24/06/2009

Die, Shortstack! Die! Part 1

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. 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 choose to sit down deliberately 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 rather 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 a 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 to inexperienced players which is afforded by 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. No implied odds means that your opponents will not be able to make the fatal mistakes 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). In fact, all the advantages of short stack play for inexperienced players turn into advantages of deep stack play if your opponents are deep stacked and much worse than you. 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? I’ll leave strategy for how to combat short stacks until next month.

Read the second part of this article.