Modern Short Stack Play (Part 1)
In my over half a decade of playing MTTs for a living, the game has changed in many ways.
Back in 2010, open-raising to three times the big blind was considered standard. Maybe, just maybe, you could only make it just 2.5x on the button.
Defending the big blind with more than 15% of hands was considered crazy. People argued over the internet whether you could defend T-9 offsuit against a 2.5x button open or not.
I’d love to see someone who hasn’t played online MTTs in five years take a shot in today’s games and trying to acclimatize themselves to the latest trends. I bet they would tag most winning regs as fish. People 3-bet shoving J-4 suited and defending the big blind with 8-5 offsuit… what is this nonsense?
In this article series we’ll discuss modern short-stacked play from the blinds – generally with stacks of 20 big blinds or less.
I’ll be using a program called HoldemResources Calculator for some of the calculations and graphics, and I highly recommend downloading the program. For what it’s worth, there’s also another software called ICMizer out there that can be used for the same thing.
Part 1: Big Blind Vs Button with a Resteal Stack
One of the funniest things about the shifting trends in the MTT world is the eternal debate on how wide we should defend our big blind.
Basic Math and Exploitative Play
I played my first hands of online poker around 2007, and back then the consensus was that we can defend the big blind fairly wide, since we’re getting good pot odds.
Then, a couple of years later, every poker training video emphasized that defending too wide was a big mistake, because while we’re getting nice pot odds, we don’t get to realize all of our equity very often. It made sense: while you’re getting 3:1 on that pre-flop call, you’ll still have to pay more to get to showdown, often losing more chips with a speculative hand.
We started tagging players as fish for calling a single raise with a hand like 8-6 offsuit. And now in 2016 – BAZAM! – we’re supposed to defend wide again, because of… wait for it… pot odds.
The circle has closed. Are we back to playing 2007 poker again, having learned nothing over the past decade? Well, yes and no. The difference is that in 2016 we have the tools available to actually calculate different scenarios and equations effectively, and we’re able to determine how we should play different hand groups.
Here’s a common scenario to get us started (all examples are from a full ring table with antes):
The first thing we need to do here is calculate our own pot odds.
We need to call 1,600 chips to play for a total pot of 8,640 chips. 1640 / (1600+7040) = 18.9%. That’s the raw equity we need to call the open, as far as basic math is concerned. But what does this number really mean?
For the pot odds number to be accurate, the hand would have to end right here. But unless your opponent has precisely 2 big blinds in his stack, we can’t just say that we only need 18.9% equity to call because hold’em is a multi-street game and we aren’t guaranteed to see a showdown. We can still lose (or win) more chips in the hand – not to mention that we also have the option of 3-betting before the flop. In other words, the raw equity number isn’t very helpful at all.
In fact, a much more interesting question is the following: How often do we have to defend for our opponent to not be able to automatically profit by raising against our big blind with any two?
Here, our opponent is risking 3,200 to win 3,840. Even if he has blank cards, he automatically profit as long as it gets through 45.5% of the time – and this isn’t even taking into account all the pots he’ll win with a continuation bet. Assuming that the small blind defends a standard amount of around 15%, our defend rate needs to be 46.4% to prevent the auto-profit.
Thus, we have now concluded two things about big blind defense that I assume most of you already knew:
- We are getting tremendous odds to call a single raise from the big blind.
- We really need to play back with a lot of hands from the big blind to avoid getting exploited by sharp opponents.
But I’m not here to tell you obvious things. Instead, let’s go over our options in more depth.
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How to Defend the Big Blind in Practice
A stack of 15-20 big blinds is commonly known as a resteal stack because it’s the most natural stack to 3-bet shove over an open. In a scenario like the one above, 3-bet shoving is certainly a viable option with a lot of hands. But how do we decide which hands to 3-bet shove?
Now, stop reading for a second, and think: What question do you need to ask yourself every time to be able to determine how wide you can 3-bet shove?
What percentage of hands is my opponent opening?
This is why it’s absolutely necessary to have the “Raise First In as Button” statistic on your HUD (though I’m an advocate for HUD-less poker too). This is a stat that shows varying results among regulars – some only open around 30 percent, while others open almost 100 percent. Of course, everything is situational, but you can definitely make some pretty strong assumptions even with a small sample.
Here are a few HoldemResources Calculator simulations where we have 19 big blinds and our opponent is minraising different ranges on the button (the small blind folds):
1) 28.8% opening range (this is VERY tight, only 22+, Ax+, K9s+, Kto+, Q9s+, Qto+, J9s+, Jto, T9s):
Now, before we go any further, let me clarify something. Just because we can profit by 3-bet shoving doesn’t mean that we should shove all of these hands (more on this in just a second). But I believe that it’s important to realize how wide we can shove at all times. This foundation is so key; if you’re sure that you can shove hand x in spot y profitably, you immediately have an option available that makes you money. It’s just that it might not be the most profitable option.
Anyway, in this first example, the main takeaways are:
- Even crappy suited aces make a shitload of money against a tight opening range (anything above +0.25 is generally a pretty big edge).
- Amazingly, even though our opponent only opens 28.8% of hands, we can still shove 22.9% of them ourselves – which is still assuming he’ll be calling optimally (which he’s not).
2) Here’s a more typical opening frequency. I’ve ran a few simulations lumping hundreds of regulars into one alias and going over their average tendencies, and I’d say that on average the field seems to open about 55% here. So, here’s what we can shove profitably against a 54.8% opening range (22+, Ax+, Q2s+, Q6o, J3s+, J7o+, T6s+, T8o+, 96s+, 98o, 86s+, 75s+, 65s, 54s):
As you can see, we can get away with shoving an insane amount of hands (40.6% of them, to be exact). Does this sound crazy? Well, it kind of is. Some takeaways:
- Not shoving a hand like A2o or 22 here is now absolutely criminal, as both print a ridiculous amount of money.
- See how K5s makes a bunch but J9o is still losing? Hold that thought – we’ll get there soon.
- This is still assuming that our opponent calls correctly, which in this case would be 31.8% and include hands such as K8o, K5s and JTo. Very few players are calling that garbage in reality, which makes shoving even more profitable.
3) Lastly, let’s look at the tendencies of a really aggressive button raiser. While this number may seem extreme, I can promise you that these players do exist. I have hundreds of winning regulars in my database who open over 80% over a big sample. And remember: if the blinds are defending less than 55% of the time, the button is making an automatic profit opening 100% of hands! So, here’s what we can shove against a button opening range of 80% of hands (worst hands are T4o, 95o, 32s, 92s, etc):
- We can go all-in with 74s and make money.
- We can go all-in with K2o and make A TON of money.
- Not shoving Q7s or K3s seems almost crazy because they just print so much.
- Now look at 97o, the hand in our first example. It’s still losing!
- Take a good look around the picture in general. What does really stick out? The two left columns and the two top rows. They are not only all green, but they make huge numbers of blinds, yet at the same time they have a bunch of hands that are tough to play post-flop like K5o, A2o and Q4s. Amazingly, hands that are much easier to play post-flop (98o, 86s, etc) make much less in comparison as a shove, which makes constructing our ranges quite easy.
So, should we be making all these mathematically correct shoves, then? Of course not, and there’s several reasons why:
- We might be overestimating our opponent’s opening frequency
- We’ll get called lighter in the futureif we get caught shoving light
- Shoving raggedy hands adds a ton of variance
- ICM considerations.
If your opponent opens 50% of the time and calls with the top 15% of hands, you’re still going to get called almost a third of the time,. Taking that gamble for your tournament life is never fun (especially since you’re usually behind).
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It’d be pretty difficult to make a steady living playing MTTs if you always pushed every edge that equity calculating software suggests. But, as I said before, they give you a basic foundation. If you’re well-versed in equity calculations, you always know roughly how much you can shove (in my experience, it’s virtually always more than you’d expect specifically when you’re in the big blind). You now have a very effective way to play against people who open too many hands. No one’s going to exploit you by opening 72o if you’re capable of shoving 74s or K2o. Or if they try, you’re getting the best of them every time.
So, let’s go back to our original spot. Our opponent opens on the button, the small blind folds, and we’re in the big blind with 19 big blinds. It would clearly be wrong to just play a shove/fold strategy. Against that 55% open range in the second scenario, we could already shove 40% of hands right back, but it just isn’t a plausible strategy.
Here’s a quick, very simplified example on how I’d play different hands in the big blind against a generic reg in our scenario. This is also assuming that I’m multi-tabling and don’t really have a lot of time and energy to play speculative holdings, and want to avoid some tough spots post-flop.
Blue means flat, red means shove, and please don’t get stuck on any individual hands (this is a rough estimate):
We are now shoving 16.1% of hands, which is something we can EASILY get away with against a 60% button raiser. There’s only one adjustment he can make to stop this range from printing money: start opening less hands himself.
I think the optimal 3-betting number might actually be a bit higher, since people typically call a little too tight in these spots. But anyway, on top of all those shoves, we are now flatting 29.3% of hands.
Key things to take note of:
- We want to flat hands that play well post-flop, such as suited one-gappers. With a hand like T8s, there aren’t that many problem flops – if you flop a pair, it’s often at least middle pair, your draws can nearly always stand at least one bet, and you flop a monster draw reasonably often. When the flop comes A-K-2 rainbow, you can just fold to a c-bet. I’d generally always flat JTo, Q9s, T8s type hands – even though they make a lot as shoves, we can’t actually shove 40% of hands as our strategy here, and these hands play amazingly well post-flop.
- We want to always push hands that aren’t as easy to play post-flop but that have a huge edge shoving. A hand like A-2 or 2-2 makes a huge amount of money as a shove, but good luck continuing with either on virtually any missed flop.
- In all my time running simulations, I’ve concluded that the best pure bluff 3-bet shove hands are usually Kxs hands. If the button was opening 100%, I’d shove every J2s-J5s, Q2s-Q5s, K2s-K5s here without flinching, but against the 60% range we have to fold or flat the worst of these. Low Kxs-Jxs hands make for great bluffs, because again they aren’t easy to play post, but have enough equity when called to make a profit. Even though, for example, QTo makes a notch less than K6s as a shove, I would virtually always flat QTo and shove K6s. QTo is easy to play post, and while K6s isn’t a nightmare either, it’s definitely harder.
- It’s best to slowplay AA some portion of the time for deception and to balance our flatting range a bit.
- I’d almost always shove any offsuit Ax.
- Shove most suited Ax, but occasionally flat something like A5s or A8s for deception.
- I’d happily skip the most marginal shoves and instead just flat hands like 75s and Q5s. The risk just isn’t worth the tiny profit.
- We are now playing back at the button 45.4% of the time, meaning that unless the small blind is a gigantic nit, the button is no longer making automatic profit by opening any two (if he’s good post-flop, he still might be).
Why Math and Maximum Exploitation Isn’t Perfect
I don’t believe we should push every edge. This is especially true in MTTs, where the vast majority of the money comes from weak players.
There are dozens of people in any given MTT who are playing so poorly that they’re virtually trying to donate you their money. So why risk it all by shoving some questionable hand against a good regular? You often shouldn’t.
It’s always a fine line between allowing yourself to get exploited too much and just being smart. A good example is trying to figure out an optimal button open raising frequency in the above example against the field. I’ve again run a lot of simulations with large player groups, and I’m convinced that you could get away with opening at least 70% of buttons in most scenarios and print a lot of money.
Yet when I look at my database of 1.6 million hands, guess how many of them I’ve opened? 46 percent. While this number is definitely too low (I play 25 tables at a time, which is my excuse), I do think that for most of us, something like 55-60% would probably actually be optimal. Not from a direct exploitation standpoint, but in the big picture.
Not playing all those problematic hands not only takes away some variance, but playing 70% open ranges (or big blind defending ranges) can actually cost us money if we don’t know what we’re doing post-flop.
If I was Doug Polk, I’d probably open 100% of my buttons and defend 95% of my big blinds against random MTT player idiots (ahem!). But I’m not, and the fact is that I’m not convinced I wouldn’t make big mistakes in pots where I flop 3rd pair with 85o, or when I need to decide whether or not to double barrel my gutshot with 63s.
There’s just so much easy money to be made, that unless you’re a world class player, I think it’s sensible to pass up on some of the edges. When it comes to shoves, it’s more like the opposite; the bigger edge you have over the field, the less thin shoves you should be making. If I were Doug Polk, I’d flat some of the hands that I advocated shoving in the previous example.
We concluded early into this article that we need 18.9% raw equity to call that 97o. I would certainly always flat that hand, and I don’t think it’s close, but I wouldn’t flat 74o, even though that, too, has enough equity against virtually any opening range.
This is because so often we just don’t get to realize that equity, and when we do see turns and rivers, we often just lose more and more money with our worst hands. The 18.9% is almost a meaningless number when there are still three streets left to be played.
It’s next to impossible to figure out a precisely correct pre-flop range for any hand that could include multi-street play, but I hope that this article at least gave you some idea.
Part 2 of this article series will be on how to play from the big blind with a tiny stack — click here to check it out.
(Note: You’ve gotten a lesson in short stack play, now how about giving deep stack poker a try? The Upswing Lab is a poker training course developed Doug Polk and Ryan Fee that focuses on deep stack play in both cash games and tournaments, live and online. Learn more by clicking HERE or below!)
Read more from Miikka Anttonen’s Modern Short Stack Play series:
- How to Combat Steals with a Tiny Stack (part 2)
- How to Master Short-Stacked Small Blind Play in Blind vs Blind Battles (part 3)
- Make More Money in Big Blind vs Small Blind Clashes (part 4)