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Learning No-Limit From Scratch ­- Effectively Playing a Short One!

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Sep 16, 2015


Roy CookeMany no-limit players, particularly those inexperienced with the game, are uncomfortable with the game’s often complicated and stressful big bet decisions. One easy remedy is to buy-in a minimal amount and leave the game should you acquire a significant stack.

That keeps the effective stack size small and eliminates any critical big bet decisions, situations uncomfortable or inexperienced players should avoid. However, strategies for ten big blind stacks vary greatly from strategies for 30 big blind stacks, so there aren’t any hard and fast strategy guidelines. That said, applying the correct concepts will increase your expected value (EV).

With low effective stack sizes, your implied odds are lower, but your opponents’ odds will be also. Since neither you nor your opponents have a shot at a big payday, speculative hands lose value. One advantage of being short stacked is that your opponents will play their speculative hands with others who have deep stacks, but you won’t be the one giving them the implied odds. You’ll still get their action from their weaker holdings. They won’t care about your meager stack and will focus on the deep stacks.

Additionally, with multiple opponents, one opponent will bet another out of the pot, and the dead money’s equity from his previous calls that you covered will be divided between you and any remaining players. It’s equity gained at no cost or risk to you. It’s also tougher to bluff a short stack, as the risk of massive future bets doesn’t exist.

In small blind no-limit hold’em cash games, your main focus short stacked should be to get all your money in when situations occur where when you run the cards out, you have an overlay vs. the pot odds you’re receiving. With a short effective stack, drawing hands, like suited connectors that require high implied odds, go way down in value and big pairs and ace-big kicker hands go up.

That said, this does not translate into just shoving your stack in whenever you get a big mitt and hope to get called. Since you’re going to be predominantly playing premium hands and the pot is generally small, you’ll generally want action on your biggest holdings. In cash games, you should commonly size your bets to acquire action from weaker hands rather than blowing your opponents out of the pot, particularly when first in. Bet amounts that will get called, and don’t be overly conservative.

With a miniscule stack like ten big blinds, a shove or fold strategy is primarily correct. But as you get above that, you need to quantify how you’re going to optimize value. Keep in mind that, if there are already callers/raisers in the pot, winning the chips already in the pot might be more valuable than receiving a call. In those cases, bet enough to generate the folds. Often with a short stack, you’re committed, so go ahead and shove, you’re getting it all-in anyway! Generally speaking, the larger the pot, the greater the odds of inducing a fold, the more likely your hand can be beaten and the greater your reverse implied odds, the greater value your potential fold equity.

Of course you need opponents who will fold to your bet. If that isn’t the case and you have a premium hand with opponents inclined to call, shoving is still probably the right play! That’s often true even if you have non-paired high cards and your stack isn’t over 30 big blinds. But to shove with a large wired pair, you need greater assurance that you’ll be called or acquire significant fold equity from a currently large pot since your hand is more likely to win at the river and the equity of playing out your holding needs to be overshadowed by the fold equity of the money already in the pot.

So if you don’t want action, go ahead and stuff it in. You hope they fold, but you’ll be okay with a call too! But don’t be shoving with hands that have higher equity when called to “protect” your hand. Poker is about getting the highest value, not winning the pot the highest percentage of times. Obtain the best value out of your hand possible. Keep in mind that many players are more likely to call you because you appear non-threatening. Since your opponents know the price will be cheap, milk them for the optimum value when you have a huge hand.

All that said, purposeful short stacking is a strategy for those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel they can play the turn and river effectively. Because you’re not going to be able to bet significant amounts of money, your volume bet per hour will be much smaller than those who buy-in deep. And if those deep stackers play the turn and river with the best of it, they’re going to outperform the short stackers.

One effective strategy can be to buy in short and spend a couple of laps ascertaining your situation. If the good players or those with position on you are large stacks, you might be better off maintaining a short stack. But if you find yourself with position on some weak deep stacked opponents, you might want to add onto your stack. That way, when you’re gambling the big money, it’s in a spot you like.

As your stack to pot ratio gets smaller, the value of high-equity hands increases. Additionally, weaker holdings can be bet for value since you won’t be creating bloated pot situations for yourself. And positional advantage becomes less valuable, as the value of manufacturing large late-street bets disappears when you’re short stacked.

So, if you’re playing a short stack, avoid drawing hands that require high implied odds. Consider the fold equity vs. the equity of the hand if called equation. Wait for premium hands. Don’t blow your opponents out of small pots with huge hands. Buy short when entering unknown situations and make the determination of adding on when you have greater information. And don’t let peer pressure make your buy-in decisions for you, buy in for the amount you like.

Short stacking is a great way to obtain experience cheaply and profitably. You can grow you game and learn to read hands without assuming much risk.

And when you game grows in knowledge and experience, buy-in bigger. ♠

Roy Cooke played poker professionally in Las Vegas for 16 years prior to becoming a successful Las Vegas Real Estate Broker/Salesman. Should you wish any information about Real Estate matters-including purchase, sale or mortgage his office number is 702-376-1515 or Roy’s e-mail is His website is You can also find him on Facebook or Twitter @RealRoyCooke