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Harsh Realities - Part II

Impact #3: Extreme Playing Styles

Common grumbling I hear voiced by players new to the shorthanded game is that loose, hyper-aggressive competition seems unstoppable. Ironically, I have also witnessed inexperienced players struggle mightily versus dreadfully passive foes who seldom demonstrate their hand's strength, instead incessantly catching the bluffs of others. Of course, there are also countless shades of aggressiveness in between. Facing so many diverse approaches can be complicated and frustrating. Failing to adjust to each extremity can severely weaken the most solid approach. For that reason, there is no guaranteed, solitary tactic to win money in shorthanded poker, but there can be many ways to lose.

Shorthanded poker is home to extremist methodologies for two reasons. First, extreme styles will profit in many games. Second, player psychology (i.e. how a player interprets the game's action) may lead to many misconceptions about how the shorthanded game should be played.

Diverse systems profit in shorthanded games for many of the reasons discussed in Impact #5 below. To summarize, the average player is unable to adjust quickly, doesn't realize what exactly the radical competitor is doing, and/or tilts at the strange plays and bad beats of their opponent. A classic example is that of the severe calling station. In shorthanded poker, most players recognize that bluffs and semibluffs are normally vital lines of attack. However, less observant individuals fail to consider the exceptions to the rule. They will bet, raise, or reraise the passive player with confidence they are selecting the correct play. However, the calling station won't fold; every bluff and semibluff effectively becomes nothing more than a desperate attempt to complete a drawing hand, all the while putting more money in the pot before the draw is fulfilled. Semibluffing can be a powerful, profitable play. But if a solid player fails to adjust to the passive calling station, they will unnecessarily lose startling amounts of money using their customary procedures. Meanwhile, the passive player finds justification for his immoderate style, albeit only in the short run or against less-skilled opposition. Such a player would see their bankroll diminish steadily in a full-ring game, since most bets and raises are legitimate. But the proclivity of semibluffs and bluffs in shorthanded poker provides an illusion of appropriateness to their passivity.

Player psychology can also lead to radical tactics, attributable to lack of knowledge, experience, or a misunderstanding of the long-term view of the shorthanded game. For example, if one watched a hyper-aggressive counterpart have his way at a 3-handed table, piling up profits while amassing suckouts and beats, they might believe that a hyper-aggressive approach is the best one to follow at all shorthanded games. (This is a view I have heard expressed on numerous occasions.) Or, a different competitor might showdown any pair, raise repeatedly on the flop or turn with position, always defend their big blind, always 3-bet with any pocket pair, and/or any number of other tendencies built on flawed logic that accounts for only some game conditions. For instance, a player might decide that raising on the turn is always profitable because they have read an article or seen a good player make the "turn raise" play on them repeatedly. But applying this example to all cases would be inappropriate. While it might be correct to raise every single time on the turn against a tight, passive opponent, it would certainly be a blunder to apply this style of play against a calling station.

Veteran shorthanded players will be familiar with very many otherwise good players who show such steadfast tendencies. On the other hand, an inexperienced player may view such "bad play" as lunacy or the acts of a maniac. A person who has not delved deeply into the motives for their opponent's maneuvers might fail to adjust properly, leading to monetary loss, frustration, and tilt.

Impact #4: Constant Conflict
In shorthanded poker, the faint of heart need not apply. It is simply impossible to wait only for stalwart hands that can be pushed to victory. In full ring-games, it is my general experience that even tight, weak players will earn a small profit or break even by utilizing very selective starting hands and avoiding major confrontations without the nuts (or very strong non-nut holdings).

In shorthanded poker, tight preflop standards might be excused since a good number play terribly loose. But avoiding confrontations is a recipe for disaster, especially in the long run. If an otherwise good player lays down their marginal hands every time and/or opts to 'save money' by never paying off on the river, they will be run over by an vigilant rival and by an observant loose, aggressive challenger.

Example 4. 3-handed. Button raised, small blind folded, big blind calls.
Flop is Qc 7h 4h. 4.5 small bets in the pot.
Big blind has 8d 7d.

I use this example because it is so typical of the shorthanded experience. The button has initiative. If we presume the button is a fairly tight player who would not raise without a legitimate hand, then the blind has a dilemma. Clearly, the button might be in the lead by holding a pocket pair over sevens, a pair of queens, or even a set. The button might also hold overcards to the big blind's second pair (very likely), a flush draw, or even a straight draw. Weaker players will check-call the flop with their second pair and check again on the turn because their hand appears "marginal."

This is a problematic choice wrought from the tendency by such players to avoid confrontation when lacking clear-cut strength. The weak player is often unaware of the gravity of their mistake since their pair of sevens will hold up a majority of the time, will improve on the turn other times (even earning a successful check-raise on the turn), or will act as a bluff-catcher against overly aggressive players. But against most opponents, a call is flawed: there is no pressure on the button to make a mistake. The button can correctly check the turn or river, will gain relatively cheap or free cards to improve and beat the big blind, or may even earn a scare card that will cause the big blind to fold his pair of sevens on the turn or river.

Example 4a. 3-handed. Button raised, small blind folded, big blind calls.
Flop is Qc 7h 4h. 4.5 small bets in the pot.
Big blind has 8d 7d. Big blind check-calls the button's bet.
Turn is Qc 7h 4h Kh. 6.5 small bets in the pot.

This is a classic example of the type of card that could decimate the big blind. Do they check-call now or pray the button has still missed? What if the button has AJ, AT, 66, 55, 33, 22, JT, T9, 98, J9, T8, or any of a number of other combinations that may not have called on the flop? Won't the button successfully bluff with such a scare card on the turn? On the other hand, the button might hold KJ, KT, K9, AhXo, or any number of other possible hands that would have folded on the flop but now are fairly strong on the turn. Lastly, the button may have held A7, T7, 97, JJ, TT, 99, or 88; if the big blind had taken the initiative away from the button with a timely check-raise on the flop, they would likely earn the whole pot on a turn bet.

It is not my intention to suggest that a check-raise on the flop would be correct every time in this scenario (although I argue it is best against most opponents) or that an aggressive approach is always correct (again, it is best against most opponents). But always playing second pair and other marginal holdings passively is most definitely wrong.

The dilemma is that most full-ring players may have never faced scenarios where they were check-raising on the flop with second pair, calling down with small pair, or 3-betting with starting hands such as KQo, JTs, 88, ATs, or worse. But against many shorthanded opponents, this attacking style is essential; othertimes, the willingness to showdown weak pairs (e.g. against a habitual bluffer) is paramount. These ideas are foreign to many full-game players, but they are imperative to succeed in the long-term. Players who are uncomfortable with such fervent clashes must either amend their mindset or circumvent the shorthanded game altogether.

Impact #5: Poker PhD Required
When I started playing shorthanded poker, it wasn't about the possibility of making money or the excitement of playing more hands per hour. It was all about the challenge of something new. Let's face it. Full ring games are filled with players who may have played the same games for decades, working their way to a basic strategy through trial and error. Or, their patient personality might provide them discipline to overcome most players' greatest weakness: loose play. And even the new players often have read one or more first-rate poker books or articles to help minimize their initial losses (a good example our PSO students are following.) These players keep their losses low, but few of them are likely to ascend to the role of consistent, significant winner without substantial effort. They mask their weaknesses (incapability to understand strategy implications, lack of emotional control, inability to quickly adjust, and failure to give full effort) with the support of the full-game structure.

But shorthanded poker will not allow someone with these vulnerabilities to maintain their bankroll over the long haul. In fact, the very nature of shorthanded poker will highlight and expose otherwise break-even full-game participants.

Incapability to Understand Strategy Implications
With so many "marginal" decisions and small edges, a solid understanding of strategy implications (re: poker mathematics) is critical to deal with all of the judgments that are not "automatic" or familiar. Impact #1 of this lesson deals specifically with small edges. The real danger of small losses and marginal decisions is that an inexperienced shorthanded player may never be sure why they are losing. The big hands and bad beats will be obvious, but the importance of correctly assessing marginal decisions can be easily overlooked. Mistakes and losses will add up at a brutal clip.

Lack of Emotional Control
Bad beats will test emotional control and stability in any environment, but the constancy of bad beats in shorthanded poker will at times wear away the most solid façade. Inability to forecast an opponents' specific holdings leads to inescapably frequent "educated guesses" with the knowledge many will be wrong. The risk of frustration can mount over time due to the inevitable mistakes, so tilt is a constant factor.

Inability to Adjust Quickly
The need to modify one's fundamental style is minimized in a full ring game, especially at lower and middle limits. A solid approach will take the money in the long run, and the winning player capitalizes on opponents' procedural mistakes. In a shorthanded game, a failure to adjust is the surest way to lose, especially once a player rises above the lowest limit games. Moving targets and extreme opposition require a winning player to constantly shift their own plan. One of the surest ways to separate the winners and losers at shorthanded poker will be to examine their ability to alter, tweak, and fine-tune their style.

Failure to Give Full Effort
Last but not least, failure to give full effort gives rise to a whole slew of other problems in shorthanded play. As I have mentioned, many players break even or win a little in full ring games by simply playing a tight/aggressive system. They do not need to notice more than the most obvious tendencies of their opposition because their style consists of nothing more than straightforward, conservative play--with little bluffing or inconsistency. But failure to give full effort will lead to two critical failings in shorthanded play: incapability to perceive opponent weaknesses and lack of practice reading opponent's hands. An unobservant, inflexible player will get beat badly in a shorthanded game.

So, what traits are best suited to a person in a shorthanded game?

  • Analytical-Constantly considers the merits of each play.
  • Rich in poker knowledge-Able to handle complex probabilities.
  • Emotionally Stable-Avoids tilt and handles big win/loss swings.
  • Flexible-Considers all options and adjusts quickly to changing conditions.
  • Focused-Always observes others and considers how to counter.
  • Willingness to be Confrontational-Pushes small edges and bluffs when necessary.

Not surprisingly, these skills are also valuable in a full ring game. However, we have demonstrated their particular merit in a shorthanded context. Understanding strategy is fundamental to the shorthanded game, yet it remains only one of the necessary skills required to be a winning player. Hopefully, you can answer some serious questions. Is shorthanded the best game for your abilities? Does your weakness in one area overshadow your strengths? And most importantly, what do you need to do next to improve your game?

If your answers to those questions are positive, or you believe you can improve your disposition to match the necessities of shorthanded play, then you have gained the first key to unlock the sometimes mysterious nature of shorthanded poker. Until next lesson, good luck!

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