No Limit is a complex game with many variables and factors that have an influence on your long-term winrate. For players with little experience or players who just started playing a higher limit than they usually do, a simple adjustment to your game can make the difference between winning and losing. If you buy yourself in for less then the maximum at a cash table, in other words you play shortstacked, you have less decisions to make. Furthermore, most of these decisions will be limited to preflop and flop decisions, rather than preflop and then having to make decisions on the next 3 streets. Usually the maximum buy-in at a cash table is 100 big blinds (BB). How will the dynamics of the game change if you buy yourself in for less than 100BB? This article will answer that question and give you an insight into successful shortstack strategy. For those of you who usually buy-in to a cash game for 100BB and have problems playing against shortstackers, this article will give you an insight into how successful shortstackers think and play.
10 Big Blinds
The ultimate shortstacker will buy himself in for 10BB. Many sites nowadays won't even allow players to do this anymore and set the minimum buy-in for the table at 20BB. But there are still some sites where you can buy-in for this amount, for example Everest and Microgaming.
The advantage of such a small buy-in is that you only need to make one decision: Fold or push preflop. A raise automatically makes you committed to the pot. When calling raises before the flop, the odds you get even with a backdoor draw are so good that an all-in is the only logical decision. This doesn't mean, however, that you should just automatically push with every hand. There is a list of hands and the positions in which to play them. This list is based on the book No Limit Hold'em by David Sklansky. In this book you will find a list with Sklansky-Chubikov numbers. This number indicates the maximum stack with which you can push all-in on the small blind to make guaranteed profits (in the long run), even against a prefect game. We are assuming that we're sitting at a table with 10 players:
Early Position (UTG, UTG+1 en UTG+2):TT+, AQ+
Middle Position (next 3 positions): 88+, Ats+, AJ+
Cut Off: 66+, A8+, A5s+, KQ+, KJs+
Button: 22+, A2+, KT+, K9s+, QJs+
Small blind: K5+, K2s+, Q9+, Q5s+, JT+, J8s+, T9s+
For 6-max tables you would merge early and middle position into one group, which then turn into the hand range for UTG and UTG+1. This range is already pretty tight. If the players sitting left of you are extremely tight, you could even open with more hands, especially from the button and the cut off. You will end up getting called more easily by your opponents by playing more aggressive, which will result in more wins for you due to the light calls of your opponents.
Against raises, your push rate should be a little tighter. If someone raises in early position, you push with JJ+ and AK. Against a raise from middle position you can push with TT+ and AQ+. Against the cut off this will turn into 88+ and AJ+, against the button it's 66+, AT+, KQs and against the small blind 44+, A7+, KJ+. This is still pretty tight. Especially because some players play very aggressive and will open with hands like low suited connectors, you could expand you range in some cases. The problem with many loose-aggressive players is that they don't adjust to the shortstack. They will often still open with a low suited connector while a shortstack is sitting in the blinds, which makes it easier for you to some over the top.
As a full stack player you are therefore forced to adjust you steal range. If a shortstack player is in the blinds, especially with a stack of only 10BB, you can still open, but make sure not to raise to 3,5-4BB but rather to 2,5-3BB, so you're not automatically committed and can still fold your hand. Because with a hand like , going all-in preflop against the range of a shortstack is negative EV.
What you will also see quite often is players completing when the shortstacker is in the BB. You as a shortstack can profit from this. With good hands you should just push all-in here. Even if your hand isn't that good you can still push against a bad weak-tight player as you still have enough fold equity. Another option you have is to just check behind and look at the flop. If you hit top pair or better against a number of limpers you can bet out or check-raise. This depends mainly on your opponents and the strength of your hand. If there are enough limpers you can also do this with strong draws. Against only one opponent you could even add some random bluffs to your arsenal if the flop is low/dry. Often betting out one BB is enough to pick up the pot. If you do end up getting called and you're bluffing, you're not yet committed and still have the option of folding.
Fact is that you will win a lot of money playing like this. It's not a perfect strategy, as players learn to adjust to it, but most of your opponents do this in the wrong way. The problem with shortstacking is that you will win money, but not as much as a good full stack player. If you get AA and end up getting all your money in, you win 10BB, while a player with a full stack will win a lot more if his Aces hold up. But shortstacking with 10BB is a good way of building up your bankroll without taking too many risks.
20 Big Blinds
As said before, many sites don't allow 10BB buy-ins anymore and have a minimal buy-in of 20BB. The fact that you're playing with 20BB is a big difference compared to playing with 10BB, as you can longer use the push or fold strategy. You can't always risk 20BB just to pick up 1,5BB. This would mean that players in the blinds can wait for a premium hand and get a high EV against your range. However, there are still advantages from playing with 20BB, especially pre flop. As mentioned before, many players like to open with hands that flop well, like small pairs and suited connectors, but against a shortstack, your implied odds with these hands are a lot smaller. Against a full stack you're looking at playing all 3 streets, while against a shortstack this is often limited to pre flop and flop play. As a result, a player with 100B in front of him can no longer play hands like 2-2 and in a profitable way against shortstacks, because the odds this player is getting are simply not good.
As shortstacker it is important to adjust the amount you raise by. While a full stack will often raise to 3-4BB, you might want to distance yourself from that. A big raise means a big pot, and often you will just end up picking up the blinds. A small raise will give a lot more action. A big raise as a shortstack means that you will also have to call a re-raise because the pot is already very big and you're getting good odds. Obviously when holding a premium hand this is not a problem, but you will also have to do it with other hands. If you raise to 5BB and get re-raised all-in, you will have to call 15BB to win 25BB. You get odds of 5:3, which means you will have to win these situations 38% of the time.
If you, however, raise to 3BB and get re-raised all-in, you get odds of 23:17 and have to win 43% of the time. You have to think here what hands people will play for 20BB. The ranges will be a lot smaller than they would be for 10BB. A hand like 77 wins 40% of the time against a normal range, and hence would be a call in the first situation but a fold in the second. Another difference is that when getting re-raised in the second situation, it is easier for you to fold marginal hands, and you will lose 40% less chips after a fold than you would when folding in the first situation. In the long run this will add up to a large amount of money.
But there is also a difference after the flop. If more than 1 player calls, the decision on the flop is often push or fold, because you are getting good odds. If your 3BB raise only gets called by 1 player, there will usually be 6-7,5BB in the pot (depending on your position and the position of the caller relative to the blinds). If we assume the pot is 7BB then you still have a stack of 17BB in front of you. If you fire out a C-bet of 5BB here, you are not yet committed to the pot. If you then get re-raised all-in, you get odds of 28:12 to call. This means you have to win 12/40, or 30% of the time. Against most opponents you will call here with good hands, such as pairs or strong draws, and fold the rest. If we compare this to raising to 4BB before the flop, we see that the pot would grow to 9BB on the flop and a C-bet would have to be between 6-7BB. If we say your C-bet is 7BB and your opponent re-raises all-in, you get odds of 31:9 to call, which means you only have to win these situations 22% of the time. This means that you will have to call with a wider range of hands, such as overcards, gut shot draws, bottom pair with no kicker etc. The fact that you have now invested 11BB instead of 8BB should mean that you get 11/8 times as many folds but that won't happen. This is because larger stacks will realize that they can't always fold when playing against a shortstack. As a result of the bigger raise, you have fewer chances to bluff. A raise of 2,5BB works even better sometimes than a raise of 3BB. You will also see this a lot in later stages of a tournament where it is completely normal to raise to 2,5BB, just like you will see many average stacks of 20BB.
However, small raises preflop also mean that you have to play more postflop. If this is one of your weaknesses, then it might be better for you to stick to raises of 4BB. By raising more with strong hands such as JJ+ and AQ+ and pushing all-in on the flop, you create bigger pots with premium hands and still have some fold equity. On the other hand, you can't always wait for these premium hands because the blinds will start eating away your stack. Especially in 6-max games this can become a problem.
At the end of the day you will have to adjust your bet sizes depending on your table. If your table plays very tight, you can get away with small raises more often. If you do get called and get action on the flop you know that your opponent is holding a good hand. If the table is extremely loose you will have to start playing better hands. You should try and build up the pot early so that these loose-aggressive players are committed and can no longer fold their hand.
Something you shouldn't do is adjusting your betting sizes to your hand. Don't raise a monster to 2BB and 55 to 5BB, or the other way around, as your opponents will easily figure you out.
Good luck with shortstacking!!