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Poker Strategy -- Shorthanded Play

More Fun, More Play, More Potential Profit


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Barry TanenbaumMany players dislike shorthanded play, which is a shame. Full-ring game limit play is certainly profitable against the right lineup, but it can also be fairly dull as you fold hand after hand. Of course, playing more hands in full games is more interesting, but it is a sure way to lose more in the long run.

In shorthanded games, you get to play many more hands; not all of them, as some players believe, because a somewhat tight-aggressive game is still the key to long-term success. Your range may open up from, say, 15 percent-18 percent in a nine-handed game to 55 percent-65 percent in a five-handed game.

Playing more hands usually increases volatility, and your stack may routinely yo-yo far more than it would in a typical full game. Coping with swings is one of the adjustments
that you will have to make if you play shorthanded, as it simply cannot be helped. If you just tighten up, you will lose your blinds way too often. Don’t forget, in a five-handed game, you are in the blinds 40 percent of the time, as opposed to 20 percent in a 10-handed game.

You also get a lot more time to study opponents, since there are fewer of them, and they are probably playing many more hands. This should enable you to pick out traits and styles that you can exploit to your advantage later in the session.

Live shorthanded play is rare in many places, but if you play late at night or early in the morning, you can often find such a game. And being able to play shorthanded enables you to play when the games get short, instead of feeling that you have to pack up and leave; more fun, more play, more potential profit.

Here are a couple of hands that I played recently in a shorthanded $40-$80 limit hold’em game at Bay 101 in San Jose. I will take you through my thought process and share my conclusions. Shorthanded games are more situational than full games are, but you may pick up something from following the logic of my play.

Hand No. 1: I pick up the KHeart Suit QHeart Suit on the button. We are four-handed. The player on my right folds, I raise, and as usual, both blinds call. In
shorthanded play, most players in the blinds call with whatever they are dealt, so you can’t draw any conclusions. I like the flop of KDiamond Suit 9Spade Suit 8Club Suit, and bet when the other two check. They both call. While calling, the guy in the big blind says, “See you at the river!” Now, I have played long enough to know that when guys say that, they usually mean, “Please don’t bet the turn. I have a little something, but would love to get to the river as cheaply as possible. Perhaps by saying this, I can scare you into not betting a hand like ace high, so I can get to the river.”
Frankly, it’s rare for an opponent to say, “See you at the river,” and actually call on the river.

An interesting and rarely discussed aspect of shorthanded play is that players generally become far more chatty. After all, there are only a few players, and they are in virtually every hand together. Sometimes this talk can give away useful information, such as this case.

The three of us saw the turn, the 2Club Suit. Again, I bet after two checks. Again, there were two calls; the small blind called reluctantly, and the big blind rather quickly. Once again, he volunteered, “See you at the river!” The river was the 6Diamond Suit. Both players checked again. I had every reason to believe that was a safe card, and that I would win the pot. I bet, and again the small blind called reluctantly. I was sure that I had her beat. But before I could celebrate, the big blind check raised! But this time, he gloated, “I told you I would see you at the river.”

Well, it was nice that he was having fun, but did he have the best hand? And if so, what could it be? It is highly unusual for a player to attempt to bluff-raise two players, because even if I was somehow bluffing, the caller certainly was not. I cannot beat any legitimate raise, as he would need a minimum of two pair to raise. He more likely had 10-7, flopping an open-end straight draw and getting there on the river. There were 11.5 big bets in the pot, so a call would seem to be in order no matter what, but I hate to give away money when I know that I am beat. Plus, guys who bluff almost never make a speech while they are doing it. They do not want to do or say anything to make opponents suspicious enough to call, so they sit there silently and think, “Fold. Fold. Fold.”

Given the speech and the intermediate caller, I did not think it was close. I folded, as did the small blind. But the winner was not finished gloating. “I told you I would see you at the river,” he announced as he flipped over his 10-7. So, at least I knew for sure that I saved the $80 correctly.

Hand No. 2: We are still four-handed, with a slightly different lineup. Again, I am on the button, and the player on my right folds. I raise with the AHeart Suit 9Club Suit, an easy raising hand when shorthanded. The small blind three-bets, and the big blind folds. This is now a question of expectations. He expects me to raise here in a shorthanded situation with pretty much any two cards, so my A-9 is well above average for what I could hold.

On the other hand, he will three-bet with any playable hand (as would I), so his range is quite large. He bet the flop of 8Diamond Suit 4Club Suit 2Spade Suit, and I called. So far, his range is unchanged, as he would continuation-bet every single hand that he three-bet, from A-A to J-9, and maybe even less, as some people like to try this play with hands like 6-5 suited.

The turn is the 7Heart Suit, and he bets again. I like this bet less than the last one, but I am near the top of my range for my button raise. Sometimes when shorthanded, you have to call with hands like mine even if you lose fairly often. If you fold every time that you don’t have a pair or better, opponents will run all over you. My current plan is to call all the way.

The river 4Diamond Suit pairs the board, but this time he checks. I am delighted to check behind, as A-9 is not a hand that I would like to bet for value. He tables the QSpade Suit 10Spade Suit, so my hand is good, but I need to be aware that he gave up easily, and must worry next time if he bets the river under similar circumstances.

Conclusion: Shorthanded play presents many opportunities for reads and good play. Sometimes you have to lay down top pair, and sometimes call with no pair at all. And, of course, you will be wrong some of the time, but so will your opponents. Shorthanded play can be challenging and interesting, as you get to play a lot of hands and get involved in many difficult situations. But this experience helps you to hone your judgment and make money in situations where others feel they have to leave. Try it if you get the opportunity. Spade Suit

Barry Tanenbaum is the author of Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy, and collaborator on Limit Hold’em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies. Barry offers private lessons tailored to the individual student. Please see his website,, or write to him at