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Short Stack Specialist

If you've ever played a blogger tournament at the same table as me, you probably have heard me mention that I'm dangerous on a short stack. Lately, I've gone with the term short stack specialist, and while I usually announce my short stack superiority in a tongue-in-cheek manner, I sincerely mean it. I consider myself a short stack specialist.

But what does being a short stack specialist mean and how does it help me win? I'm glad I asked.

The key to being a short stack specialist (or SSS) is all about timing and attitude. First off, when a tournament starts, no one is a shortstack. That much is invariably true. However, being a shortstack specialist, I can run plays that would appear dangerous to people worried about losing hands early. The key here is to only make plays that I can get away from. Obviously, if I have AA, I'm ready to go all-in on the very first hand. And obviously, that doesn't always work. But beyond playing premium hands hard, I'm constantly looking for situations where I can see a cheap flop or take advantage of position. A more conservative player would play tight early on. An aggressive player without my shortstack specialty skills would likely play lots of hands aggressively until he is down to the felt and unable to come back. I strive for that middle ground. I'm playing pots, but also keeping the pots manageable. When I do tangle, I am always conscious of my stack size, my opponent's stack size, and the pot size. Why? Because I want to be able to mix it up with my SSS as a backup. If I fuck up and make the wrong play, at least I get to rely on my greatest skill.

As a SSS, I will explain a bit of the art and science behind shortstack play. Ideally, when you get below 10x the BB, you are merely trying to pick up blinds. You can do this by pushing all-in more often than not, as long as you wait for the right moment. Eventually, players will see that you are constantly pushing all-in. Once this happens, you need to continue to push all-in, but tighten your hand requirements. The closer you are to 10x the BB, the tigher you get, unless you see that opportunity to steal. As you get closer to 5x the BB, though, you have to go balls to the wall and start pushing in a myriad of situations.

This, of course, is nothing new to anyone who has read Harrington on Hold'em. It's essentially the concept of M, where you compare your stack to the blinds and figure out how many orbits you can survive. The lower your M, the more you need to gamble.

So, if I rely on simple concepts of M, how do I consider myself a SSS? Because being an SSS takes more than just knowing your M or the amount of big blinds left in your stack. It involves paying attention to your opponents, learning which ones will gamble, and which ones won't. It's about having the fearlessness to push all-in with T7o in the SB because you desperately need the BB. If anything, I would suggest that it goes back to the concept of Ebb & Flow Poker, something that I usually apply to heads-up play. My theory of E&F poker states that in any heads-up game, there is a natural rhythm to the plays. Once you can find the rhythm, you can take advantage of your opponent. For instance, if he is folding a lot, you can keep betting out with crap cards and collect lots of blinds. But be ready for changes (i.e., from the flow to the ebb), because at any moment, momentum can change and you'll suddenly have to start folding every hand. Even then, you can induce your opponent to get into an overaggressive stance and then prepare to pounce with even marginal cards if you are able to read your opponent right.

In shortstack poker, you are essentially doing the same thing, but widening up your read to the entire table. Usually the table gives off a general vibe. More specifically, the players to your immediate left and right will have thier own rhythm, and these are the players you can attack with glee. That involves raising all-in with crap cards when everyone is in fold mode, and pushing all-in with your KK when everyone is in call mode.

The beautiful thing about being comfortable with a shortstack is that it allows you an aire of fearlessness that can be especially useful in the beginning and end stages of any tournament. This is also why you rarely see HighOnPoker going out around the 50% mark. I'm playing fearlessly early, comfortably relying on my shortstack skills if I lose a few hands. Once you are the shortstack, you run the risk of getting busted fairly early. Even with all of my SSS, it doesn't mean I don't run into hands on steal attempts, suffer suckouts, or lose cointosses. Hence, going out early can and does happen. But likewise, I can also gather a large stack early because of my backup SSS and my ability to accumulate chips when others are playing tight early-MTT poker.

Eventually, though, the blinds get so high in tournaments that a majority of the players become shortstacks. This is where I really shine. Steal, steal, steal. Sometimes I have the cards, sometimes I don't. The key is to, once again, read the table and know when to do what. I'm comfortable gambling with a cointoss if the read is right, and I'm just as comfortable pushing all-in with two low cards, merely because of fold equity combined with the chance of having two live ones if my opponent does call. All of this usually lets me chip up in late stages, literally raising 4-5 hands in a row at times without the slightest hint of resistance. This is again part of the Ebb & Flow, that ebb part when the whole table is just folding away and leaving all sorts of money on the shore, waiting to be grabbed.

This is all stream of consciousness, of course. I definitely am not explaining myself as clearly as I would like. The point is, though, that if you can learn to love the shortstack, the simplicity of shortstack play and the simultaneous importance of reads when using those limited option plays, your game can excel in areas that might appear to be completely unrelated. My confidence in my shortstack abilities allowed me to gamble early last night. When it didn't work out, it allowed me to crawl my way back when I was down to barely over 1100 within the first half-hour. It also allowed me to make a great to second from 7th out of 9 when we reached the final table (and even before then 14th out of 15, and a slew of other low places I visited during my ascension to 2nd).

So, want to learn how to play shortstack poker? Here's what you do: play turbo SNGs. That's it. Get used to being in situations when you have to push with ATC and pray. Get used to getting the feel for when its the right time to steal or the right time to push all-in for value.

But in the end, I don't recommend this style of play. I've watched a lot of the great poker bloggers do their thing, and many have styles that I absolutely envy (in a positive way, naturally). But this is my way. Its a gambler's style, but its not a gamble. Its all about my intuition on how people are going to react, and my prayers that the players I'm pushing into (usually in the blinds) do not have monster hands. It works for me, but it probably wouldn't work for 99% of the people out there. And when I say it works for me, I mean it. My dominance at Salami is due to this style. My dominance in most homegame tournaments is due to this style. My great run in the BBT Freeroll last night is due to this style.

Until next time, make mine poker!

posted by Jordan @ 4:25 PM,


At 5:37 PM, Blogger KajaPoker said...

I think the main point in being an SSS is studying your opponents and knowing who to push against. That and not running into monsters, obviously. Oh, and sucking out as an underdog when running into monsters. As well as letting other short-stacks implode.

I guess it's harder than I thought at first.

Well played last night.

At 7:54 PM, Blogger Pseudo_Doctor said...

nice post on the SS pretty dam informative...and congrats on the 2nd place

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good stuff... liked the post, keep it up.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Pokerwolf said...

Awesome post, Jordan.

Another great option to practice SS play is the 3+.30 turbo MTT at 21:15 on Full Tilt. It's a nightly tournament and it's worth every penny for practice.


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