How to Isolate Short Stacks

One core objective that you have for every sit n go or tournament that you play is to build a workable stack. By workable, I mean a stack that gives you the freedom to make plays such as stealing the blinds, reshoving and isolating players without having to worry about your stack size or tournament position if you lose. Especially if you make a play and have to fold.

Workable stacks also allow you to abuse situations such as the bubble, and avoid having to take thin spots to stay alive in the tournament.

That said, building a workable stack in sit n go’s is easier said then done. Sometimes you don’t get hands and other times you’ll run bad. So you need to have an assortment of strategies to get the job done.

One of those strategies is isolating short stacks. Short stacks are players with 10 big blinds are less that are shoving so that they can maintain a stack with fold equity. Isolating short stacks can be very effective in building a workable stack, as they’ll usually boost your stack by 10 to 50 percent, or more. Not to mention that you also eliminate a player from the field, putting you that much closer to the money.

Although isolating short stacks is a solid strategy for building a stack for the late game, it does take a little bit of know how and experience to be any good at it. More specifically, trying to figure out ranges and understanding risk versus reward. Below I cover these concepts in more detail.

Figuring Out the Short Stack’s Range

The most important thing that you need to do before isolating a short stack is determine their range. It would make no sense to isolate a player with K9s if they never show up with worse, right? The idea is to isolate short stacks when you’re confident that you’re ahead of their range most times than not.

Note: You won’t always be ahead of a short stack’s range. They get good cards too, so sometimes you’ll hit the top of their range. Sometimes you’ll be flat out wrong, too. It happens.

A range isn’t something that you pluck out of mid-air, at least not if you’re a winning player. There are variables that make up a player’s range that you need to consider before isolating them.

What Position Are They Shoving From?

The easiest way to look at ranges and position is that the more players that a short stack has to shove through, the stronger the range of hands they’ll have. That’s because the more players they have to shove through, the more likely they are to be called.

On the other hand, the fewer players that someone has to get through, the wider their range is likely to be. There are less players likely to call them.

For example, a player under the gun with 10 big blinds in a 9-handed game will shove something like AT+, KQ+ and 8s+. So you’ll want to isolate with a tighter range, say, AQ+ and JJs+. However, the same player in the cutoff will shove a range like A8s+, KTs+ and 22s+, so you can get away with a slightly wider isolating range like ATs+, KQs+ and 8s+.

Also be aware of any pressure that a short stack might be under. For example, if they are under the gun and will lose fold equity if they take the blinds again, they’ll be damn near on any two cards (except for regs). Or if they look like they can take the blinds and maintain fold equity, but you look and see that the blinds might increase the next hand (when they’ll be in the big blind), they might also be wider than normal.

What Type of Opponent is Shoving?

You have two types of opponents — regulars (regs) or randoms (fish). They will have different ranges. Sometimes drastically different.

For example, most regs know what they are doing. As a short stack, you can (and should) assume that when they shove they’re wide. So, you can isolate them wider than other players. When you do isolate them, you also have the opportunity to knock out the better players, which is an added bonus.

What do you do if you don’t know their range? Just use your own. In other words, if a reg shoves from middle position with 8 big blinds, ask yourself what you’d shove there. Once you see their hand, make your adjustments (and take notes).

When it comes to the random player or fish, you’ll find that isolating them can be frustrating. Random players don’t understand the concepts behind shoving with 10 big blinds or less, so they’ll sit around until they have a pair, ace-rags or KQ. So I wouldn’t bother isolating them unless you know they’re good enough to shove wide, or you have a grasp of their range. Otherwise, from experience I can tell you that you’ll isolate with a hand like KQ and they’ll almost always show up with ace-rags.

How Many Blinds Do They Have?

To determine a range, you also need to look at the stack size. How many big blinds do they have?

As a rule of thumb, the deeper the stack, the more fold equity they have. That means their range will be narrower. On the other hand, the smaller the stack, the wider their range, because they’re trying to maintain what little fold equity they have left.

Putting All the Variables Together

When you combine all of these variables together, you can get a pretty good idea as to what someone is shoving. Like I said, you won’t always be ahead since even short stacks pick up good hands.

You won’t always be right either.

Once you see your opponent’s hand (or a few hands), I recommend taking notes. Record what hand they showed up with, from what position and their stack size, as well as any thing else that might be important. Are they a reg? Are there a bunch of regs or fish to your left? Has all of their shoving opportunities been taken?

All of these things will affect someone’s range, and having this info will help you improve your accuracy of assessing someone’s range.

Considering Risk vs. Reward When Isolating Short Stacks

The last thing I wanted to talk about regarding isolating players is considering the risk and rewards. In other words, sometimes it will make sense to isolate a player because of their range and the odds that you’re getting, but it isolating them still won’t be the most optimal play.

For example, here are some reasons why you might pass on isolating a short stack:

  • You have a workable (deep enough) stack. Any play you make with a deep enough stack should be low risk. In other words, you should have a good grasp on the short stack’s range. Otherwise, you’re better off passing it up.
  • There are other low-risk opportunities to pick up chips. For example, if the players to your left are extremely tight and let you steal the blinds frequently.
  • Calling and losing will take you from first or second in chips to last or second to last.
  • Calling and losing would change the dynamics at the table. For example, you might not be able to abuse the other players, or losing would mean that another reg has a bigger stack than you. By calling and losing you’d be setting yourself up to be abuse by the other players.
  • It makes more sense to keep the short stack as leverage. For example, if you wanted to abuse the bubble, keeping a short stack alive makes more sense then knocking them out and ending the bubble.

Do you see what I mean? Just because you can isolate a short stack doesn’t always mean that it’s the most optimal play.

And that’s pretty much it for isolating short stacks. Just learn how to assess ranges and when you should and shouldn’t isolate players. Once you do, you’ll find that isolating players is an excellent way to build a workable, final table stack.