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Head Games: Tournament Shorthanded Play: Be Tough, Be Aggressive, Be Aware

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Feb 22, 2012

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Sometimes it’s hard to get a straight answer from a professional poker player. Ask three players a question and you’re liable to get three different answers. Why? Because: It depends. On the situation, opponent, stack sizes, table image, tilt, metagame, etcetera.

HEAD GAMES will peer deep inside the twisted minds of today’s top players. We’ll reveal why they do what they do in sticky situations, especially when it comes down to making a critical decision for a major tournament title or calling a check-raise all-in on the river holding only ace-high for a $500,000 pot. Let the games begin.

The Pros: Mike McDonald, Bryan Paris, and Grant Hinkle

Craig Tapscott: Some players are somewhat confused as to exactly how to open their hand range selection as the table gets shorthanded. How wide can they open up preflop and why?

Mike McDonald: The first thing to keep in mind about shorthanded play is that it is effectively not that much different than full ring play after the first few players have folded. In fact you should play tighter shorthanded due to the lower incentive to win the pot (for example, at 100-200 with a 25 ante at a 10-handed table, if you raise from the hijack position you stand to win 550 chips, but if you raise from the hijack six-handed you only stand to win 450 chips). How wide you can open depends upon the tendencies of your opponents. Generally, the deeper the stacks are the more you should open up with coordinated hands like 7-6 suited and the shorter the stacks are the more you should open with high card hands that can make top pair (like K-T offsuit). The reason for this is that with shorter stacks there will be less betting streets and as a result making top pair is more important than with deeper stacks where making straights and flushes is more valuable. My hand range will open more if there are more big blinds to win, less players behind and tighter players behind.

Bryan Paris: People tend to think they need to drastically change all aspects of their game for shorthanded play, when in reality they should just be doing the same things they generally do in mid-to-late position spots. The fact that these spots come up correspondingly more often than they would at a full-ring table definitely forces you to play more hands, but for the most part you should use the same opening ranges you would use in later positions, and actually maybe play a bit tighter because there are fewer antes in the pot. I have found that players who have trouble adjusting to shorthanded are likely either overcompensating for the shorthanded table by playing too many hands, or aren’t being active enough from later positions to begin. For example, if you’re not opening at least 50 percent of your buttons when folded to you versus most opponents in full ring, you probably need to take a look at your late position hand ranges and ask yourself why you’re not taking more advantage of the best spot at the table.

Grant Hinkle: A lot of players already have hand ranges that they’ve become comfortable with based on a standard nine-handed table. As the table folds around, their opening range becomes wider the closer they get to the button. It is really no different for shorthanded play only you get to be closer to the button more often. So, for example when you are in the cutoff at a nine-handed table you have a wider opening range than when you are UTG+1. When you are at a five-handed table and you are in the cutoff, you are also UTG+1. The way you should think about it though is based on positions away from the button and then use your normal cutoff opening range. This will naturally widen your total range because you are now on the button, cutoff and hijack more often.

Craig Tapscott: After hand range selection, what specific things do you take into consideration (image, player types, position) as the table gets shorthanded?

Mike McDonald: As the table gets shorthanded I try to pay attention to the
stack-size dynamic, each player’s individual tendencies and the position of everyone at the table when trying to form a general game plan. If I have a bigger stack I can play more aggressively. If I cover the players to my right I can bully them more. If I have fewer chips and the players to my left cover me, I will play less aggressively. Individual tendencies are the most important part of probably any form of poker. If the guy to my left is chipleader but incredibly nitty (tight) I can still be extremely aggressive. This is often most important for evaluating short stacks since some short stacks will be very, very cautious, others will go all-in quite regularly. Being able to tell the difference between the two of them can really affect how much I attack those players. Finally, position obviously matters. I will open many more hands from later positions versus early position as would be the case at any poker game I play in.

Bryan Paris: The key is finding the balance that enables you to profit the most from late position vs. late position battles. With the blinds coming around much more quickly, it becomes imperative to have a successful late position strategy. I’ll pay special attention to the other players’ three-bet percentages, especially out of the blinds, and the percentage of the time they open when it’s folded to them on the cutoff or later. Then I’ll go after the people who I perceive to be abusing their late position privileges. If someone is three-betting you a lot out of the blinds, start defending wider or four-betting them wider. If someone is opening every cutoff, then start three-betting your button wider. While your ranges for six-max don’t necessarily need to be wider than they would be from the equivalent positions at a ring table, the number of late position vs. blind confrontations enables the rapid development of an aggressive dynamic, where three-bet and four-bet ranges can become much wider than normal. There’s no simple solution for the delicate balance of six-max, but if you pay attention to the most important variables and adjust accordingly, you should be ahead of the game.

Grant Hinkle: Shorthanded is a much purer form of poker simply because you are playing more pots, more often, with the same players. This builds history faster, which in turn creates a race between who can adjust to how the other player is playing the fastest: the leveling wars. Since the blinds come around much faster, you want to identify the tight players and start raising their blind whenever you get the chance because they are less likely to open their game up despite it being shorthanded. The better players will notice you doing this, so you need to be prepared for them to open up and start three-betting you more. Before opening a pot shorthanded when you’ve been very aggressive, it is important to know who the adjusting players are so when they three-bet you are prepared to four-bet in response. You also have to know who the non-adjusting players are that likely just have a big hand if they are three-betting. I think it is good to be mentally prepared for your possible options for each player behind you before you open the pot. ♠