Managing A Tournament Short Stack

Sometimes in a poker tournament, you have one of those magical experiences. You win the first pot you play, and the chips just seem to avalanche to you from there. A double up here, a big pot coming your way a couple of times, and you double through the only person who had more chips than you. You coast to the final table, bust some people, and next thing you know, you’ve collected all the chips and the biggest payout.

If only that happened more frequently than, say, the Olympics.

It’s highly likely that at some point during your next poker tournament you’re going to find yourself on a medium or short stack. It’s an unnerving place to be, especially if you were recently one of the chip leaders. Let’s talk about how to manage that situation and prep yourself to move up the chip ladder.

Some definitions

Throughout a tournament, the single most important metric of your in-game health is the number of big blinds (“BBs”) in your stack. Zero means you’re out, “all of them” means you won, and anything in between is subject to change. Because the blinds constantly go up, and your chip stack fluctuates, you must continually evaluate your stack in big blind units.

We’ll say that if you have over 30 BBs you’re in great shape. Of course, if your tournament stack started with 500 big blinds and you’re on the second orbit of the button, things have gone pretty poorly for you. But objectively speaking, you can play a fair amount of poker on 30+ BBs. So we’ll set that aside for now.

Let’s call 20-30 BBs a “medium” stack, and between 10-20 BBs a “short” stack. Fewer than 10 BBs is “deep trouble”—we’ll cover that in a subsequent article.

Don’t panic

The worst thing you can do right now is freak out. There is a particular danger of this when you recently had a ton of chips and Something Bad has befallen you. If you succumb to “lost big pot” tilt, then you’re at risk of punting off the rest of your chips before you know what happened. Trust me, I’ve seen it a million times.

So relax, close your eyes, take a deep breath. This is actually a very good idea during any poker tournament. Or at any time in life, for that matter.

Center yourself and focus on the coming hands, not the ones that didn’t end well in the past.

Don’t Dribble Chips

This is also a good idea throughout your poker career, but it’s most important when you’re sitting on a shorter stack. That’s because there’s a weird thing about tournaments: chips are worth different amounts, depending on whose stack they’re in.

Specifically, the fewer chips you have, the more valuable each chip is. The extreme case of this is the circumstance in which you have the infamous “chip and a chair”. Suppose, for example, you are in the money and at a pay jump bubble. You have 1 BB. But now somebody busts out, and you’ve just climbed one rung up the pay ladder. Well, that 1 BB was worth (at least) the difference in payouts.

Practically speaking, this means that players with big stacks can be more speculative than those on shorter ones. 10 BBs off a 300 BB stack is much less valuable than 10 BBs off a 25 BB stack.

Tactically speaking, this means that when you are that shorter-stacked player (fewer than 30 BBs), you can’t be tossing a BB here and 3 BBs there just to see if a miracle will happen. You can’t be limping in with pocket fives, or 8-7-suited. The times those hands will hit are just too rare compared to the damage such speculation does to your stack.

Go big, or go home

When you are shorter than 30 BBs, you have to be committed to playing only your best hands, usually intending to get stacks in if need be. Suppose you have a 23 BB stack, you open to 2.5 BBs with 99, and an active aggressive player with 75 BBs 3-bets to 6 BBs. It folds back around to you.

Shove the rest of your chips in.

Will you run into queens occasionally? Yes. Will you run into AQ occasionally and it will get there? Yes. But such is the nature of tournaments—sometimes you must stick the chips in there and hope to get “lucky”, either by staying ahead when you started in front, or catching up. Dumping a few chips here and there, hoping to catch the nuts or its moral equivalent, will rarely work.

Don’t be afraid of big stacks

It’s more fun to have a big stack than a short one in a tournament. But don’t let the big stacks intimidate you. Very specifically, if somebody with a big stack is trying to push the table around, it’s a fine time to make a stand with your shorter stack. Remember, once you’re all-in, he can’t outplay you, he can’t scare you out of the pot. Now he either folds and gives you the pot, or he has to race against your hand. Many times, that bully would rather pick on somebody who will give him chips more easily.


Short-stacking a tournament is no fun, but it’s a common experience for all of us.

  • Stay focused—don’t start playing bad hands or dumping chips off because you lost a couple of pots.
  • Don’t play speculative, long-shot hands such as 44 and 87s. Play your strongest cards and be ready to go to the felt with them.
  • Don’t dribble away a BB here and a BB there. When it comes time for battle, send in all your soldiers.
  • Stay out of the big stacks’ way, until it comes time to take an all-or-nothing stand.

See you next week, and I appreciate your reading.

Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at