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Some Shorthanded Play

by Jim Brier |  Published: May 17, 2005


This is a five-handed $40-$80 hold'em game at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Since the hand involves actual players, I have changed their names to protect their identities. The hands are laid out in a question-and answer format so that you can decide for yourself what you would do before seeing what actually happened.

Barry, a good player, was on the button with the A
8♠. Lenny was in the big blind. Lenny is a tough player who is highly aggressive and loves to play shorthanded. Lenny likes to bluff and semi-bluff. His only fault is that he is too loose.

It was folded to Barry.

Question No. 1: What would you do?

Answer: You should raise. Your hand is nothing to get excited about, but it is a significant favorite against the blinds, who hold random cards. Having any ace in this situation gives you a good playing hand. A small pocket pair is a better holding, but only in a theoretical sense. For example, with pocket treys, you could raise, but the following situation is quite common. You raise and get called by one of the blinds. The flop comes, your opponent checks, and you bet. If your opponent folds, it does not matter what hand you had. But what if your opponent calls? Now, when the turn arrives and your opponent checks, you have a tough decision to make with the pocket treys, assuming you have not made a set. You don't know if your opponent's call on the flop was made with a pair, a draw, or just overcards. If you keep charging, you may be betting with just two outs. This can be an expensive mistake. But A-8 is easy to play. You have a good chance to flop or turn a pair, and can at least play to the river, in many cases. Against one opponent, ace high can frequently win unimproved. The showdown value of ace high versus a small pocket pair is about the same in this situation. But the ace high is much more likely to improve, and you don't need anything near a set to win.

Barry raised, the small blind folded, and Lenny just called. The flop was A♠ 7
2, giving Barry top pair with a backdoor nut-flush draw. Lenny checked.

Question No. 2: What now?

Answer: You should bet. If you were playing heads up all the time with Lenny, slow-playing as a way to vary your play might have some merit. But in a ring-game environment, even shorthanded, you are just costing yourself money. Barry bet and Lenny raised.

Question No. 3: How would you respond?

Answer: Just call. Lenny could be check-raising on the flop with a wide range of holdings, and it is probably better to simply see the turn cheaply. If you three-bet, Lenny may four-bet and then lead into you on the turn if a blank comes, making your life difficult. Against a tighter, more controllable opponent, you should three bet, since this may slow him down, enabling you to get a free card on the turn if you wish. Of course, folding is unthinkable, especially against someone like Lenny. Barry called. The turn was the 4
. Lenny bet.

Question No. 4: What is your play?

Answer: You should raise. You may have the best hand, and if not, you have picked up the nut-flush draw. This gives you nine flush outs plus four more outs (don't count the 8
twice) to two pair or trips. Note that if you catch an ace on the river, your kicker may be good. With A-K, A-Q, A-J, or A-10, Lenny probably would have three-bet you preflop in this shorthanded steal situation. At least this may get you a cheap showdown on the river if you don't improve. If Lenny three-bets, you still have your nut flush outs to fall back on, and you are getting the right pot odds to call at that point even when Lenny has a flush. Barry raised and Lenny called. The river was the Q♣. Lenny checked.

Question No. 5: Should you check or bet?

Answer: You should check it down. Your raise on

fourth street

did not hurt you, since you would have called Lenny's bet on the river anyway with top pair. But your turn raise was right because: (1) It gave you the opportunity to win the pot right then if Lenny had a marginal holding; (2) it enabled you to get an extra big bet if you improved on the river; and (3) it got you a free showdown on the river, preventing Lenny from bluffing you out.

Lenny won with the A♣ 7♣ for two pair.

Most players dislike shorthanded play. They dislike having to put up so many blinds and having to play so many hands over the course of an hour. The fluctuations can be very large in a shorthanded game. However, sometimes it is necessary to play shorthanded to get a game started at the limit you want. Hand values change dramatically, and being able to read your opponents becomes critical. If you find yourself in a shorthanded game, make sure you are one of the better players; otherwise, it can get quite expensive. If the weaker players leave, you need to consider quitting the game yourself. Recently, I found a friend of mine sitting in a five-handed $40-$80 game. It was obvious to me that he was the weakest player at the table. His four opponents were all seasoned players who liked to play shorthanded and played with each other on a regular basis. He lost about a grand in 30 minutes. Later, I asked him why he was playing in that game. He stated that he wanted to help get the game get started, and that bad players might have arrived at the table if they saw a game under way. He also wanted to improve his shorthanded play and thought this would be a good learning experience.

But his thinking was all wrong. A game is good only when there are weaker players at the table. He had no idea when additional players would arrive, and whether or not they would be easy or tough. In the meantime, there were dozens of weak players at other tables who were playing in lower-limit games. He should have found them instead of playing in a game with negative expectation. His desire to learn, while admirable, was simply misplaced. There are books and articles he can read on shorthanded play, he can get involved in discussions about shorthanded play on Internet forums, he can watch shorthanded games, he can play in inexpensive online games that are shorthanded, and so on. None of these options will cost him $1,000 per half-hour of play. I think the clich¨¦, "The school of experience is a costly one, but fools will learn in no other," applies.

Jim Brier has co-authored a book with Bob Ciaffone titled Middle Limit Holdem Poker. It is available through Card Player.