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Headsup: Playing against shortstacks

Headsup: Playing against shortstacks 0001

Everyone who plays heads-up poker, no matter if you're a beginner or a regular, will often find themselves in a situation where they are up against an opponent who is sitting on less than 100 big blinds (bb). Either your opponent bought in for less than 100bb, or he did bring 100bb to the table but already lost some chips and now has a smaller stack.

Of course you have the option to just not play against these players, but seeing as these players often don't have much of an idea what they're doing, and players who constantly rebuy to 100bb are generally considered to be the better player, it can be very profitable to play against them. Of course you will also see marginal and sometimes very dramatic players who buy in for the full amount and have auto-rebuy switched on, but these are often new or bad heads-up players who will have blown their bankroll in no time.

It is therefore very important to know how to deal with different stack sizes. One of the main problems is that it can quickly get very frustrating if you have your opponent down to his last 10 or 20bb but you just cant seem to get the rest of his stack because he keeps doubling up. In this article we will discuss some adjustments that you can make to your game to effectively clean your opponent out.

The button

A lot has been written about the pre-flop dynamic for 6-max games, as well as for heads-up games. All of these theories are often useless as soon as the effective stacks fall under 100bb. The size of the smallest stack is the only relevant one when making a decision. If you have $100 in front of you, but your opponent only has $30, then you can still only invest $30 before your opponent is all-in. While with 100bb you still have a wide range with which to raise, 3bet, 4bet and shove (99+/AQ+), this soon changes once the stacks fall below 100bb. When the effective stacks fall below 70bb, you could start by adding 88 and AJ to your pre-flop shove-range. Once your opponent falls below the 50bb mark, you can even add 77 and AT to your range. However, this also strongly depends on your opponents. There are some players who still play very tight, even when shortstacked, so you will have to adjust your range accordingly when up against this type of player.

The first adjustment you should make when playing against shortstacks is to start raising smaller when on the button. How you do this exactly is up to you, but often I would recommend to raise to 3bb against stacks between 50-100bb, 2.5bb against stacks of less than 40bb and against stacks of less than 20bb I would recommend a minraise. Once your opponent falls under 8bb, you might as well go all-in immediately instead of making a normal raise, because you cant fold to a re-raise anyway due to the pot odds. Another option might be to play less hands and stick with 3bb, but this will make it very difficult to take all of your opponent's chips because you keep giving him blinds when on the button. Therefore I would only use this as an alternative against a very aggressive opponent.

The idea behind smaller raises is pretty simple: You keep giving yourself a better price to steal the blinds for. With a 3bb raise you risk 2,5bb (3 – small blind) to win 1,5bb (small blind + big blind), so this has to work 62,5% of the time to be profitable. With a minraise, on the other hand, you only risk 1,5bb to win the same amount, so this only has to work 50% of the time. With stacks of 100bb's, a minraise will hardly ever be enough to get your opponent to fold, but with your opponent's stack getting smaller and smaller, one extra big blind can start becoming quite significant for him, also giving him smaller implied odds.

Lets say you're playing NL100 with 100bb stacks and you raise AA to $2 while your opponent is holding 67s. In this case you are not letting him pay enough to see a flop, but once this player only has a stack of 20bb left, he would already be investing 5% of his stack (in addition to the cost of the blind) to see a flop.

Another reason to raise smaller is because players will often shove all-in after your raise when their stacks fall under 20bb. Again you would be giving yourself a better price by minraising compared to raising 3bb. If your opponent has 12bb and you raise to 3bb, you might as well go all-in straight away, as there is rarely ever a scenario where you can fold 9bb with 15bb in the pot.

The number of hands you play from the button greatly depends on your opponent. When playing against a tight player, you can open with pretty much any hand, while I would recommend to gear down a bit when up against a player who doesn't know where the fold button is.

When you get re-raised by a shortstack before the flop, it depends greatly on your opponent with which hands you can shove. The only two hands you can really call with are AA and KK, so you need to properly analyse how often your opponent 3bets to not make any mistakes. It can be very tempting to push in 30bb with AT, but if your opponent is 3betting for the first time in 60 hands, it is probably a big mistake, as you will only be up against better hands. If, on the other hand, your opponent 3bets you every couple of hands, you can start shoving with worse hands than AT. However, it won't often be the case that your shortstack opponent 3bets lightly, so I would always take on a very tight range in these situations. But the important factor here is (as always): adjust to your opponent.

The Big Blind

Playing against a shortstack in the big blind can easily turn into an expensive bit of fun. You will only hit 1 in 3 flops when not holding a pocket pair, and only rarely will this be top pair or another hand with which you would go all-in. It is therefore very sensible to fold a lot of hands in your big blind when facing a raise and generally stick to "fold or 3bet" against a raise. Of course there are also exceptions. If you are still sitting relatively deep you can easily call with a hand like QJs to hit a cheap top pair or big draw. Hands like suited and unsuited connectors up to 89, small pairs up to 66 and suited aces shouldn't be played at all when in the big blind against shortstacks, while you could easily call or 3bet these hands when having effective stacks of 100bb in the hope that your opponent folds or you hit the flop and win a lot of chips. In addition to broadway cards (JT+), AA and KK might also be hands with which just to flatcall, because players will fold to 3bets too often (in the end you won't be 3betting very often so you will get a lot of respect if you do) and you don't often see scary flops. If your opponent happens to hit top pair you win his stack.

What often happens is that shortstacks limp the button. Don't start raising too many hands against this; you will have to raise to at least 4bb to make the limper fold, and you don't want to play too many big pots out of position with a bad hand. Exploit your opponent's weakness and accept his limp as an invitation to see a free flop. If you do decide to raise, make sure you are holding a hand that will do good against the limp-range of your opponent. In this case the raise is purely a way to get more money into the pot and not an attempt to get your opponent to fold. The size of the raise will once again depend your opponent and the effective stacks. With stacks of 100bb it would be normal to raise to 4-5bb after your opponent limped, but with the stacks getting smaller and smaller, you might want to raise a little less. Make sure not to raise too little though (minimum 3bb); even when holding a hand like KQ you would rather want to pick up the 2bb in the pot than to sit out of position against a badly defined hand, as you will still miss the flop 2 out of 3 times.

Re-raising in the big blind against a shortstack should really only be done with monster hands, as you are quickly committed against a player with little chips. Your risk/reward ratio is a lot worse than with 100bb stacks. You are now risking all the chips your opponent has in front of him only to win the raise and the big blind. Only do this with hands that you would go all-in with as well.

Flop, Turn en River play

Your flop-game can also be adjusted to make it a little more effective against shortstacks. Especially your bet sizes can be reduced. Because your opponent is getting less implied odds, you can start betting 2/3 of the pot instead of ¾ of the pot. With your opponent's stacks getting smaller, he will often play fit or fold, and you could even start just betting ½ the pot. While with stacks of 100bb it can still be tricky to get your opponent's entire stack into the pot by the river, this should be less of a problem against shortstacks.

Your best chance to bluff is on the flop. If you raise, your opponent calls and checks to you on the flop, you can fire out a standard continuation bet, no matter if you hit the flop or not. Many opponents will only continue in the hand if they hit, so 2 in 3 times you should be able to pick up the pot.

If your opponent plays very aggressive and often check-raises, you can put some variation in your game and check the flop behind to then bet the turn if your opponent checks into you again. The advantage of this delayed continuation bet is that you are now more convinced than on the flop that your opponent missed, because he will often bet a good hand on the turn if you check behind him on the flop. Make sure not to do this too often because your opponent can easily bluff the turn after you check behind him on the flop, or he check-raises the turn. Mix up your game and your opponent won't have a clue what you're doing.

When c-betting, there are two important things you need to pay attention to. First of all it is sensible to choose your spots wisely when continuation betting. A hand like Ace-high can often be checked down because it will regularly be the best hand and your opponent only has 6 outs if he has two random cards in his hand. The same counts for when you have a small pair and the flop shows three overcards. Just try to see a showdown with your hand and don't start bluffing with what is likely to be the best hand. This way your bets seem more believable and your strategy is more balanced. If your opponent suddenly starts to bluff regularly every time you are sitting with a marginal hand you want to see a showdown with, then wait for a monster and check that behind on the flop or bluff-raise his turnbet. Or just call him down with A-high for once.

You should also pay close attention to the texture of the flop. A {8-Hearts}{9-Hearts}{j-Diamonds} flop will often hit your opponent, while a flop like {q-Diamonds}{7-Spades}{2-Clubs} will almost always miss your opponent. Make sure to choose the right flops to continuation bet on with nothing. Also think about checking behind with top pair every now and then if the flop shows something like A22, as you will seldom get action if you bet.

In the big blind your only effective move is to check-raise all-in if you hit in order to at least win an extra c-bet if your opponent still folds. If he does check the flop as well you still have the turn and river to get the money in. If your opponent plays very straight forward and always bets if he hits and checks if he missed, you can obviously take a stab at the pot on the turn to pick up the pot. Try not to play with your opponents too much. Firing out a 2nd or even 3rd bullet will bring you more trouble than profit and aren't very useful against players with small stacks.

Furthermore, turn and river bets should almost always be for value only. Once your opponent called a flop bet, it will be hard to get him off the hand. Even if he calls a 962 flop with 56 and the turn is an Ace and you keep betting, many opponents will still remain in the hand. The only exception might be if the flop is very drawheavy (for example {10-Spades}{9-Hearts}{5-Spades}) and your opponent calls your c-bet but checks towards you on the turn and the river. You can now make a small bet on the river to get your opponent to fold his draw. This can even be 1/3 of the pot. Your goal here is it to get missed draws and maybe A-high to fold, but not more, as that will rarely be successful.


In this article we discussed a couple of helpful tips to help you play heads-up against players with different stack sizes. I hope you managed to learn something from this article and your next session against a shortstack will be more successful. Questions and comments are as always more than welcome on the forum.

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