McHaffie: MCU lesson 079 / Short stacks

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2006.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 79: Short stacks and how to survive tournaments

I’ve been playing the bounty tournaments online at Mike has been stressing the importance of stack sizes and how to play when you have a significant stack or a sad stack.

The first lesson Mike taught me about tournament play was survival. Although, we often believe that we should play the same in tournaments as we would in regular games that just isn’t the case.


Mike says if the winner got to keep all of the money, then you could play the same way in both tournaments and regular games. Unfortunately, in most tournaments the winner reaches his position after many grueling hours of play, having acquired all the chips only to give much of the prize money away to players he’s already defeated. Mike refers to this as a penalty for winning the tournament. It does seem rather unfair to work so hard to achieve your final goal, merely to split the winnings with those you’ve already beaten. But that’s the reality. So, Mike says your goal is to survive until the late stages. He says by doing this you might not attain first place quite as often, but you’ll manage to be in the money more often. And that’s always a good thing. Overall, you’ll average more profit.

Now today’s topic: You should play differently when you have a large stack of chips compared to a smaller stack. Mike says it’s necessary to consider stack sizes when attacking other players. He recommends going after opponents who have smaller stacks. “By attacking opponents with smaller stacks than yours, you can get maximum value out of superior hands, knowing that you’ll still be able to survive in the tournament even if you meet with misfortune later.”

Challenging players with larger stacks than you have is unwise, unless you have a really significant hand or you’re very short on chips and desperate. If you do have a considerable stack of chips, and you’re challenged by an opponent with even more chips, Mike advises against usually taking the challenge. In a regular game you would play many marginally strong hands, but because you’re trying to survive in a tournament, you can’t take as many risks.


Mike taught me that as you’re getting down to those final chips, you should wait for a good hand before you commit. Those chips could enable you to double up and if you do that a couple of times, then you’re back in the hunt. So, be discriminating about which hands you select to risk your remaining stack.

Mike says that when you’re going to be in the big blind within the next hand or two and your chip count is so desperate that you’re not going to survive the blind, then you should play any credible hand that comes your way, instead of waiting for a really good hand that may not materialize.


That advice came in handy a couple of weeks ago when I was down to my last few tournament chips. Amazingly enough, and to my delight, I was dropped at the same table as Mike. I decided to play J-10 and flopped an open-end straight. In the blink of an eye I was heads-up with Mike, me with my meager chips, Mike with about $1,700 in chips. He put me all-in. The straight didn’t come, and Mike beat me with a pair of eights. I lost to my teacher, but what a way to go! He later complimented me on playing my cards correctly.

Or course, there’s more that I could go on about, and perhaps I will in a later lesson, but for now

I hope that I have helped by sharing some of Mike’s teachings about short stacks and how to survive tournaments. — DM

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