Poker Coverage: Poker Tournaments Casino News Sports Betting Poker Strategy

Death By Short Buy-In

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Jan 08, 2014


John VorhausI’m playing $10-$20 hold’em (don’t ask me why — I’ve been flirting again with limit lately, like striking up a new affair with an old lover) when a new player enters the game. I’ve never seen him before, but something tells me right away that this man is a mook, a mark, a rich target of opportunity. What is that something?

It’s his buy-in. His pitiful, puny, short buy-in.

He’s bought in to this $10-$20 game for the princely sum of $200, two stacks of $5 chips.

Does this mean he’s so confident two stacks’ll do the job that he doesn’t feel the need to risk more? Ha! To the contrary, it means he’s desperate not to lose — so desperate, in fact, that he has applied the prophylactic measure of the short buy-in in a misguided effort to protect himself from himself. He probably has more money in his pocket, and he’ll probably get to it soon enough, but for now he thinks that if he doesn’t put it into play he won’t imperil it.

Whew. Can you smell it? I can. I can smell the fear from here.

And as we all know, scared poker is losing poker. If you have someone in your game who’s so scared as to buy in short, he will simply not play correctly. Fear will move him off his game as surely as traffic will be the death of L.A. He’ll fold when he should call and call when he should raise. To strong, savvy, fearless players he’ll be a delicious victim; a sitting, as it were, duck.

What this reminds me of is the kid in elementary school who unknowingly got a “kick-me” sign taped to his back and wore it around all day. Only difference is, here the player is taping the “kick-me” sign to his own back. And what do we do with such a player? Kick ‘im, of course. Kick ‘im hard. Attack without mercy. Start from the moment he sits down and never let up. Because even if this player gets a little lucky and gets a little bit ahead, he’s already identified himself as someone whose poker thinking is just plain flawed. He’s not focused on winning, he’s focused on not losing. Truthfully, it’s only a matter of time before he fritters away his short buy-in and gets down to the money in his pants, the money he thought he had protected so well by keeping out of the game.

Short money is doomed money. Doomed! Don’t ever be the one who buys in short. If you’re genuinely under-capitalized for a given game, then you have no business being in that game in the first place. Drop down to a smaller game. Keep dropping down till the amount of money you put in play is adequate to the task of dominating and crushing the game you’re in. Don’t you know that dominating and crushing is your job in poker? Haven’t you figured out that part yet?

I know what you’re thinking, though. You’re thinking what about the times it’s strategically right to buy in short? Aren’t there situations where it’s okay to take a small shot at a large game? Sure, yes, fine, whatever. If that’s your strategy and you want to execute it, by all means, be my guest. But make sure you’re doing it for reasons of strategy — such as when a game is too big for your bankroll but too juicy to be ignored. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that fear is strategy. Campers, fear is never strategy. It’s the opposite of that.

Speaking of opposites, while it’s almost never right to buy in light, you might, on frequent occasion, want to buy in super heavy. If everyone else buys in for one rack, you buy in for two. If they buy in for two, you buy in for four (where capped buy-ins don’t apply, of course). No, this will not make you a reckless, careless, out-of-control maniac. Rather, it will make you a force to be reckoned with. It’ll send a message to the rest of the table that you came to play this game — to play it correctly — and that you are strong enough and fearless enough to invest twice as much money as everyone else.

To those who join the game after you, it’ll send the message that you are a winner. Well, in their eyes you have to be, for they’ll assume that you bought in for the same amount as everyone else and that now, by luck or strong play, you’ve already doubled up, tripled up or more. And again, don’t worry that you’re putting too much money at risk. You’re only risking extra money if you don’t know how to play with the stack you have, and if that’s the case then it doesn’t really matter how much money you’ve invest, you’ve pretty much already lost it all.

How bad is the short buy-in? Consider this scenario. A guy buys in to a $5-$10 hold’em limit game for $100. On his first hand he picks up pocket aces. He knows he should raise to isolate, but he’s afraid to commit too much money to the pot, in case the hand doesn’t go his way. From the outset he’s playing defensively. Or maybe he’s thinking he can get a big parlay out of his small stack by taking his aces into a five or six-way field. In any case, he lets a lot of small holdings limp into the pot, and while he’s a favorite over each of them, he’s an underdog to all of them. A couple of bets, a couple of raises…lo and behold, he gets all-in on the very first hand. When he loses (which he does ‘cause he let the limpers limp) he finds himself back on his heels: sad, steaming, and buying more chips before his seat is even warm.

The damage is two-fold. First, his short buy-in has inspired his foes because he looks like a loser. Second, that same short buy-in has pushed him off his game because he feels like a loser too. Gosh what a mess. Don’t let it happen to you. Just not ever. If you can’t buy in for the right amount, and without fear, then just don’t buy in at all. The short buy-in simply says you’re afraid, and you never want to say you’re afraid.
Hell, you might as well be wearing a “kick-me” sign. ♠

John Vorhaus is author of the Killer Poker series and co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker, plus many mystery novels including World Series of Murder, available exclusively on Kindle. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from