07-17-06, LearnTexasHoldem:

Introduction to Short Handed Texas Holdem

The following is an article on learning how to play winning shorthanded texas holdem poker.

This article is geared towards limit play but many of the concepts carry over to no limit holdem as well. The concepts introduced here are advanced so please be careful about their application.

This article will also help out heads up play. I assume you already have a decent understanding of regular holdem.

  • What is shorthanded play?

    Short Handed poker is normally defined as a table that has less than 6 people. A normal holdem ring game has 10 people. When it gets down to half of that amount then the dynamics of the game change. The same style that won with 10 people now is too tight for a shorthanded game.

    For the sake of this article I'm going to define shorthanded play as a poker table where there are 3 or 4 people. I think the 5 or 6 person table is right at the threshold where things start to change so I want to discuss the real thing -- full fledged shorthanded texas holdem poker.

  • Why learn to play shorthanded?

    There are four main reasons why you should learn to play shorthanded holdem and those are as follows:

    • The first reason is the money. Chips move much faster in shorthanded games then in ring games. If you know what you are doing you have more opportunities to milk the weak players -- you get way more hands per hour.

    • Next, if you like tournament play then you need to be a good shorthanded player because there is only one winner at the end of the day and that requires you knock out everyone at the final table.

      You'll never been a good tourney player unless you can play well heads up or with just a few other players at the table.

    • Third, if you have any desire to move up the stakes ladder to middle and upper limits you need to be able to play well shorthanded. Many of the concepts that make you a strong shorthanded player also make you a good upper limit poker player.

    • Lastly, shorthanded play includes many of the more fun aspects of poker (not just waiting around all day for your cards): betting, bluffing, raising, position, etc.

  • Differences Between Shorthanded And Ring Games

    Because you only have 2 or 3 opponents, there is a big difference between the strategy used in ring games that have 10 players and shorthanded games.

    The first difference you will notice is that most shorthanded games are far more aggressive. There is more betting and raising with weaker hands. When only 3 or 4 people get hands, the chance of someone having a big hand goes way down and people play accordingly.

    Often times no one hits the flop and the person with the initiative, the bettor, wins.

    Bluffing is also a more crucial part of the game because like I just mentioned, you will rarely have a great hand and someone has to pull each pot.

    The reason that you can't wait all day for good cards like you can in ring games is because the blinds will eat you to death. The amount of hands you see per hour in a 3 or 4 person holdem game versus a ring game is double or even triple.

    That means two things; first, you'll be playing more hands against the same opponents then you would at a full holdem table; second, weaknesses or holes in a person's game will be magnified because they will be involved in more hands. That can be a double edged sword unless you know that you are doing.

    Next, as the amount of players and the hand strength go down, position becomes a much more powerful tool. A good shorthanded holdem player, or a good poker player in general, is a person who can exploit position. We will cover that in more detail later.

    Finally, hand selection changes in shorthanded games.

    Some hands go down in value, like suited connectors, while other hands go up in value, like any hand with an Ace.

  • Hand Selection

    Instead of giving hand grouping tables, I'm going to try to teach a conceptual approach to hand selection in these types of games. Let me first explain the pace of these games.

    Normally you'll have a raise preflop and the big blind will call. The raiser will bet the flop and the turn regardless of what they have. The majority of the time this is how it goes, the other time is split between someone reraising preflop or everyone folding to the raiser.

    There are different types of games and I'll explain those later but by and large this is what you'll find. Because of this constant attempt at stealing the blinds you'll need to adjust your perspective on what a good hand is.

    Notice how the preflop raiser has a lot of ways to win -- he can steal the blinds, he can flop the best hand, or he can bet out the person who just called.

    Calling is always a weaker play because it forces you to either hit a flop (which doesn't happen that often) or you can try to bluff which can lead to a big mess if you aren't careful.

    And if you do call down and win, it won't be a very large pot.

    So the hands that you will be willing to raise preflop with and bet will be different then the hands you will call someone else's raise with preflop. The ideal hands are hands that do well when all the cards are out.

    Try an experiment the next time you are watching TV. Get a deck of cards out and deal two hands -- look at one of the hands only. Then deal the flop out, the turn and the river. Before the flop, guess whether you'll beat the other guy when all the cards are out.

    What you'll notice is that a good portion of the hands are won with only a high card. So first off, hands that include an Ace are great. Next, you have hands that include a King (K5, K6, K7, ...). Being suited helps, but most of the time it won't come into play so it doesn't add that much value.

    Hands that can also work together to win in more ways then just catching pairs are helpful, hands like J9, T8, QT, Q9.

    Obviously, any hand that you normally consider good in a ring game is great in a shorthanded game. High card strength is first along with pairs (like 55, 88, 33 even). How aggressive you'll bet with these hands depends on your opponent and the flop.

    In short handed and heads up poker the goal is to have the initiative, the betting, and force the other person to make a hand to beat you. If they let you do that, you will win in the long run.

    If they get tricky and start making plays on you, then you'll have to play tighter and more carefully.

    So the good hands are any ones you would normally play in a full game (KJ, KQ,99, all those), any hand with an Ace (A4, A7, A3, etc), then any hand with a King (K7, K9, etc), and any pairs.

    There are other hands you can play profitably too out of the blinds or against weak players and those include connected cards or suited cards - remember that you'll need to hit flops to win these or bet your opponent out.

    Examples of these hands would be 97s, T6s, etc.

  • Playing The Player

    In short handed holdem, you will be playing many more hands against the same players. Because of this you have more opportunity to fine tune your play against them in a way that exploits their poker weaknesses.

    Your first priority is to categorize their play in a general way so you know what to expect. You can reevaluate later as you get more information but it has been my experience that not many people change their style of play -- this is called "changing gears."

    I don't run across many players who are really passive or tight and then switch up their play and start raising with weak hands and bluffing. And the players who are tricky will remain tricky throughout the entire game - so try to spot the weak poker players.

    There are some general questions you can answer right away (in 10 hands) that let you know what to expect with the rest of the game. First, what do they raise with preflop? Does it matter what position they are in or do they only raise with good hands? Do they religiously raise in late position with any two cards? Do they push hands on the flop and turn? By that I mean if they have nothing (no pair and no draw) will they bet both the flop and the turn if you only call.

    This is an important lesson because if you find a weak player all you have to do is call the flop bet and then if they check the turn card to you, you know that they don't have anything.

    On the flip side, if you have a player that will always bet if you check, you won't need to call them down with much to win (even bottom pair will often be good). Do they bluff? It's easy to beat someone who never bluffs.

    The reason this is easy is because you always know "where they are at."

    For example, if a person never bluffs and they bet or raise into you when a scare card hits (like an Ace on the turn), then you can easily fold to them.

    Knowing what your opponent has gives you a huge advantage if you aren't too stubborn to use the information. You goal is to find out their style of betting and then use it against them.

    You won't be able to do this with all players because they will intentionally play hands differently then they have before but with most players you will.

    You want to be able to raise and then bet into them and have confidence that if they had anything, they would have already let you know. The ideal mark (player you want to have at your table) for a short handed expert is someone who won't be tricky, won't bluff, but will still call a lot of hands.

    A key question for this type of player is how little will they call you with all the way to the river? The less hard decisions you have to make the more cash you will make so look for weak passive players.

  • Bluffing

    I already mentioned bluffing in the context of weak players and how if the person doesn't have a bluff in them, it is very easy to beat them in short handed or heads up holdem (and when I say bluff I mean a move actually -- a raise, not just a bet).

    Remember that when only 3 or 4 people get hands and only 2 of them see a flop, the chances are that no one will flop a pair.

    The person who bets, has the initiative, will usually win. It's much harder to take away the initiative from someone in later betting rounds then it is preflop or on the flop. Why? Because if the person already bet, to bluff you would have to raise.

    Or even worse, if you check and they bet, you have to check raise bluff when they already have a bet invested that round. Being half in makes it much more likely your bluff won't get them to fold. Being the aggressor is always favorable to being the caller.

    Calling has its place but you have to have more of a hand to make that move. You don't need much to bet, but you need something to call.

    There are a few points I want to make about bluffing. The first point is that you need to be able to spot someone who isn't playing loose enough for a short handed game. You need to bet into these players as much as you can (especially if they never bluff).

    You also need to be able to recognize flops that probably didn't help them and bluff them off their big cards. Let's take an example of this...

    There is a tight player in the big blind and you raise from the button. The small blind folds and the big blind calls. Notice I haven't even mentioned what my cards are yet because it is irrelevant.

    All I need to do to win is to get a flop that I know he missed and bet him out. Or I could even out flop him and win.

    Once again remember that it isn't easy to flop a hand heads up. So when he checks the flop that looks raggedly, you bet. Or if the flop has high cards, bet and take a shot at it.

    You feed off these people because you know they won't get tricky and try to bluff you out. You are playing the odds that he won't get a hand and you'll beat him that way. That's the first point.

    The next point about bluffing is that to be a great shorthanded player or heads up player you need to have a check raise bluff and a check raise semi bluff on the turn. If you don't know what a semi-bluff is, please review the other article on this site.

    The check raise bluff is very powerful but if you do it on the turn it is even more powerful.

    You don't have to do it often, pick your spots -- when you sense weakness on their side or when you may have a draw. It isn't a total loss if you get called down because from that point on you'll get more action from that player. He will remember it the rest of the session.

  • Give & Take / Priming People

    To illustrate this concept, let me start off with an example.

    Let's say there is a player at the table that knows how to play decent holdem at a full table but doesn't fully understand the strategy behind short handed play. I raise his big blind indiscriminately. Most of the time he has nothing and either folds preflop or on the flop. Sometimes he calls with a better hand but I out flop him or bad beat him a good percentage of the time.

    This is really frustrating to him and he begins to realize that every time I raise and bet I don't have a great hand so he decides he has to take a stand and start opening up his game.

    He is correct in that he needs to play more hands against me because I'm playing too many hands but his approach will be incorrect. A lot of times he will look for good hands and then hope to check raise me and sting me.

    The problem with that though is that like I mentioned, those good hands don't come often and when he does make his move, it will be obvious.

    The point is that you can't win by just calling, if you decide to play, you need to be in the drivers seat.

    So what happens with our unsuspecting friend is that he went from a tight approach where he was losing a little to a looser approach where he is playing passively calling a lot of hands and losing a lot. His chips dwindle and the frustration grows even more.

    Then it happens, he gets a few good cards and wins three small pots in a row. Then on the fourth hand he picks up something very nice preflop, AK. He gets what he wanted, to reraise me before the flop. He catches his Ace on the flop and I just call.

    On the turn he bets again, but I raise now. Considering he has top pair and I've bluffed on the turn before he three bets me and it gets capped. He loses a huge pot.

    This is what I call priming people. I give them a few small pots, setting them up for that one big pot. See it wouldn't work the other way.

    If I was playing the role of the tight player and I hadn't ever bluffed or made any raises without very strong hands, I wouldn't have got the extra bets on the turn and river (where they matter). My opponent would know exactly what I had and made the right move to fold.

  • Odds And Beating A Bettor

    You are going to run into people who think that they can raise any hand and win as long as they keep firing chips. The reason they think this is party because it works some of the time and party because they see good short handed players use this tactic.

    Odds go out the window when you are up against someone like this. The reason is because you have absolutely no idea what they have. They would bet with 7 high the same way they would with a set of Aces.

    Because of this, you can't be a slave to the numbers or they will run over you. Against these types of players I like to take a concept from no limit.

    You need to look at a hand based on how well it would do over 5 cards, not just the flop. They are going to bet and keep betting.

    So if you have a hand like AT and the flop is 45Q it is my guess that you are ahead.

    You don't have to get crazy with them, just call them down much more then you would against a good player.

    Another concept is the all mighty pair. Heads up, if you have a pair, you are doing pretty well. That doesn't mean that you will win the majority of the time but if the flop comes back and you even have bottom pair, chances are you are ahead against someone who raises preflop with any two cards.

  • Position

    The fewer players in a hand and at a table, the more powerful position becomes. Not only because the person with position is usually the aggressor but because you have more opportunities to make an extra bet on good hands or save bets on weak hands.

    Let me give an example of a move you need to learn - it is the semi-bluff raise on the turn with position.

    You are playing holdem with two other people and you are on the button with A7off (a nice hand for 3 way holdem). You raise and the small blind folds and the big blind reraises which isn't an usual play for this player -- it could mean anything.

    The flop comes back 3 - 7 - J. He bets and you just call. The turn is a 9. He bets again but instead of calling now, you decide to raise.

    The reason this is a good move is because chances are he doesn't have a Jack.

    Most likely you have the best hand. If you don't have the best hand, he is in a bad spot to reraise unless he has a monster. Even if he had AA or KK, he would be hard pressed to reraise because he has no idea what you have.

    In the event that he does reraise you can just fold your hand with confidence you were beat and it would have cost you the same amount as to call the river. On the other hand, if he calls your bet only then you can follow up with a river bet if you improve or think you have the best hand, or just check in back of him and once again it costs you the same amount.

    Notice that even if he did have KK, you get that extra bet on the river if the Ace or 7 comes.

    This is the power of position. Position can not be bought by the skill of the player.

    Every player, no matter how good they are, is vulnerable to position. Let me give you another example of a semi-bluff raise on the turn with position that includes scare cards.

    You raise preflop with a little pair, the big blind again reraises you. You call. The flop comes back and it is 9-8-4.

    Most likely that didn't help him if he didn't already have you beat so your 55 looks pretty good. He bets of course and you just call. The turn card brings another 9 or another 8, it could even be an overcard like an Ace. He bets again and you raise.

    You put him in a very bad spot regardless of what he has. Even if he has AA or KK again, he will be hard pressed to reraise you. So once again you can bet the river if you like or just check it. It costs you the same amount or you make an extra bet.

  • General Types Of Players

    I'm going to list and describe some player that you'll run into when playing shorthanded and the general approach I would use against them. They are listed in no particular order.

    • Tight Ring Player

      This guy uses the same strategy for a 10 person table as he does for a 3 person table. I'll steal his blind over and over, bet him out of pots and just get out of the way of his raises. His cards matter, mine don't. I'm going to be the aggressor and make him flop a hand to win. I'll pick off hands where the flop looks raggedy.

    • Loose Passive Player

      The loose passive player is the one who doesn't raise before the flop, they just call every hand. They will also be willing to call down with anything. Bluffing this type of player is a no-no.

      You are going to need to show down the winning hand to take the pot most of the time. That is the downside, the upside though is that the winning hand won't have to be very strong.

      Use his straight forward passive style against him and make him pay even if you have bottom pair or an Ace and he checks to you. You can get a lot of value against players like this if you are willing to bet with weak hands. Keep in mind that they are willing to call you with even less.

    • Loose Aggressive Player

      This is the guy that just knows how to bet and raise. Every other hand he will raise or reraise and then bet religiously to the river regardless if the flop helped him.

      I'm not going to bluff this guy -- semi-bluff yes but not bluff because he is already putting in enough action. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that he doesn't stop this play until his chips are gone. To do that I'll play more hands against him.

      If I miss the flop and turn then he wins, that reinforces his play. When I hit though, I get full payment. That's the difference between the loose aggressive player and the good aggressive player -- the good aggressive player won't pay me off as much if I raise in later betting rounds, the loose aggro guy will.

    • Not Quite Sure Player

      This guy has caught on to some of the strategy involved in playing short handed, but isn't quite there yet. He will raise your blind from the button or small blind, bet the flop but then get chicken on the turn card to bet again if he doesn't have anything.

      He will also be more likely to try to slow play hands by calling to check raise later. Against this player I would be willing to call more hands on the flop against -- just about any two cards from the big blind will work because I know that if he doesn't like his hand he won't bet the turn.

      I would also liberally raise his blinds because I know he won't get tricky and try to bet me out unless he has something. I call him not quite sure because he hasn't completely made the shift from ring game strategy to shorthanded strategy.

    • Aggressive Good Player

      This person knows how to play short handed holdem well. He mixes up his game. He uses position well. He is aggressive and forces you to play back at him if you expect to win. He is tricky and deceptive and can use bluffs.

      Against this player I would bluff more against. Remember that bluffs work better against people who are capable of folding. Show him a few bluffs and he will remember them the rest of the game. Then you can slow down a little and wait for a time to sting him.

      Try to break even on stealing each other's blinds and then sting him by just playing slightly tighter then he is. That isn't easy and you need to be prepared to put in more bets with lessor hands. Another option is just find an easier game.

  • Conclusion

    That ends my intro article on short handed holdem. I suggest when your bankroll allows, start learning. Just make sure you don't get in over your head too quickly with limits your roll can't handle because shorthanded poker has larger swings then regular poker.

    It is well worth the risk though.


Enough talking! Take me to a poker room now!