Phil Hellmuth and Liv Boeree: playing with a short stack

Phil Hellmuth is well known for his short stack poker skills and Liv Boeree is a proponent of the new school maths. Here’s what they make of playing a 20BB stack in real-life situations…

Phil Hellmuth

With the arrival of internet poker on a global scale in 2004 came many new interesting mathematical solutions for no-limit hold’em. With these gleaming new theories in their arsenal many of the ‘new school’ – players who came primarily from the internet – began to win the world’s biggest poker tournaments.

But was this entirely due to the sheer number of new school players? There are 1,000,000 or more new school players versus 500 old school players. Although the old school players add up to less than 0.1 percent of the total players in the game, it would be a big mistake to think that the gigantic number of new school players is the only explanation for their disproportionate success.

There are many great new school players who will stand the test of time, and there are many great new school theories that are so good they have already altered the tournament poker landscape forever.

In this article, I am going to focus on one such theory: the short stack theory developed by the new school. I have asked Liv Boeree to represent the new school. Liv will help me examine the differences between my own short stack approach (which has served me well since 1988) and the new school theories. A short stack is considered a stack containing 20BB or less. Context will be needed, so Liv and I will compare and contrast these theories both in online and live tournaments.

20BB stack

Phil Hellmuth

To me, 20BB does not seem short! After all, you can fold two rounds in a row (a whole 18 hands) and lose only 3BB to 5BB – depending on whether or not there is an ante each hand. But the new school theory has rules for a 20BB stack, based on playing countless online tournaments. According to Liv, these are the rules:

  • Your opening ranges become tighter than before. You can rarely call three-bets with this stack size and therefore you should avoid opening speculative hands such as suited connectors unless your table is particularly passive.

  • Bet sizing, both preflop and especially postflop, should be smaller (e.g. 1/3-pot instead of your usual 1/2-pot bet). This is to give you more manoeuvrability; when you have value hands, you can still easily get your entire stack in by the river and, because your opponent knows this too, it allows you to make cheaper, more believable bluffs.

  • 3-bet shoving over a raise in late position becomes an option. It’s impossible to give predefined shoving ranges as it is always dependent on your situation. Fortunately there are a number of equity calculators that can help you deduce a correct shoving range. A particularly good site is www.holdemresources.net, which includes some free and purchasable calculation software.

  • You can of course still call preflop raises with hands as you would with a deeper stack. It just becomes much more important to consider the postflop playability of your hand. For example, if you are on the button and facing a raise from the cutoff, small pairs should be shoved as they have strong preflop value and your stack is too shallow to allow for set mining. However, you can still call with a hand like K-J or Q♠-J♠ because it often dominates the cutoff’s holding and plays well postflop.

  • Depending on ICM, it may become correct to open shove some hands to force your opponents to fold almost everything, such as when you are close to a money bubble. Again, ICM calculators can help you work out exactly when/ if you should be shoving.

I love Liv’s new school rules, except one. Personally I’m not keen on shoving 20BB with a small pair when faced with a raise from the cutoff. To me, whether or not I would make this all-in move is completely read dependent. If I read my opponent to be weak, then I would pull the trigger and move all-in with a small pair. If I read my opponent to be super strong, then I might call a 2.5BB raise and set mine, or I may opt to fold right there and then.

However, if I’m facing an opponent on the internet then I would, more often than not, move all-in. The only time I wouldn’t move all-in is if I have noticed that my opponent has been playing really tight, in which case I would suspect that he is a lot more likely to have a hand that he could call me with.

Example 1

Blinds are 1,000/2,000/300, you are on the button with 40k (20BB). You have 4-4, and everyone has folded to you. What do you do?

Phil Hellmuth

I would raise it up to 6,000 (3BB) and hope that both players in the blinds fold. If either player in the blinds opted to move all-in, then I would fold.

Liv Boeree

Normally I would raise to 4,000 (2BB), which is my usual raise size with all hands during the middle and late stages of a tournament). This is because a min-raise usually achieves the same as a 3BB raise when the average stack is shallower and it’s important to maintain manoeuvrability.

Furthermore, since I’m only raising to 4,000 I lose less of my stack if I have to fold to an opponent’s re-raise. However, Phil’s bigger raise size has some merit if the players in the blinds are loose-passive. We want to avoid players defending a wide range of overcards versus our small pair and forcing us to make difficult decisions postflop for our entire stack.

If the blinds are especially aggressive, I often raise with the intention of calling a jam. This is because there are some hands in their shoving range that we dominate such as A-3, A-2, and a substantial number of hands we’re flipping against.

Alternatively, you can profitably open shove the button if you know they’re very aggressive and don’t fancy the variance!

Example 2

With eight players remaining (playing two four-handed tables) in the 2012 World series of Poker $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em 6-Max tournament, six-time WSOP bracelet winner Layne Flack was on the button.

After Greg Merson folded the cutoff, Layne looked down at 10-9 with a stack of 230,000 (19BB) with the blinds at 6,000/12,000-2,000. Layne raised to 26,000, thinking that he had a tight table image and that 26,000 would have the same effect as a 40,000 raise. Layne likes a min-raise because it gives him more manoeuvrability.

The player in the small blind re-raised to 62,000. Layne thought for a moment and then he decided that a 17BB stack played roughly the same as a 14BB stack, and thus he opted to call.

The flop was J-10-8, the player in the small blind moved all-in and Layne called, doubling up versus his opponent’s a-9.

Phil Hellmuth

Although i would have opened for 36,000, I like Layne’s logic (he had a tight image) and I don’t mind his min-raise to 26,000. However, I would have folded to the 36,000 re-raise. I don’t think that 10-9 is the best hand very often and it’s not easy to hit that hand hard. Too often you will flop nothing (and bluffing is not much of an option with a short stack against aggressive players) and be forced to fold on the flop. and then when you do hit, for example when it comes Q-9-4,you could easily be in bad shape for the rest of your stack. Personally, i’m looking to conserve my chips and save them for a better spot.

As for the player in the small blind, I would have made a read, and if I sensed weakness, then I would have made a much bigger re-raise, perhaps to 55,000 more to go (81,000 total). I do not want to get called, and for that reason, my re-raise sizing is bigger than the new school standards. If my read is right, then I want to force the issue (and make my opponent fold): power poker!

Liv Boeree

Obviously it is very tempting to call and see a flop due to the 3-bet being small, allowing us to see a relatively cheap flop. 10-9 offsuit is just too weak but 10-9 suited is very close: depending on how many bluffs the re-raiser has in his range, the minimum hand I would see a flop with is somewhere around J♠-10♠.

Layne’s point about a 17BB stack being worth around the same amount as a 14BB stack raises an interesting question; is calling and seeing a flop in this situation more or less profitable than getting one free orbit of hands? In this exact example where we are right at the bottom of our calling range, we have to make our decision based upon the range and playing ability of the small blind. If they are likely to be raising a range that mostly dominates our hand or are especially skilled postflop, then we should lean towards folding.

Example 3

Here’s an example featuring postflop play with this stack size. It’s folded around to us on the button with 10-9♠ with an 18BB stack in a 9-handed mid-stakes online tournament. The blinds are 50/100/10. the players in the blinds are reasonably tight and they both have us covered. What should we do?

Liv Boeree

We could make an argument for going all-in as, according to the equity calculator, 10-9 offsuit is exactly a break-even shove in this spot. If your opponents are very aggressive, we lean towards making this play, however in this example, the hand is playable enough against these opponents to make a small raise to 2BB. We do so, and the big blind calls. The flop is J♠-7-6 and the big blind checks to us. Do we bet and, if so, how much?

We have flopped some equity with a number of turns that can improve our hand, or give the perception of our hand improving. As such, our plan here is to bet small to maintain stack manoeuvrability for reasons discussed previously. We bet around 1/3-pot, 1.8BB into the 5.4BB pot. Villain calls. The turn is the (J♠-7-6)-Q♠ and he checks again.

This is a good card for our range. In addition to our flop value hands, we conceivably have a number of Q-10, Q-9 and Q-8 hands with which we would continuation bet. It also allows us to apply pressure to any one pair hands that our opponent most likely flopped. The pot is now 9BB – how much should we bet? We have 14.2BB left in our stack and we want to ensure we have enough chips to make a sizable river shove.

We bet around 35%-40% of the pot – 3.5BB. Villain calls. At this point, Villain’s range of hands is mostly one pair hands such as J-x, 8-7, 9-7, K-7, or A-7. He still has a few two pair hands but there aren’t many combinations of those, especially as the weaker two pairs would have likely check-raised by this point. He could also have a few combinations of A-10 that he just called preflop, called postflop because our bet was small, and has now turned some more equity.

The river is the (J♠-7-6♥-Q♠)-5♠. Villain checks. Do we go all-in?

The pot is 16BB and we have 10.7BB left in our stack, which is big enough to make any reasonable, thinking opponent fold one pair. His range has very few straights and flushes; 9-8 would have likely check-raised the flop or turn, and our 9♠ blocks a number of flush combinations he could have. Meanwhile, our range can still have rivered straights and flushes, some two pairs, top pair and not that many bluffs. Therefore, this is a good spot to go all-in and we will likely win a healthy pot.

Phil Hellmuth

If I’m playing super tight poker (like I usually do), then I would either fold the hand preflop, or open for 3BB (300). I would make my decision as to whether or not I raise or fold based on how often I have opened pots in the last 30 minutes (do my opponents think I’m playing super tight?).

If I have indeed folded a high percentage of hands over the last 30 minutes, then I would raise it to 300. My thinking here is that I want to give my super tight image a chance to win some much needed chips risk free. Also, opening for 3BB gives me a better chance to induce both blinds to fold preflop compared to opening for 2BB.

Assuming that I did open for 3BB, and that I was called preflop, then I think that putting a bet in on the flop after my opponent checks is reasonable. I also think that checking behind on the flop is a reasonable, but slightly weaker, play. I prefer a flop bet of about 50% of the pot size as it gives me (and my tight image!) another chance to win the pot.

Assuming that my 300 bet is called on the flop, I would check on the turn and take a free card. I am reasoning that I only have 1,200 left (after betting 300 and 300), and there is 1,200 in the pot. Thus my ability to bluff the next two streets is diminished. Plus, I think that most online players will call a 1,200 all-in bet into a 1,200 pot if they have a marginal hand, such as a pair of Sevens, in this spot. I don’t mind giving up here after running into resistance both preflop and on the flop. Of course, I can always hit my straight with a queen or an eight, or I could hit a pair of tens or nines. In the case of hitting a pair of tens or nines on the river, and my opponent checking to me, then I would value bet the river.

If my opponent did check to me on the river after the Five hit, I would probably give up and check back. I hate to surrender, but I feel like my opponent would call me with as a weak a hand as even a lowly pair of fives! Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.


This is an exclusive extract from the new book Jonathan Little’s Excelling at No-Limit Hold’em. In the book Jonathan Little brings together 17 of the greatest no-limit experts in the world including Phil Hellmuth, Liv Boeree, Chris Moneymaker, Mike Sexton and Jared Tendler.

  • In Part 1 strategies are analysed for topics such as understanding the fundamentals, satellite play, lower-buy in events, analysing tells and moving up in stakes.
  • Part 2 sees a thorough technical breakdown of the game including sections on range analysis, game theory optimal play, short stack strategies, value betting and final table play.
  • Part 3 deals with mental toughness, psychology and understanding tilt.
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