A Fail-Safe, Profitable Strategy for (Some Parts of) Poker Tournaments

EPT London

Wouldn't it be great to have an easy-to-follow poker strategy guaranteed to work no matter what your opponents do or what cards they're holding?

I'll answer that for you: It would. Unfortunately, such a strategy doesn't exist.

Good poker players have to rely on their brains and put in a lot of work to compete successfully.

That being said the Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings, which we’ll explain in this article, are very close to perfect strategy -- at least in certain, specific tournament situations. 

Perfect Strategies for Certain Situations in Poker

In certain situations in poker there are actually strategies that are guaranteed to yield a profit.

Surprisingly, these are also fairly easy to learn.

Poker in itself is immensely complex and most strategic advice includes a lot of situational conditions. 

Eg. "if your opponent is passive, then …" or "if you’ve been very tight in the last orbit and hold X, then …".

But there are situations that are really simple and where it's easy to come up with a perfect strategy that doesn't include lots of conditions.

If your stack's in a certain range, take note.

Pre-flop hands between the small and the big blinds are exactly that kind of situation.

Folded to You, Short-Stacked

Here we’ll focus on one specific situation: You're sitting in the small blind, your stack isn't too huge, it's folded to you and you have to decide what to do.

You might say: "That's a very specific situation – small blind, small stack, folded to me – how often will that happen?" 

The answer: In almost every poker tournament you play -- probably multiple times.

If you play any sort of short-stack cash game you'll also find yourself in such a situation quite often.

Example Situation: What Would You Do?

Let’s look at a specific example:

You're playing a winner-take-all tournament and there are four players left.

You're in the small blind. The two players in front of you fold and you look down to see K 6 – a hand with a high card but nothing else to it. 

To make things worse the player in the big blind is a really good player who rarely makes any mistakes.

The blinds are 100/200 (no antes) and you have 2,250 chips left. So what would you do?

With a hand like this out of position against a good opponent, quite a lot of players just throw their hand away without a second thought.

As you’ll see, though, that’s a mistake. Pushing all-in is the correct move in this situation.

As a matter of fact, moving all-in is correct even if your opponent knows exactly what you have and acts accordingly.

Assume Your Opponent Knows Your Hand

Works even if he knows your exact hand.

That's the idea behind the strategy here: We assume our opponent knows our hand.

He only calls when he gets the correct odds but folds otherwise.

Now we want to know: Depending on our stack, which hands can we profitably shove all-in with if our opponent knows our holding and plays perfectly against it?

This is a purely mathematical question. We know our hand (say K 6 from above example) and we know our stack (11 big blinds, also from example above).

We don't know which hands our opponent in the big blind holds but each possible combination is equally likely.

We assume our opponent calls with all better hands (like King-Seven or Ace-Deuce) but folds all hands that are worse (like Seven-Four or Queen-Jack).

Thus we can calculate how likely it is that our opponent will call us, our equity in this case and our winnings if he folds. Some simple-yet-lengthy math (which we won't detail) gets the calculation done and voilá:

David Sklansky
David Sklansky

It turns out that we can move all-in profitably with K6o whenever our stack is 13.3 big blinds or less -- even if our opponent knows our hand and plays perfectly against it.

The Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings

If we do those calculations for each possible starting hand then presto: we've got ourselves a more than useful strategy (or guidelines, if you like) for small-blind play.

David Sklansky and Victor Chubukov were the first to run all those calculations and they popularized this strategy under the name “Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings.”

Those rankings show the maximum stack for each hand that allows you to push your hand profitably from the small blind under the assumption that the big blind knows your hand and plays perfectly against it.

The following table shows the Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings for all possible starting hands.

It shows the maximum stack size you can profitably push with.

Suited hands are to the right and above the diagonal; off-suit hands to the left and below the diagonal.


For example: A-8 offsuit has a ranking of 36 and J-7 suited has a ranking of 9, meaning it’s definitely profitable to push all-in with J-7 suited if your stack is 9 big blinds or less.

What Are the Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings Good For?

In the preface I promised to show you a strategy that’s guaranteed to yield a profit and that’s exactly what the Sklansky-Chubukov-Rankings provide:.

You're going to come across these situations - alot.

A guarantee. A fail-safe.

Even if your opponent in the big blind plays perfectly against your particular hand you know whether it’s profitable to move all-in or not.

Especially in tournaments you’ll often encounter situations where you’re not sure about the strength of your hand.

It turns out that with decreasing stack sizes (in relation to the blinds) many weak-looking hands are still profitable pushes before the flop. 

Take a look at Q 5, the “Granny Mae” of poker.

It’s a rather innocuous looking hand. But as long as your stack is smaller than 10 big blinds, it’s better to move all-in from the small blind than to fold -- even if your opponent knows your hand.

If you feel you’re probably playing too tight in tournaments when the blinds grow huge, take a look at the Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings. It’s likely you’re undervaluing some hands and folding where a push is the better play.

Making Better Decisions with Sklansky-Chubukov

There are many ways to utilize these rankings and use them to improve your game.

First and foremost they give you an idea about hand strength and the power of moving all-in.

But they also give you some very useful guidelines for how and when to push in tournaments.

Some tips regarding Sklansky-Chubukov pushes:

1. You Can and Should Play Looser than Sklansky-Chubukov

David Sklansky
In general: The Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings are lower boundaries.

If the Sklansky-Chubukov-Ranking for a hand is 5, it means you can (and should!) push this hand with 5 big blinds or less.

But this doesn’t mean it’s incorrect to push with larger stacks. It just means that you don’t auto-profit even if you opponent knows your hand.

Fortunately your opponents usually don’t know your hand!

Take a hand like 8-6 suited. It has a Sklansky-Chubukov Ranking of 5. But this ranking assumes that your opponent calls your all-in with hands like Ten-Trey or 9-2 (because on paper they’re better than your hand).

In reality he will most likely fold those hands, making your shove profitable with way more than 5 big blinds.

In general: The Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings are lower boundaries. If your stack is lower than the ranking, a push from the small blind is better than a fold.

But even if your stack is bigger than the ranking, it can very well still be correct to shove instead of fold.

2. You Don’t Have to Push if There are Better Plays

The Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings don’t imply that you’re forced to push all-in whenever you have a hand which qualifies for the ranking.

That would be outright absurd in some cases.

Let’s say you’re playing a cash-game with 100 big blind stacks and find Ace-Queen-suited in the small blind.

This hand has a Sklansky-Chubukov Ranking of 137, yet it’s almost certainly wrong to just open-shove from the small blind.

A regular-sized raise would be the much better play.

Basically the Sklansky-Chubukov Ranking says: If you can only shove or fold, you’re better off shoving if your stack is below the ranking.

Bejeweled Button
Works from the button, too.

For stacks with 10 big blinds or less it’s usually correct to either shove or fold, but for bigger stacks smaller raises are a realistic option.

If you’re a decent player and are optimistic you can outmanoeuvre your opponent post-flop, go ahead and make a regular raise even if your hand qualifies for a Sklansky-Chubukov push.

3. Pushing with Antes and From the Button

One final tip: The Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings also work from the button and with antes in play, but you need to adjust a little bit.

With antes in play you can push quite a bit looser and you can multiply the Sklansky-Chubukov Ranking for any hand by 1.5 to get the correct ranking.

9-8 suited, for example, normally has a ranking of 8, but with antes in play you can profitably move all-in from the small blind with 12 or less big blinds.

The Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings also work from the button. But since you have two opponents (rather than one) the rankings are cut in half.

K-9 offsuit for example (which has a regular ranking of 18) is an auto-push from the button with 9 big blinds or less.

You can and should push looser from the button than the Sklansky-Chubukov Rankings indicate.

The blinds are usually calling much tighter than they would if they knew your hand, thus increasing your fold equity and thus increasing your profit when shoving.

4. Your Stack, His or Her Stack

Throughout this article I've referred to “your stack.” Of course you always consider your effective stack.

That’s the minimum of yours and your opponent’s stack.

For example: if you’re in the small blind with 100 big blinds while the player in the big blind only has 6 big blinds left, your effective stack is 6 big blinds, not 100.

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