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Open-Raising with a Short Stack in Tournaments Explained

Most players leak chips with a short stack in tournaments, despite how important short stack play is.

To become an elite tournament player, you must aim for perfection with your short stack game. This starts with learning the preflop fundamentals.

Today, I’m going to get you started with how to properly adjust your open-raise range as a short stack. (Note: For the purpose of this article, we will define a “short stack” as less than 30 big blinds.)

The topics we will cover today include:

Let’s get started.

How to adjust your open-raising strategy with a short stack

The most common mistake players make with a short stack is opening too many suited connectors. Suited connectors usually need to see the turn and river to realize their equity, and so they’re much weaker when we are short.

With a 16BB stack on the button, for example, we should be more likely to raise with K5o than 75s or 54s. This is completely backwards from when we’re deep stacked.

The reason why is that the shorter we get, the lighter we can get our stack all-in for value. Ace highs, medium pairs, and weak top pairs all go way up in value when short. Hands like K5o might have kicker concerns on a K♠-7-2♣ flop with 100BBs behind, but such a hand can comfortably and profitably get all-in with only 16BBs behind.

Additionally, stack preservation is more important when playing with a short stack. We need to tighten our opening ranges and focus on hands that will perform well with a short stack postflop; namely, hands with high card strength.

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30bb+ versus <30bb

Here is an example of a range one could profitably open-raise from the HiJack at the beginning of a tournament, with deep stacks and antes.

A reasonable open-raise range from the HiJack with 30+ BB stacks (31.22% of hands). Yellow = Raise. Other colors = Fold.

You will notice that this range contains many suited connectors. You can run multi-street bluffs and realize more equity when you flop draws at this stack depth, which just isn’t possible when playing with a short stack and low stack-to-pot ratio (SPR).

Now, let’s take a look at what one’s range might look like from the HiJack when on a short stack:

A reasonable open-raise range from the HiJack with an under 30BB stack (24.6% of hands). Yellow = Raise. Other colors = Fold.

This range is notably tighter, mostly because of its lack of suited connectors and low pocket pairs.

Granted, it’s still fairly loose, but that’s because of the advantageous math behind open-raising in general. As our stack approaches 15bb, we have to open even tighter.

When sitting at 13–15bb, we should stick to NASH Equilibrium shove ranges. (Snapshove is a great tool for viewing and learning these shove ranges–learn more about it here.) Learning NASH ranges will be an invaluable asset to our success as a tournament poker player.

Although the focus of this article is not on shoving ranges, it is important to note that the poker population is generally too tight when calling shoves. As a result, we can take advantage by shoving looser than NASH.

How to maximize VPIP when short

VPIP = Voluntary Put Money In Pot.

Now that we are familiar with adjusting our open-raising range when short stacked, we can discuss the topic of a shove-only strategy versus a varied strategy.

A shove-only strategy is pretty self-explanatory: we either shove or fold.

By contrast, a varied strategy when short involves having a raise/fold range, a raise/call range, a limp range, and an open-shove range. For the sake of this article, we will focus on incorporating a raise/call and raise/call range. Limp ranges when short deserve a separate article.

When thinking about our raise/fold range when short, we want to be very polar–strong hands balanced with weaker ones. Our middling hands are likely better played as a shove.

For example, with a hand like A9o on the button with 15bb, we can just shove. We don’t really want to raise/call an all-in for our tournament life, and giving the big blind a good price to defend isn’t ideal with this holding. On the other side, we want to raise/call with hands like KK, QQ, AKs, which we balance by raise/fold a few good blocker-type hands.

Note that when we’re short, we want to bluff with hands that have good blocking potential rather than hands that have good postflop playability.

Let’s take a look at a scenario where our VPIP changes based on whether we are using a shove-only or mixed strategy.

Suppose we are on the button with 19bb and are considering whether we should shove, raise, or fold. If we had 50bb instead, we could open somewhere from 50–75% of hands depending on who is in the blinds (we can play looser if the blinds are weak players). According to Snapshove, with 19bb (10% ante and 9-ring) we can profitably shove 33.6% of hands.

Therefore, our shove-only range allows us to VPIP 33.6% of hands.

Now, what if we develop a mixed strategy where some hands become raise/folds and raise/calls?

Let’s put 99+, AJ+, ATs, and KQs into our raise/call range for a total of 92 combos. We can add some weaker hands that are not in our shove-range as our raise/fold hands, such as Q4-Q7s, J7s, K2-K4s, T9o, J9o, Q9o, and K8-K9o for an additional 92 combos of bluffs. We can also add some of the weaker hands from our shove range into our raise/fold range for balance if necessary. Recall that when we’re short we want to use hands with strong blocking potential rather than worrying about playability postflop.

Editor’s note: The above range is exploitable, but works well as an exploitative adjustment if our opponents behind are tight player. Against competant players who will defend and 3-bet shove aggressively, a more reasonable and less exploitable range would be 92 value bet combos to ~50-60 bluff combos

If we incorporate a raise/fold and raise/call range, we can now VPIP ~40% of hands, which is a nice increase from the 33.6% in our shove-only strategy. Here’s what that 40% range looks like:

Red = Raise. Green = Shove. Blue = Fold.

If we choose to add more hands to our raise/call range, such as 88 or A9s, then we simply add even more raise/fold hands, which again allows us to increase our VPIP. Remember that in tournaments our goal is to play as many hands as we profitably can; that is why increasing our VPIP is valuable.

By now you should be feeling good about making adjustments when playing short. So, let’s discuss 3-betting versus open-raises when short.

How to develop a 3-bet range as a short stack

We want to be balanced any time we 3-bet, but this can tricky when short stacked. You might be wondering, Do we really want to have a 3-bet/fold range with just 20bb?

Yes!

The closer we get to 15BBs the less we can 3-bet. That being said, we want to be able to 3-bet/call with some of our stronger holdings at this stack depth rather than just re-shoving our entire range.

Developing a 3-bet range when short is very similar to developing a raise/fold range. We want to 3-bet very polar! And we want to balance our value range with hands that have good blocking potential.

Let’s take a look at one quick example before wrapping up.

Tournament. Blinds 500/1000/100. 20,000 chip effective stacks.

We are dealt A♠ 5♠ on the button
3 folds. LoJack opens to 2,200. 2 folds. Hero…

What do we do? We don’t really want to flat given the flop SPR is going to be low and it may be difficult to realize our equity. Not to mention the chance one of the blinds squeeze.

A5s isn’t quite strong enough for a 20bb shove against LoJack. Therefore, this hand is perfect for our 3-bet/fold range. It blocks an ace and can still flop top pair (or better) when called.

We want to look for these 3-bet/fold opportunities as a short stack, so again we can properly balance our 3-bet value range.

For more short stacked 3-betting strategy, check out Short Stacked 3-Betting in Tournaments Revealed.

Conclusion

As you play more and more tournaments, start to think about how your range changes as you get shorter.

Remember: the shorter we get the tighter we have to be, and this means reducing the number of suited connectors and small pocket pairs in our open-raising range.

Until next time. Cheers!

Note: Ready to take your poker game to the next level? Master expert strategies from our world-class team of coaches when you join the Upswing Lab. Learn more now!

Read more from Upswing Poker:

Your everyday MTT grinder from Toronto, Canada. Also happens to play professional lacrosse.

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