Short stack revolution

volume7What is shortstacking? By now I assume that most people are aware that it is buying in for the table minimum in order to get an advantage on the bigger stacks lined up around the table, yet relatively few people outside of the online arena really understand how this happens.  I think the best way to get started on this subject is to offer a brief history of both how and why shortstacking developed in order to prime you for a new perspective on how poker can be played and strengthen your fundamentals in ways that will be beneficial for any stack size you prefer to play.

People first took notice of the concept on a slow news day back in 2005 when Bluff Magazine printed the headline The Jim Rose Circus: And How to Win $28.64 an Hour at Poker. Taken from his aptly titled book, Snake Oil, Jim described an uber-basic strategy for no limit that can be summed up in five words: shove with QQ+ and AK. According to Jim, “this is the only move that a pro would make if he was on a short stack.” Perhaps the pro who said this was his friend Chris Ferguson, who allegedly tried this and turned $1 into $20,000 in six months.

If you were hoping it would be this easy, load up some Facebook poker and mash away. If you want to learn how to make money that spends, take the red pill and read on.

Soon after, Ed Miller published a legitimate alternative in Getting Started in Hold’Em. It was a fundamental TAG style with standard open raises while answering opponent raises with a shove or fold response. While light on postflop details, Miller’s strategy was a viable way to make money during the Poker Boom, as there were still masses of recreational players and wannabe pros with a malfunctioning fold button. Although almost certainly profitable in many soft live games, it was predictable and easily exploited with a bit of discipline, allowing patient players to dodge the big bets whilst whittling down the practitioners’ stack.

Miller’s rationale was that a short stack could exploit a flaw in the game granted by all in protection. This is advantageous because theoretically, players may continue to fight over the pot and push each other out before showdown, allowing you a free shot to triple up or better with a hand like 99 that might be difficult to navigate in a multi-way pot.

In 2008, academically minded players hijacked the strategy from the nits and gave birth to the modern form of shortstacking. Focusing on a much more prevalent flaw in how the game is played, these players took the exact opposite approach. Rather than jamming with the highest equity hands on average, they were actively willing to take the worst of it. Developed with the mathematics of preflop fold equity that was previously being used in tournaments and SNG’s, they began shoving over raises constantly. In tourneys, chipping up by a few BB with marginal shoves was only a means to an end. Under the new paradigm of shortstacking, it was the end. A modern shortstacker wasn’t seeking to double up; increasing his stack to just 27BB was a signal to leave and join a new table, as the edge granted by the short stack would diminish with every blind won. With a short rathole timer, he would be back in 30 minutes for another hit-and-run.

This wasn’t happening just by some unintended consequences of the rules. In contrast to the previous tendency of players calling too wide, they were now calling too tightly! Pot-sized raises and larger made big stacked players vulnerable to shoves whose goal was to profit from frequent folds, rather than just straight value. The larger the player would open, the more profitable a marginal shove would become, as it needed to succeed less often to be +EV. The new-school shortstacker was no longer interested in looking to double or triple up; he was looking to score just a few BB per table. Rather than having to dodge the obvious big pair or ace as in days past, the old guard faced a never-ending flurry of paper cuts by a wide range of not only premiums, but also small pairs, broadways, junky suited connectors, and sometimes even any two rags. They could adjust by calling more, but the short stacked bandits would adjust as well by padding more value into their ranges.  Six years later, even many great players either don’t know how or care enough to adjust properly and stray too far from the equilibrium in either direction.


Modern shortstacking wasn’t just made possible by exploiting the math of the game. They were implementing highly accurate opponent game play statistics provided by legal poker trackers that came equipped with heads up displays (HUDs). These statistics would appear as percentages that would update in real time, allowing a shortstacker to cross reference them with custom made charts showing which hands to shove.  This information was combined with powerful new equity simulators that allowed for EV to be calculated to the penny. For example, a shorty could see that a player was stealing from the button 40% of the time. In a $5/10 game with a 5% rake, if the raiser made it 3BB and responded to a shove by calling only 23% of the time with 55+ and AT+, a shorty on the BB would know that even jamming 72o would profit $1.76 over and above the BB he posted. If the raiser just mashed the pot button and called with the same range, that extra half big blind was now costing him an additional $3.81!

Shorties also had statistics to sniff out guys who had little regard for their blinds, as most had strict guidelines of hands they considered playable, thus consistently giving up without a fight. Such tendencies gave rise to the concept of stealing 100% on the button or small blind. Since many players would bail after missing the flop, shortstackers could profit automatically with just a half pot bet, hit or miss. It was eventually taken a step further when the shorties began noticed that a 2BB raise had nearly the same success rate as larger ones and began exploiting the more cost efficient raise size heavily.

Since there had previously been no incentive for pros to calculate EV in mere fractions of a big blind, some shortstackers with good technique but only modest poker talent were able to compete at the highest limits, with the top players making incomes in excess of $1 million per year skimming the likes of David Benyamine, Gus Hansen, and even Phil Ivey for thousands of dollars per session. Rumor even has it that Phil Ivey himself used his pull at Full Tilt to raise the buy in in the legendary Rail Heaven games to shut down the practice.

The pool of pros eventually wizened up and began reducing the size of their opening raises while increasing the frequency of their steals to combat a perceived weakness in the shorty’s ability to play postflop (which was true to some degree). This was an effective way to slow the bleeding, but the outrage caused by this seemingly unexploitable strategy of merciless steals and shoves to accumulate tiny edges had already ignited massive controversy everywhere. The residual effects from this time period have led to permanent changes in how the game is played. If you have been playing online for many years and noticed that a 4BB open raise has gone the way of the flip phone, then you have witnessed ripple effects that can be attributed directly to the science of modern short stacking!

Despite little public information available for this zealously guarded strategy, eventually some spilled through the cracks and a new internet gold rush began as players jumped on the shortstacking bandwagon and descended like a hoard of locusts upon the online poker world. The most notable offenders were the Russians, who, shielded from outsiders via their language barrier, freely swapped information on, eventually clogging every low to high stakes table and waitlist as if Golden Corral started offering free bingo on seniors’ night. Not only were the pros ill equipped to combat the new play styles, they were being constantly blocked from the easy money, as attempts to isolate the weak players would trigger a shove from a shorty that a hand like T9s couldn’t possibly call. If the shortstacker left a new one would just sprout up in his place as surely as cutting off one head of the Hydra would spawn two more.  In hindsight, I believe that this proliferation of short stack knowledge was the final bell toll of the Poker Boom when science finally triumphed over what was long considered to be predominantly an art.

All across the poker forums, irate players were pleading for the sites to raise the minimum buy in and lengthen the rathole timer. Enjoying the massive rake generated by the multitude of small pots and fearful of the unknown side effects of tampering with the poker eco-system, the sites dragged their feet on making any changes until April of 2010, when Cake Poker became the first network to raise the buy in to 30BB.   Not wanting to have the shortstacker rake walk across the street , Cake Poker added small stakes “shallow tables” where all players bought in for 20BB, but didn’t have a large enough player pool to support these games. Other sites tried this as well, but only Full Tilt had the volume to fill these types of games, which still run in 2014. Almost all other sites soon followed suit and a buy in of 30, 35, or 40BB became standard.

As the industry’s largest player, PokerStars had the luxury of observing these changes before acting themselves. Nearly a year after war was declared on shortstackers, they created the most profitable solution of all: 20BB CAP tables. In 20BB CAP, everyone buys in for 20BB and can only bet 20BB before being all in. This levelled the playing field, with no single player gaining an inherent advantage and eventually led to unconceived layers of complexity being introduced to the art, with the Russians residing as the dominant force.  I’ve played over 3 million hands in this cutthroat environment and the challenges of finding edges in what is often a two or three street game has honed my abilities beyond what I ever thought was possible.

With its heavy reliance on tools only available for online play, there’s no need to fear Russian shortstackers parachuting down into your casino like a new Red Dawn sequel. Clearly, no such software exists for live play, but years of experience have allowed me to build up a large reservoir of experience from which to create a hybrid strategy bridging the gap between the classic Ed Miller strategy and the highly exploitive tactics of today in a way that will allow you to do much better than just scoring a few big blinds before heading off to the deli for an hour.

In upcoming issues of Freeroll, I will reveal theoretical concepts that you can use in your regular game that won’t require any new math and will allow you to play higher stakes and reach more final tables. Make sure to check back in next month for your first lesson!







Lorin Yelle
Lorin Yelle

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