Aggressive Short-Stack Play

Don't Go Quietly Into the Night

Short-stack PokerThere was gremlins and goblins, dragons and zombies, Lordy, what an awful site. I said: "Good buddy you may get me, but brother it's gonna be after the fight."
-- Buck Owens

I've written about tournament end games, and about how the best defense can be a good offense. In the "good offense" article, I wrote about an event during the Russian Revolution where a band of 125 anarchist cavalry soldiers were surrounded by twenty times as many communist opponents. The 125 attacked and routed their enemy.

Let's examine that a little closer. Suppose you were one of the anarchists. You would know that the communists were completely treacherous, brutal and untrustable. So what would you do? Surrender sheepishly? Simply fall on your sword and die? Not much life expectancy in those choices.

The most sensible course of action would be to attack, and fight ferociously for your life. Your chances of winning, and surviving, would be small, but greater than zero. Even one in a million is better than zero in a million.

In this way, being one of the 125 attacking anarchists would be pretty easy. You just have to fight with everything you have, with no illusions about your dim hopes. You might die, but taking some of the people wanting to kill you with you would have some appeal in itself.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a communist soldier. As one of 2500 men surrounding a force 1/20th the size of your own, you have to feel pretty good. But now imagine those 125 doomed anarchists charging straight at you!! All of sudden you don't feel so secure. One hundred twenty-five desperate men willing to do anything, no matter how brutal, to try to survive are now hurling themselves directly at you. You may think your group of 2500 will still prevail, but do you want to be one of the 80 or 120 or 350 of your group that dies in the battle to kill the 125?

In the historical battle, the 125 sent the 2500 into headlong retreat. Even though the 125 were greatly outnumbered, there were still enough of them to inflict much mortal harm on the specific individuals who directly tried to kill them.

The poker tournament lesson here is that you must not go quietly into the night. If you are going to lose, go down fighting. And then also, even when it looks like you will lose, it is possible that you still might win. That means that you should not give up, but more than that, it is vital that you fight your battles when you are still a threat. Fight while you can still hurt your opponent. If you are short stack at a final table, every one of your opponents might think you will be the next to be eliminated, but that doesn't mean they will want to put themselves at risk to eliminate you. They don't want to be one of the 80 or 120 or 350 to die just to kill you.

There are several aspects to this. First, don't blind yourself down to a pathetic stack, like a single chip. Somebody with one chip will never scare anybody. You want to be seen as 125 desperate, raging anarchists, not a one chip cupcake. Hurl yourself into battle while you still can wreak havoc like 125 anarchists.

When it gets down to head-up this concept doesn't really exist, but when you have at least two opponents make it so your opponents know that killing you may hurt or wound them significantly. Be aggressive, exude recklessness even, and do it while you still can damage your opponents. If you are three-handed, and they both have 100 chips while you have thirty chips, neither of your opponents will be anxious to play pots with you if you are aggressively attacking. But if you only have five chips, you won't scare them at all. Your game boils down to having to turn over the best hand time and again. Better to attack and get your opponents to retreat. Make them scared of you.

Of course this means that you will lose earlier sometimes, but I'm not advocating a reckless style of play overall. I'm just saying that you should make your "final" stand sooner than most players tend to. Make it so your final, desperate battle for survival is even less appealing to your opponents than it is to you.

They may get you, but make sure it is after a fight.

See also Proper Poker Pacing, Risk Losing and Running Without the Ball