1. Harsh Realities (Part 1)

Thanks for taking your time and effort to learn about one of the hottest new trends in the poker world, shorthanded poker. Through my lessons at Poker School Online, I will help guide you through the rewards and challenges of the shorthanded game. I will focus my examples on limit Texas Hold’em, since it is by far the most popular form of shorthanded poker. Whether you are a beginner or an expert, there should be something for you in each of the lessons on this site. At the end of each three lessons, I will offer an online test. Now, let’s begin with Lesson #1.

In order to develop our shorthanded game, we should not dive immediately into specific strategy, hand selection, or advanced maneuvers. While each shred of knowledge accumulated can act as a weapon independently, its effectiveness is only maximized with comprehension of the general strengths and weaknesses of shorthanded play.

In my first article ever written at Poker Pages, I pointed out three fundamental differences between a shorthanded and full game of Texas Hold’em. Let’s briefly highlight them.

Fundamental #1: Short-handed play is fast (high average hands per hour.) Fundamental #2: Short-handed play is typically loose and aggressive. Fundamental #3: To win at short-handed poker, you must be observant.

During this lesson, we will examine the impacts caused by these underlying disparities.

Impact #1: Small Edges

There will always be distinct playing styles seen at the poker table, at full or shorthanded games. Players have different personalities, different thought processes, and different goals when they come to the poker table. Most players are familiar with the two main classifications comparing playing styles: tight/loose and passive/aggressive. At lower limits, most players fall into one of three combinations: loose/passive, loose/aggressive, or tight/passive. A proficient player may regularly win by simply utilizing an uncomplicated, relatively tight/aggressive style. Or as some players quip, “Wait ’til you have a strong hand–then bet, raise, and win a big pot.” In other words, a player in a full ring game can afford to wait around for strong flops that give their powerful holding a significant advantage over lesser hands. They can avoid many marginal decisions if they choose and still make money off other competitors’ follies.

So why can’t a player modestly wait for a big hand in shorthanded poker? The blinds are proportionally larger on a per hand basis. In other words, a shorthanded player cannot hang around for premium hands with huge edges, because the blinds eat away at their stack too quickly. In turn, there is a much larger range of playable hands, which affects one’s ability to read an adversary’s holding accurately. Let’s look at an example of how the struggle to read hands can challenge our goal to maximize profit.

Example 1. 5-handed. Cutoff raised, button and small blind folded, and big blind called.

Flop is K♣ J♣ 4♥. 4.5 small bets in the pot.
Big blind holds J♦ 10♠.

Second pair Jacks is a fairly strong holding against a heads-up opponent. Even if the preflop raiser was to 3-bet on the flop, they might still hold a large variety of hands.

The preflop raiser may hold strong hands such as AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AK, KQ, KJ, AJ, QJ, 44, or KXs.
The preflop raiser may hold drawing hands such as AQ, T9, QT, or any two clubs.
Or, the preflop raiser may hold weaker hands such as TT-55, A4, or worse.
In other words, even the best player can’t know for sure whether their second pair Jacks is ahead or behind in the hand, not to mention how many outs they might hold.

In a standard full ring game, the possibilities are far more limited, especially if the preflop raise was not from a steal position. In a full ring game (especially early or middle position), reasonable players are unlikely to raise KJ, QJ, 88-44, KXs, QT, T9, A4, and many of the holdings that include two clubs. In other words, in a full-ring game against a raise from middle or early position, the big blind’s second pair would not likely be ahead. In such a situation, the big blind could judge their actual outs with more accuracy, permitting a proper determination of when to fold against the typical opponent. (Of course, what is typical might vary from game to game.)

In a shorthanded game, the big blind’s second pair Jacks does not reveal an obviously correct play, but likely it would be quite wrong to fold immediately against most opponents. The large number of possible holdings is the principal factor complicating the big blind’s decision. Against some opponents, the big blind is ahead and should theoretically 4-bet the flop. Against other opponents, the big blind is behind but has sufficient odds and should call at least the flop. And against some opponents, the big blind is drawing dead or nearly dead and should fold immediately. With such uncertainty, the big blind is doubtful to maximize their profit or minimize their losses.

Shorthanded poker players, with such incomplete information, are forced to play the percentages. Put another way, they must make an “educated” guess.

Educated Guesses

In poker, some decisions are straightforward. If I have a hand that cannot win, I must simply calculate my odds of successfully bluffing versus the odds the pot is offering me. Even with such a basic appraisal, estimating my chances is not automatic. Pertinent factors include my opponent’s style, the “scariness” of the board cards, and how I played the hand on the flop and turn.

Decisions become more complex in shorthanded poker because there are extra factors to consider. The more possible hands the opponent might hold increases a decision’s complexity, as do other factors associated with shorthanded play. Going back to Example 1 above, some of the questions the big blind must ask include:

  • What is the likelihood my opponent would 3-bet semibluff? (Affects the probability the opponent holds QT or two clubs for example.)
  • What is the likelihood my opponent would slowplay a big hand? (Affects the probability the opponent holds KK, JJ, or hands such as AA and KK.)
  • What is the likelihood my opponent would raise preflop with 44, KXs, T9, A4, etc.? (Affects the probability the opponent holds a weaker, vulnerable hand.)
  • What does my opponent think I am holding? (Affects the probably the opponent would 3-bet weaker hands, since they might read the big blind as semibluffing.)
  • Even if I am losing now, how many outs do I have? Are there sufficient pot odds?

All of these questions must be answered in full and shorthanded games alike, but in most cases, the answer will be easier to predict in a full game. Question #5 holds special importance because it too includes many permutations. In some cases, the big blind is drawing dead. In other scenarios, the big blind would have 5 outs, 3 outs, or 2 outs (not including a backdoor straight draw).

  • On the flop, the pot is offering 9.5:1 odds to call after the preflop raiser 3-bets.
  • If a blank comes on the turn, the pot would then be offering 6.25:1 odds to call on the turn.
  • If another blank arrives on the river, the pot would be offering 8.25:1 odds to see a showdown.

Without overwhelming the article with calculations, if the big blind knows it’s pair of Jacks needs improvement and knows it has five clean outs, then the big blind has sufficient odds to call the flop, but insufficient odds to call the turn if a blank falls. On the other hand, two or three outs would not be sufficient to make a call on the flop correct (since the chances of a 3-outer hitting are only 14:1, implied odds are not likely to be sufficient.)

But there is a considerable glitch. The big blind may not be losing. If, for example, the preflop raiser held two clubs, the big blind will take down the pot unless a club or a matching overcard falls. With 9.5 small bets already in the pot, the big blind could call down the whole way if there is a substantial probability they are facing a drawing hand or weaker holding (although an Ac or Qc on the board would hurt the big blind’s chances immensely.)

Example 2. 5-handed. Cutoff raised, button and small blind folded, and big blind called.

Flop is K♣ J♣ 4♥. 4.5 small bets in the pot.
Big blind holds J♦ 10♠. Cutoff holds A♣ 5♣.
Cutoff bets, big blind check-raises, and cutoff reraises. 9.5 small bets in the pot.

At this point in the hand, the big blind is a 54.4% favorite to win. Even if the cutoff held Q♣ 10♣, the big blind would still win 37.4% of the time. If the cutoff is likely to hold a drawing hand, or a weaker pair, then the big blind must call down, especially if only blanks hit. But what if a club falls? Or an Ace? Unfortunately, it depends. Against a very aggressive opponent, the big blind might call no matter what falls. Against a tight opponent, the big blind might fold on the turn. The decision depends on the opponent’s tendencies, and even with knowledge of those tendencies, the big blind will often make the wrong choice.

The speculation, the questions to consider, and the examples are meant to indicate four critical points.

  1. Making the theoretically proper play in shorthanded poker is customarily far more troublesome when compared to a full ring game.
    Since the proper play is so difficult to predict in each exact situation, many players are forced to use an imperfect “educated guess” approach where they react the same way every time certain conditions are present. For example, they might always fold quickly against some tight opponents and always call down against certain loose, aggressive opponents.
  2. They might never fold top pair or always call down with any pair when there are two flush cards on the flop. By nature, this style will lead to errors.
  3. When so much guessing, estimation, and assumption factors into each possible decision, the prospect of human errors and miscalculations escalates. This is a fact of life in shorthanded poker. The big edges just don’t arrive often enough and apparent enough to be profitable on their own, so a successful player is forced to capitalize on small edges.
  4. With small edges, the variance of wins and losses will be much higher than it would be in the same number of hands in a full ring game. With so many educated guesses, a shorthanded player can expect their wins and losses to fluctuate just as much or more than they would in a full game, especially in the short-term.
Impact #2: Bad Beats

Example 3. 5-handed. Cutoff raised, button and small blind folded, and big blind called. Flop is K♣ 9♣ 4♥. 4.5 small bets in the pot.
Big blind has K♦ 4♦. Cutoff holds 10♣ 10♠.

This is a great example of a scenario I see all the time in my shorthanded games. The big blind check-raises on the flop, and the cutoff calls. Then, somehow the cutoff’s pair of tens finds a miracle card. It might be one of the two tens, running clubs, or even a Q-J to furnish the cutoff a backdoor straight. Regardless of how it happens, the big blind will feel offended by an awful misfortune-the victim of a bad beat.

But did the cutoff really make a large mistake? In a loose, aggressive shorthanded game, the cutoff would be correct to call down against many opponents. After all, the big blind might have check-raised with only a pair of nines, a flush draw, a straight draw, or worse. It happens often (and often the check-raise would be the proper play in the long run). I’m not advising new shorthanded players to call down any time they have second pair or better, but overall, second pair won’t lose a ton against an aggressive player, so the cutoff isn’t perpetrating a huge blunder.

Even if the cutoff should fold, they very often will not. Semibluffs and outright bluffs are commonplace in the shorthanded game. Even if the big blind is not usually the type to semibluff or bluff check-raise, their personal style may not have been discerned. Unobservant players won’t distinguish who is doing the bluffing and who is playing straight up-they’ll call down both players equally. The result is a myriad of bad beats and painful losses that will take a toll on even the most level-headed player.

A winning player must find a way to avoid the sting of tilt far more often than not. Many otherwise solid shorthanded players are pushed into the “losing” category solely by their tendency to tilt.

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2. Harsh Realities (Part 2)