat you alive” mindset is easy to buy into is that we often assume that short stack players must necessarily play very tightly. After all, when you play a 10BB stack you’re going to see a lot of showdowns. And if you’re bound for showdown, you’d better have the goods, right?
It’s true – to a point. When you’re playing a 10BB stack, you probably won’t be calling many preflop raises on the button with 5-3 suited like you possibly might playing deep stacks. You do want hands with showdown value. But they don’t necessarily have to be massive hands.
For instance, say you’re in the small blind with 10BB. Everyone folds to an aggressive player in the cutoff who opens for 3BB. You have Ad7c. Your best play is to shove. Sometimes you’ll catch the cutoff with a hand like 9-6 suited and he’ll elect to fold. Sometimes he’ll have something like A-9 suited or K-J and call you. When you look at all the possible outcomes – sometimes winning the pot immediately and sometimes getting called and winning a showdown – shoving with the hand will show an overall profit.
A-7 offsuit isn’t a massive hand. But it’s strong enough given the stack sizes, the likely opening range of a player in the cutoff, and the random hand in the big blind to show a profit.
Short stack play is all about finding the right borderline hands in these situations. Maybe shoving with A-7 is profitable and Q-7 is unprofitable. What hands are at the break-even point?
If everyone had folded to you in the small blind, then Q-7 offsuit is actually right around the break-even point for open-shoving 10BB. (Source: The Mathematics of Poker by Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman, p. 136) And that’s if your opponent plays a perfect 10BB stack strategy. If your opponent plays less than perfectly than you can profitably shove some even weaker hands.
The blinds won’t beat you because you can tailor your strategy to the situation. You can play as tightly or as loosely as the situation calls for. And when the game is shorthanded or the stacks are very small, you should actually play quite loosely.
I must take some of the blame for propagating the myth that playing a short stack means playing super-tight. In my book, Getting Started in Hold ‘em, I outline a strategy for playing a 20BB stack that I would classify as super-tight. I designed that strategy as a foolproof one for rank beginners. I wanted a strategy that was simple enough that literally anyone could follow it and that would be at least break-even in any standard, full ring cash game.
But my super-tight strategy isn’t the optimal strategy for 20BB stacks in a full ring game. It’s just a passable strategy.
In a fourhanded game with 10BB stacks, the strategy is downright horrible. The blinds will indeed eat you alive, but it’s not because the stacks are too short to win. It’s because the strategy stinks for those game parameters.
If you come up with the right strategy, though, you can profitably play 20BB in a tenhanded game, and you can profitably play 8BB in a fourhanded game. The blinds can’t doom you to lose. Only the rake can.
[This article appeared in the December 17, 2008 issue (Vol. 21, No. 25) of Card Player.]