Die, Shortstack! Die!! Part 1

Die, Shortstack! Die!! Part 1

Monday, 13 April 2009

There’s a growing section of the poker community deliberately buying in for the minimum as a moneymaking strategy. Playing against these types requires special attention, says Alex Rousso

The trouble with having a small dog is that when you’re bumbling about the house, the critter always gets under your feet. Every time the doorbell rings, it races past and knocks over your mug of tea. You tread on the damn thing when you go up the stairs, and it’s forever yapping away at next door’s cat.Small things can be a real terror, and so it can be with small stacks in a cash game. The rules allow for a short stack to be all in to the river, leaving bigger stacks to decide whether to muscle it out for a (sometimes empty) sidepot.

This gives players who deliberately choose to sit down with the minimum buy in a certain advantage, namely that they will often get to see the flop, turn and river without having to make any decisions. This leaves the deeper and maybe better players without any implied odds to work with. Thus, a significant amount of a deeper player’s edge is lost.

Perhaps, in light of this frustration, many seasoned pros look down upon short stack play. As a general rule, short stacks tend to play a lot tighter. In ring games (where the blinds are not prohibitively expensive), they can merely wait for a decent hand and a pre-flop raise before committing their whole stack, giving the other players who are deeper in chips a difficult decision.

In addition to having lost the boon of implied odds, the deeper stacked players will seldom have the benefit of being able to bluff other players off the pot. There’s rarely any use in bluffing the remaining players off the pot if success in that endeavour means that you’ll still have to show down that bluff against the short stack who is already in, and probably ahead of you.

Little wonder that, in a fit of pique, Greg Raymer allegedly complained of short stack players that, “I could teach my Grandmother to play like that.”

There’s a certain comfort for inexperienced players in having a small number of big blinds to play with. First, when you’re moving up a level, a great deal of your difficult decisions will be made that much harder by the fact that your call or bluff attempt will be more expensive than ever for you. Having a short stack means you can just close your eyes, push and hope for the best. Often you’ll be all in by the turn, so there’ll be no question of an even more difficult decision later in the hand.

Second, the reverse implied odds issue raised above is in your favour. Rather than giving better players (who might have position on you, for example) the implied odds to draw out on you, most of your – and thus their – decisions become much more mechanical and formulaic. For example, if you are all in on the flop, they cannot call with the plan to bluff the turn or the river, regardless of how the board pans out.

Third, you will get to know these players’ styles much more quickly. When you’re deep stacked, it’s going to cost you an awful lot each time to show down to the river just to find out whether that loose-aggressive player had it this time or not. With a short stack, you’re often all in and will get to see their cards. This leaves a lot less to the imagination when it comes to putting your bluffy (or perhaps not so bluffy) opponents on a hand.

Little wonder the pros don’t like it. It’s a little loophole in the game which reduces their edge. In fact, there have been significant writings on the subject, notably Ed Miller’s short stack strategy in Getting Started in Hold ‘Em, and Rolf Slotboom’s cunning method for outgunning aggressive Omaha opponents in Secrets of Professional Pot-Limit Omaha.

There’s no question that a short stack strategy will only get you so far. The lack of implied odds means that your opponents will not be able to make the fatal mistake of losing their entire stacks to you when they have a lot of chips (falling in love with aces in Hold’em springs to mind). To cut a long story short: if you’re up against inferior opponents, you want both yourself and your opponent to be deep stacked.

So, assuming you’re a good player and you’re comfortable at your present blind level, what the hell should you do about those pesky mutts getting under your feet? First of all, I’m not talking about those players who are so incompetent that the best way for them to avoid losing too much money is to buy in for the minimum and keep losing it serially until Mr Bank Manager, he say “no”. Those guys are welcome to the party any time, and I presume that little strategy advice is needed to outgun them.

No, there’s a growing section of the poker community deliberately buying in for the minimum as a moneymaking strategy. Playing against these types requires special attention. Let’s look at the differences.

First, bluffing against them becomes much less of an art form. There is no question of putting in a bet against them, or even calling a potentially speculative continuation bet from them on the flop with the intention of betting on the turn if a scare card comes. The chances are that they will be so close to being all in, your bet won’t scare them at all. Bluffs against this opponent will be black or white: either they have it or they don’t; and the chances are they do, because an intrinsic part of the short stack strategy is to play ultra-tight – only to go into hands with good values.

Second, implied odds go completely out of the window. Against bad players you might find yourself calling a pot sized bet profitably with a flush draw knowing that they will pay you off with their aces or top pair if you hit. Not so if their bet puts them all in. Then, it’s simply a case of odds and outs, and you’ll need to muster all your late-in-tournament skills to make the correct decision.

Third, making a speculative, field-thinning raise might not have the desired effect. Rolf Slotboom’s short stack strategy in his Omaha book specifically advocates sitting to the right of an aggressive player so that when he raises and others call, you can reraise all in pre-flop if you have a good enough hand. An aggressive player thrives on these preflop raises in order to make his opponents’ decisions more expensive later in the hand. If “shortie” repops it pre-flop, that changes the complexion of the hand completely.

Clearly, a significant change in strategy is required to combat these gremlins of the green felt. Much of your strategy should, I believe, depend on whether you have position on them during the hand, and the style of the other players on the table.

For example, if you have immediate position on the short stack, and your targets (the weaker, deeper-stacked opponents) are behind you, then you’ll be squeezed between them when the short stack puts himself all in. You’d have to have a very good drawing hand to flat call here – it’s possible you have a live one behind you who just might fancy the gamble – in which case you might have to stick it all in on the draw. Equally, when you have a decent made hand and the short stack pushes in front of you, your call might scare off your target behind. Clearly, being in between the short stack and your target is not ideal, and a seat change might be in order.

The other extreme – having the short stack immediately behind you – can also be problematic. If you raise and he reraises pre-flop, the “gamblers” behind him might decide that this is not a hand to go with. Once again, even if they do, the amount of play left in the hand is significantly reduced by virtue of there being more money in the pot, and quite possibly a protected main pot (a protected pot is one where at least one of the contenders is already all in, and thus will show down to the river no matter what happens).

Overall, having a good short stacked player at your table does limit your options, whether you’re an aggressive or tight/tricky player. On balance, it’s better to have the short stack behind you. That way, you’ll see how other players react to him when he commits to the pot. For example, if you flop a monster like a set, you can have a big pay day if you check to the short stack, who commits with a high pair. You’re hoping then that a deeper player commits with a lousy draw or pair behind him, then you can come over the top with your set and the chances are the lousy drawer will feel pot committed.

As a general rule, whether you’re a tight or a loose player, your strategy should involve concentrating on how to get your targets’ money given that there’s the proverbial spanner at the table – either behind you or in front of you.

Although short stacks can be a drag, they’ll teach you to sharpen up your play, especially your awareness of position and relative position. They’ll also give you a lot of all in pot odds decisions, and usually at a much cheaper rate than those rare final table tournament appearances (where you have to make this type of decision regularly). Who knows? Maybe the practice will do you some good!

Tags: Pickleman, Alex Rousso, Strategy