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An Introduction to Short Deck Hold’em

by Kevin Haney |  Published: Jan 02, 2019


There’s a common phrase that surmises that, someone playing with less than a full deck is either mentally, psychologically, or intellectually deficient, and it’s safe to say that we all know at least a few poker players that fit that profile.

This is all in jest, of course, but why has short deck hold’em caught on like wild fire over in Asia in both cash games and high roller tournaments among high-stakes crushers and successful businessmen? And will this popularity make inroads into the general poker economy, or even more optimistically, possibly bring fresh new players into the game?

But first things first, what exactly is short deck hold’em?

Short deck hold’em is simply no-limit hold’em played with a 36-card deck, where the twos, threes, fours, and fives have been removed. This effectively ends the all too often stretches of always looking at complete duds like 9-2 offsuit and the like. J-6 offsuit is the 7-2 offsuit of short deck and has few exciting possibilities; however, the odds are greater that you will get dealt hands with potential. Equities run much closer in the game and an ante-only structure that frequently accompanies the game provides the impetus for a ton of action.

Another very unique aspect of this game is that the aces are also considered low. In other words, A-6-7-8-9 is the new wheel. Be very mindful of this aspect at all times as not to misread your hand and/or potentially not fully consider a powerful holding that your opponent may have. When you are new to the game it is helpful to constantly repeat to yourself, “Aces are fives, aces are fives.”

The use of a short deck also changes some of the traditional hand rankings because flushes are now mathematically more difficult to make than full houses, and trips are made less frequently than straights. In all variations currently played, flushes beat full houses, but the rules vary on whether or not trips beat straights.

In Asia and the high-roller tournaments, the rules stipulate that a straight still beats three of a kind and is typically played as an ante-only structure. This version is often referred to as either short deck hold’em or Triton Poker, and is action packed because connecting cards are very valuable and the structure often encourages large multi-way pots.

In the ante-only structure, everyone antes, however the button is forced to make a double ante. The preflop action starts to the left of the button and that person has the option to fold, put in one more ante, or raise to any amount they wish. Each person in turn then has the option to fold, match the current bet, or raise or re-raise.

For example, suppose it is the 1,000 ante level in a six-handed game. Everyone antes 1,000 except for the button who antes 2,000. The under-the-gun player then has the option to fold, put in another 1,000, or make a raise. The action moves around the table with the button acting last on the first round. If there has been some callers but no raise, the button has the option to check or raise to any amount.

Since equities run close and everyone is getting very good odds to call for just one more ante, many pots are played multi-way and most of the heavier betting occurs post-flop. For example, if two players decide to limp in front of him, the cutoff is getting 9:1 on his money (assuming the button does not raise) in a game where the admonition that “any two cards can win” is truer.

As one can imagine this structure can create some interesting dynamics and allow for a variety of different yet successful strategies. Some players employ a limp only strategy, others open-raise any hand they play, and another subset attempt to incorporate a mixed strategy. We will discuss the theoretical considerations behind each of these strategies at a later time; however, it is quite refreshing to see world class players battle it out in a variety of ways as opposed to the regular hold’em high rollers that have more or less degenerated into a Game Theory Optimal (GTO) snooze fest.

Short deck is also sometimes played with the conventional blinds and most often in these games trips beat straights. This structure and rules is most often referred to as six plus hold’em and is the version now spread by some online sites. In this variant the connectors such as J-9 are way less valuable while the values of pocket pairs go way up. One unfortunate consequence, however is that these games tend to have less action. Perhaps this is their choice to have the rules set as such or maybe these particular sites are required to have the more mathematically difficult hand to make be ranked higher. I’m not sure.

The strategies presented hereafter will mostly focus on the version where straights beat trips and will be referred to in these articles as short deck. However, we will not completely ignore six plus hold’em and provide some strategic adjustments where applicable. “Normal” hold’em will be referred to as either simply hold’em or full deck even though the latter is a somewhat awkward name. (But not quite as silly sounding as long deck to which some players have lobbied.)

In review, a summary of the hand rankings are as follows:

Full Deck Hold’em Short Deck Six Plus Hold’em
Royal Flush Royal Flush Royal Flush
Straight Flush Straight Flush Straight Flush
Four of a Kind Four of a Kind Four of a Kind
Full House Flush Flush
Flush Full House Full House
Straight Straight Three of a Kind
Three of a Kind Three of a Kind Straight
Two Pair Two Pair Two Pair
One Pair One Pair One Pair
High Card High Card High Card

History and Future of Short-Deck

Short deck was born in Asia, the brain child of successful businessmen and poker enthusiasts Paul Phua and Richard Yong. Their experiment on this new variant was intended to address a few important issues. The main issue is that amateurs enjoy playing more hands but in full deck they are faced with the choice between tightening up or end up being at a distinct disadvantage to professionals playing a narrower range of hands. The second issue is that with the advancement in knowledge and resources full deck is essentially close to being a solved game.

It is quite amazing how far hold’em has evolved since Chris Moneymaker pulled off the bluff of the century on his way to the World Series of Poker main event bracelet in 2003. Amarillo Slim used to run a hustle where he gave you the choice of three hands; J-10 suited, A-K offsuit, or pocket deuces. He would then choose another hand, you would deal out a board and the winner received $100. How this hustle lasted long enough to become somewhat of a legend I’ll never understand, but in the current poker environment low-stakes players are studying GTO lines using software like PioSolver.

Of course, short deck can be solved to the same degree that full deck currently is but the equities will always remain closer and amateurs will always have a greater chance against the professionals in the short term. In addition, it is possible that the game will also enjoy a constant influx of new players looking for something new. These players may have no interest in pot-limit Omaha or other games, but may give short deck a try because it more closely resembles the game they love the most and playing more hands is justifiable.

So far initial reviews on short deck have been very positive and the games have been fun, lively, and action-packed. If you get a chance, check out the fur flying in the Triton Poker high-stakes short deck cash game on Twitch. My life goal is to lose a 1.2 billion HKD pot (roughly 1.2 million USD) on the river and laugh it off as if it’s the funniest thing in the world like some of these players did.

The odds seem pretty good that there will be at least an initial burst in the number of cash games and tournaments, especially if the WSOP decides to hold some events. The future is uncertain, yet there is real opportunity for the game to occupy a niche for players looking for something different and more opportunities to gamble.

It is not a prerequisite, however, to be completely clueless and get your teeth kicked in before getting serious in improving your game. It’s just as fun to win from the onset. Of course, the variance is great, but this short deck series is aimed at providing the key fundamentals required where its possible you can win from the beginning and never look back. ♠

Kevin Haney is a former actuary of MetLife but left the corporate job to focus on his passions for poker and fitness. He is co-owner of Elite Fitness Club in Oceanport, NJ and is a certified personal trainer. With regards to poker he got his start way back in 2003 and particularly enjoys taking new players interested in mixed games under his wing and quickly making them proficient in all variants. His new mixed games website is a great starting resource for a plethora of games ranging from the traditional to the exotic. He can be reached at