How to Play Real Money Poker When You’re Short Stacked

Casino Chips Stacked on Poker Table
If you’re playing a lot of tournament poker, you need to get good at playing with a short stack. Some players only think they have two options in such a situation:

  1. Go all in
  2. Fold

But more advanced players know they have more options than that, and learning how to navigate those options effectively will help you win more money playing poker in the long run.

That’s what this post is about, how to play good poker when you’re short-stacked in a tournament.

What Is Short-Stacked and What Isn’t?

Some players think you’re only short-stacked if you have the smallest stack of chips at the table. But really, the size of your stack is relative to the size of the blinds. It’s entirely possible to be at a table full of short-stacked players in a multi-table tournament.

You measure the size of your stack as a multiple of the number of big blinds you have. For example, if the big blind is 20, and you have 4000 chips, you have 200 BBs.

On the other hand, if the big blind is 200, and you have 4000 chips, you only have 20 BBs. You’re not really short-stacked until you get below 10 BBs.

The ideal situation is to have 30 BBs or more. Anywhere below 30 BBs is shorter stacked than you want to be, but you’re not really short-stacked until you have fewer than 10 BBs.

When You’re Just Starting to Get Short-Stacked

When you get below 30 BBs when playing poker, you need to start making adjustments based on the size of your stack. You’re not short-stacked, but you’re not where you need to be either.

In this case, it means tightening up. You don’t have the chips to try to win straight draws or flush draws, because most of the time, you won’t fill your hand. And when you run out of chips, you’re out of the tournament.

It’s still okay to play from late position with middle pairs, though. That’s an easy fold if you miss the flop, and a big profit when you do hit your three of a kind.

Also, you shouldn’t be bluffing unless you have a big stack. Some people think that a bluff is just a big raise or bet pre-flop and an easy fold from his opponents. You need to stop thinking of bluffs that way.

Hand Grabbing Casino Chips Off Table

Instead, think of a bluff as a series of bets—a bet pre-flop, a continuation bet on the flop, and possibly even another continuation bet on the turn.

With only 30 BBs in your stack, you just don’t have enough chips to try this. If you’re facing an opponent with a large stack, he’ll sometimes just call you down just to eliminate you from the game.

You also don’t need to worry about defending your big blind. When you have a big stack, it can make sense to call a small a raise from the big blind just to see the flop. After all, you don’t want to just give away your blinds.

But when you start getting low on chips, you just need to become willing to sacrifice your big blind and wait for a better hand.

When Your Chip Stack Gets Even Smaller

When you get down to around 15 or 20 BBs, you need to adjust again. At this point, give up on the small and middle pocket pairs. The chance of hitting your three of a kind on the flop is only about 1 in 8, and you just can’t afford to get your cards all in with a small or medium pair at this point.

Don’t limp with anything once your stack is this low. It’s tempting to try to get into a hand cheap and see what develops so that you can dig yourself out of this hole, but that’s a mistake. You need to be able to double up or better, and you can’t do that by limping.

At this point, you should only be playing the best possible starting hands—big pairs, or AK or AQ suited. You also need to get more aggressive preflop. You don’t have to shove preflop every time you get something worth playing, but you should probably double the size of your standard preflop raise.

Your goal is still to face only one or two opponents after the flop. Raising aggressively preflop is the only way to accomplish this. The more players in the pot, the likelier it is that someone will hit something that will beat your hand.

I don’t recommend trying to steal blinds with a stack this size, at least not in the early or middle stages of the tournament. If you’re getting into the later stages of the tournament, it might be worth it to get aggressive and start stealing some blinds.

I have a buddy who loves to emphasize how important position is, but when you’re running out of chips in a tournament, position isn’t as big a deal. At this point, selective aggression is the plan. Just know when to use aggressive play and when aggressive play may not be the best option.

When You Really Are Short-stacked

When you get down to 10 BBs, you really are short-stacked. At this point, your strategy becomes a lot simpler. You can either go all-in pr-eflop or you fold pre-flop. That’s it.

If you have 10 BBs, it’s probably still a good idea to try to wait for a premium hand to go all in with. Some patience here is still a good idea.

Poker Cards Spread Out, Hand Holding Casino Poker Chips

Also, at this point, your decision to go all in should also depend on what the players who act before you have decided to do. I want to be the bettor or the raiser in this spot; if someone else has already shown strength by raising, I’m less likely to go all-in.

But once you get down to 5 BBs, it’s time to gamble. ANY playable hand needs to be played aggressively, regardless of what your opponents do or don’t do.

Playable hole cards at this point include any pair, any suited connector, or any ace or king with any small card.


The lesson I hope you’ll take from this post is that short strategy in a Texas holdem tournament is more complex than just fold or go all in. There are different levels of being short-stacked, and the easiest way to define those levels is to look at how many BBs you have in your stack.

You’re starting to get short-stacked once your chip stack drops below 30 BBs. You’re getting to what I think of as “more short-stacked” when your chip stack drops to fewer than 20 BBs. But you’re in all in or fold mode once your stack gets down to 10 BBs.

Even in serious short stack mode, there are gradations. There’s a difference in strategy between having 10 BBs and having five BBs.

No matter how short-stacked you are, you need to remember that selective aggression is the key to winning at poker. It’s just that when you’re short-stacked, you need to be more selective and more
aggressive than usual.