Time to Push or Fold

In one of the first pieces I wrote for this blog, I described how to manage a short stack in a tournament. Now we’re going to talk about what to do when “short” has deteriorated to “really short.”

The bad news is that the situation has gotten worse – for instance, you’ve gone from 22 big blinds (“BBs”) to 14. That’s not the direction you want to go. The good news is that your tournament life has mostly gotten simpler – you’re now in what we call the push/fold regime. That is, you’ve usually just got two choices:

  1. You fold and wait for a better opportunity, or
  2. You push all your chips in the middle and wait to see if you’re still in the tournament.

I don’t mean these are the only technical choices available – it’s just that when you have this few chips, they’re the only two good choices. That is, it’s almost never correct to raise and then fold, or limp in, call a raise (short of all-in), etc.

“Wait, Lee – you said ‘correct’. I thought the most valuable phrase in poker is ‘It depends’.”

Welcome to modern poker. For many years, when we’d get whittled down to a very short tournament stack, we were still flying by the seat of our pants. We often sensed that we were in a situation where we had to pick the “all or nothing” option, but exactly where to cross that line – well, a lot of coffee shop and poker forum discussions were about just that.

Then along came powerful computers and some people who had read John von Neumann and John Nash. It turns out that, for short enough stacks, one can compute the “Nash equilibrium” for a player to shove her stack in or fold. And by definition, the corresponding equilibrium point for an opponent to call the all-in or fold. That is, if everybody were to play according to these equilibria, no player would have an edge over the others – they would be “at equilibrium.”

So for instance, the rule might be, “If I am one of eight players, I sit one to the left of UTG, I have 11 BBs, and it is folded to me, I should go all-in with:”

  • Any pair 55 or higher
  • Ace-nine-suited or better
  • Ace-jack-offsuit or better
  • King-nine-suited or better
  • King-queen-offsuit
  • Queen-ten-suited or better
  • Jack-ten-suited

If you follow the relevant rule for each combination of number of players, position, and stack size, you will be “unexploitable.” That is, a perfect opponent can play you to a draw, but can’t exploit your play and gain an edge on you.

“Great, but how am I supposed to know what the rule is for each of those gazillion combinations?”

This is where we have the clever software developers to thank. There are apps into which you plug in the necessary variables, click “Go,” and get the Nash equilibrium (aka “Game Theory Optimal”) range back. The apps also tell you what is the GTO range to call when somebody shoves in front of you.

The two leading push/fold apps are:

  • Snap/Shove
  • Postflop+

I won’t turn this article into an ad for either, but I’ve used both – they are invaluable when you get to a very short stack. Note also that they’re equally useful facing a short-stacked opponent even if you’re the chip leader – after all, if it’s down to you with your 85 BBs and one opponent with 9 BBs, you’re playing a match for 9 BBs each, period.

And here’s the part I want to emphasize: these programs are the result of gazillions of simulated hands. The ranges they provide aren’t their authors’ opinions – they’re mathematical certainties resting on the work of game theorists over the past decades.

It turns out that game theory plays a crucial role in understanding economics, war, and politics, so a lot of absurdly bright people have studied it. In fact, a handful of Nobel Prizes were handed out to game theorists very recently.

Now, you might say, “Lee, I just can’t ship in all my chips with king-nine suited when I have 11 BBs and am UTG+1.” Cool. They’re your chips – play them as you wish. And given that king-nine suited is at the very bottom of the range that I listed above, it’s probably just barely profitable, meaning you’re giving up very little (and saving a lot of variance) by folding. No harm.

Just understand that neither you nor I “know” better than these apps what is profitable and what isn’t. What we choose to do with that information is our business, but we can’t argue the “correctness” of their results.

Two caveats


First, it is possible that you can do better than GTO by exploiting your opponents’ mistakes. That is, if your opponent is not playing “perfectly” you can make more profit by not playing GTO.

I claim that, in the world that most of us inhabit, there are two common mistakes that your opponents will make:

  • They will not shove as frequently as they “should,” and
  • They will not call shoves as frequently as they “should.”

The exploits for these two errors are straightforward. If your opponent doesn’t shove as much as he should, then you must tighten up your all-in calling range. Visualize Monster Myrtle, who hasn’t shoved less than kings in her 25 years of playing the daily tournaments at her local casino. Well, if Myrtle shoves her chips in, you can fold queens, right? From a less radical standpoint, if your average opponent isn’t shoving as frequently as SnapShove or Preflop+ tells him to, then you will get in trouble by calling as frequently as they tell you to. You must tighten up your calls as they tighten up their shoves.

Similarly, if your opponents won’t call shoves as much as they “should”, then you can get away with shoving wider. So rather than saying, “Gee, I just can’t shove K9s there,” you might go ahead and jam it in. After all, if they fold, it doesn’t matter if it was king-nine-suited or nine-three-offsuit.

Rules and ethics

The creation of these apps has led to some awkward decisions for poker players. Is it fair to use them at the table? Most online poker sites prohibit the use of such tools during the tournament. If the site you’re playing on prohibits it, then using such a tool in real-time is what we call cheating. Is it cheating to go back and check after you’ve made a shove or fold? Is it okay to quick review the shove ranges for the blinds you’re going to have after the five-minute break?

The same issues come up in live poker. I know I’d be livid if there were some guy looking at SnapShove or Preflop+ on his phone while he was in a hand with me. What if he does it between hands? What about during a hand after he’s folded?

Me, I wouldn’t look at these apps at the table, period. It just doesn’t feel right. But that’s me and maybe I’m old-school. At the least, you should find out the rules for whatever tournament you’re in and follow them.

And follow your sense of right and wrong, too. That matters.

Thanks for reading – I wish you good decisions with your short stacks.

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 www.leejones.com.