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Shorthanded Poker 09: Starting Hands

In this article, we examine the basic profitability of preflop holdings for shorthanded play. We won't examine a complex list of different groups. For the most part, a hand is either playable or unplayable in a shorthanded game, since there are no more than four 'non-blind' spots. The last lesson illustrated the necessity of raising preflop as a standard shorthanded approach, even though there may be exceptional circumstances that cause us to deviate from that strategy.

We begin by looking at the merits and flaws of each individual hand in a vacuum. Once those strengths are considered, we can adjust our strategy to common situations facing shorthanded players, as much as the scope of this article will allow.

The No-Brainers

We don't want to spend too much time analyzing hands that are very strong. Most of these hands are playable under-the-gun in a full game. Why waste time listing all their merits?

AA-TT
AK-AJ, ATs
KQ-KJ, KTs
QJ, QTs
JTs

I tried to remain conservative with this list. These 'no-brainer' hands should always be played for one bet, and I'd generally 3-bet with them against a normal shorthanded player.

Middle and Small Pocket Pairs

On the flop, the disparity in value between 99 and 22 depends on the number of opponents. Heads-up, a higher pocket pair is more likely to be an overpair to multiple flop cards. A pair of nines could earn extra bets from an opponent with Ax, Kx, small suited connectors, or a smaller pocket pair. Against several challengers, middle and small pocket pairs are hunting for a flopped set. The likelihood of a set is just as high with a pair of nines or deuces. Only the relatively insignificant prospect of set over set differentiates the value of each pocket pair.

In loose shorthanded games, smaller pocket pairs are very troublesome. Since low limit shorthanded games often feature 4 or 5 people seeing the flop, a small pocket pair can find itself in 'no-man's land'. On one hand, the chances of a small pocket pair winning unimproved are quite slim. On the other hand, there may not be enough contributors to provide adequate implied odds to flop a set and win a big pot, especially since shorthanded games frequently feature a double-bet preflop.

For that reason, small pocket pairs should often be folded in the loosest and most aggressive shorthanded games, while they should be played aggressively in tighter shorthanded games where heads-up confrontation may be achieved. A judgment call is required, but I recommend a base strategy that includes always playing a pair of sixes or higher, while folding 55-22 in earlier positions. Sometimes, I may even fold the smallest pairs on the button if the blinds play aggressively enough.

Suited Aces and Kings

Our no-brainer hands include ATs and above, as well as KTs and above. This section will consider the playability of all other suited aces and kings, all the way down to A2s and K2s.

The power of the Ace is obvious (although overrated), since it is feasible that Ace-high will win the pot in a heads-up confrontation. The value of a nut flush draw is also generally overrated, but the extra outs do nothing but help, since we can tally extra wins on semibluffs and backdoor draws. The biggest problem for suited aces is the kicker. While domination is a much smaller factor in shorthanded games, conflicts will still take place where two players hold Ace-'something'. As much as possible, we want to be the player holding the bigger 'something'. Almost all experts agree to play AXs in late position steal situations. The controversy begins when considering these holdings in early position, even in a 6-handed game. My base strategy includes raising with all suited Aces until action suggests a more prudent approach. It is the same tactic I take in a full-ring game where the first four players have folded. Unless the players behind me are especially aggressive, I want to play the suited Ace.

King-suited hands are not nearly as formidable. First, King-high is not as likely to win if neither player improves. Second, King-high hands are always vulnerable. While the possibility of AXs and KXs simultaneously completing a flush is remote, it does exist and is very costly when it happens. More often, KXs makes top pair on the flop only to lose if an Ace arrives on the turn or river. The extra three outs can be especially treacherous in combination with a legitimate flush or straight draw.

Despite its drawbacks, KXs remains profitable in the right spots. If there is a reasonable chance of stealing the blinds and a small likelihood of facing a reraise, I will always play KXs on the button.

Big Unsuited Hands

Big unsuited cards comprise a large number of the playable hands in shorthanded games. When discussing these holdings, I include any two cards nine or higher. Many big unsuited hands are listed under 'No-Brainers,' but some combinations are more questionable.

Often, limit players will avoid big unsuited hands such as ATo or Q9o out of habit. In a full game, a good player worries about being 'dominated'. For example, ATo loses loads of money to bigger Ace combinations. In a shorthanded game, these dominated scenarios are far less common. When a hand like Q9o flops top pair, it is quite likely the best hand versus one or two opponents. The importance of the kicker has been reduced while the magnitude of holding top pair has increased, since a shorthanded player can often anticipate earning bets from second and third pair. Furthermore, a shorthanded player can expect top pair to hold up a majority of the time. It is not necessary to always possess two pair or better.

These factors combine to amplify the value of unsuited big cards in a shorthanded game. Even under-the-gun in a six-handed game, almost all big unsuited cards are playable. Some of the more marginal hands should be folded, but hands such as QTo and K9s are still fairly robust when facing only five opponents with random hands, especially if there is still a sufficient opportunity to steal the blinds.

Small Suited Connectors

Last but not least, we must consider the high potential of the small suited connectors. In a full ring game, small suited connectors can be very powerful in the hands of an experienced contender. Hidden straights, small two pairs, and flushes can win hefty profits. However, the implied odds are far poorer in a shorthanded game. With reduced implied odds and the aggressive nature of most shorthanded games, small cards may be trapped in undesirable situations: small pairs or non-nut draws. For this reason, small cards are moderate losers in shorthanded games when considering their individual merit alone.

So, when are small cards playable? First, small suited connectors may be profitable if there is a good chance of stealing the blinds or winning the pot on the flop. The play of these small cards is tantamount to a semibluff. We're hoping to win the pot immediately, but if unsuccessful, there is a decent opportunity to make a strong hand. Second, small suited connectors help keep foes off-balance. In lesson 4, we discussed the concept of synergy in poker. Borderline suited connectors might help earn extra bets on other hands, or they can put an opponent on tilt. These long-term considerations should not be overlooked.

Putting it All Together

Now, we can piece together an overall preflop strategy. Once we've briefly highlighted a few issues that affect our preflop strategy, we can outline a range of beneficial holdings.

Position. There are only a couple seats separating under-the-gun from the button. However, position should be weighed, since every remaining player has the potential to hold a premium, dominating hand.

Experience. I recommend less experienced players shave off a few of the marginal holdings. While an expert might play marginal hands profitably from any spot shorthanded, a less experienced player will often squander extra bets by falling for trap hands.

Game Type. The chart below assumes a player is first to act and there is a reasonable chance of stealing the blinds. However, at many shorthanded games (especially low limit), blind stealing is virtually impossible. In such games, it is not uncommon to have three, four, or five players see every flop. Stealing on the flop is unprofitable in these games as well, and a showdown is usually required. To win, a good player needs a stronger hand. Marginal hands become losers and should often be folded, especially out of position. Furthermore, it may be sensible to call rather than raise behind limpers, since the need for a made hand significantly diminishes the importance of initiative.

Shorthanded Starting Hand Chart

I will assume a fairly normal shorthanded game with an average of two to three players seeing the flop and reasonable players in the blinds. As usual, if a hand does not have an 's' next to it, both offsuited and suited combinations are included.

Under-The-Gun (6-handed)

AA-66
AK-AT, A9s-A2s
KQ-KT, K9s
QJ-QT, Q9s
JT, J9s
T9s-98s

Early Position (or UTG 5-handed)

Add Q9o, T9o, 87s
AA-66
AK-AT, A9s-A2s
KQ-KT, K9s
QJ-Q9
JT, J9s
T9, 98s-87s

Cutoff

Add 55, A9o, K9o, K8s, J9o, T8s, 76s-54s
AA-55
AK-A9, A8s-A2s
KQ-K9, K8s
QJ-Q9
JT-J9
T9, T8s
98s-54s

Button

Add 44-22, A8o-A3o, K7s-K2s, Q8s, J8s, 97s-75s, 43s
AA-22
AK-A3, A2s
KQ-K9, K8s-K2s
QJ-Q9, Q8s
JT-J9, J8s
T9, T8s-75s
98s-43s

Conclusion

To be honest, I've been very hesitant to outline a specific hand chart. There are many variables that will influence the plan. In some games, I will play looser to take advantage of post-flop opportunities. In other games, I will tighten up and drop marginal cards, especially out of position. For sure, individual hands could be debated forever, but spending too much energy on these debates would be a mistake. Preflop play is only one small part of an overall strategy. Far more energy should be devoted to the flop, turn, and river. On the other hand, it's a lot easier to play well after the flop if we play well before the flop.

Until next lesson, good luck!

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