Being short-stacked early in a tournament, due to some unfortunate hand, is mentally draining. You barely just started and you’re already at a disadvantage. An inexperienced player will get upset and will try to win his chips back, putting himself in bad situations. A table full of smart opponents will sense his tilt and will take advantage of that player’s recklessness. When I have a short stack I generally tighten up, but when everyone shows weakness, I try to gamble. More often than not it works. And what’s more defining of poker, or of any betting situation, than the notion of “more often than not”?
But early stack sizes, as I have learned, don’t really mean much. A big stack early in a tournament, achieved through some nice double up, is not a guarantee that a player makes it to a final table. As well as a short stack is not a sign of an upcoming demise. Just yesterday, a guy at my table flopped quads early on, doubled up. Another was a luckbox, completing all his draws. I couldn’t get any cards for hours. None of those early winners, however, made it to the final table. I have. Short stack sharpens your senses, forces you to heighten awareness. You don’t allow yourself to miss an opportunity. I doubled up through some loose guy at some point.
Most of the time, though, you will just be slugging away, stealing blinds, picking up small pots here and there, keeping your head just above water. The mastery of this grind is what gets you to the final table, not an early double up. That’s how I usually get to a final table, just crawling over the doorstep with a small, battered stack. Too many times I was at 20 and even 10 big blinds at dinner break, all hyper and adrenalized and in no mood to eat, only to double or triple up at the opportune moment and end up at the final table. When blinds go up and the pots get big, your small stack becomes a weapon that everyone has to be mindful of. When I’m yet to act everyone has to figure out if I’m gonna shove or not. And if I shove, they have to figure out how much they’re prepared to spend to find out what I have.
A few days ago, I was down to about 15 big blinds and got AK – a monster hand for a short stack. Normally, it’s a no-brainer all-in. But what gave me caution this time is that I was first to act, so instead of shoving I just made a min raise. And waddaya know, someone shoves all-in after me and another one does the same. What this told me is that whatever they thought I had, they had me beat. After an action like this, the only prudent way is to lay it down, even if that leaves you with an extremely short stack. I can’t say for sure what they have, but a raise-reraise-reraise action is a bad sign for AK. Sure enough, there were KK and AA there. I would have been dead. But I lived to see another few rounds. Preserving your stack over such pitfalls is what will carry you on to still be around when the opportunity comes to double or triple up.
I died a glorious death in a similar situation about a year ago when I got QQ. Again, I raise and there are two all-ins after me. I snap call and get into, you guessed it, KK and AA. It cost me my tournament life. At the time I just thought that the motherfuckers are simply trying to get me. A chip on the shoulder and impatience (my usual scourges) is the quickest way to get killed in poker. Over the last year I worked hard on reining those in. Today, I would have laid those QQ down after an action like this. Today, I would get the message loud and clear.
I play with a short stack so often, for such long periods of time, that I kinda got used to it. While being a disciplinary tool, short stack also unties your hand in some way. It’s like fire – deadly if mishandled, powerful if managed properly. It teaches you not to be a fool when handling it. Too much of extreme action either way, whether tight or loose, and you’re dead. What a beautiful, powerful and profound game!