Sunday, January 8, 2006

Don't be afraid of short-handed games

There hasn't been much discussion in poker books dealing with the topic of playing in a short-handed game — that is, playing against a small number of opponents.

Most Texas Hold'em games are played with nine, 10, or even 11 players seated at the table. In a game like this, you can afford to sit tight and wait for premium hands before entering a pot. Since you have to pay a blind only twice per round, the pressure to play a lot of hands just isn't there.

When you're playing short-handed, however, you are forced to play more hands since each one you throw away will actually cost you more money. Let me explain.

Let's say you're sitting in a 10-handed Hold'em game with $5-$10 blinds. One round circling the table would cost you $15 total if you didn't play a hand. That's an average of $1.50 per hand ($15 divided by 10 hands), which doesn't seem too bad. But look at what happens when you cut the number of players from 10 to five.

Cost per hand
Now, a lap around the table costs the same $15, but you'd get to see only five hands. That means, on average, it will cost you $3 for every hand you fold. If you take that a step further, in a three-handed game you'd be paying $15 to see just three hands. That's $5 per hand.

The ante and blind structure dictates how loosely you should be playing. If, for example, there were no blinds or antes at all, it would be silly to play any hand in Hold'em other than pocket aces. However, since you do have to pay a penalty for waiting for the best cards, playing only A-A would cause your chip stack to get anted off, round by round.

OK, that should help explain why it's important to play more hands in a short- handed game. It's also important to understand what hands you should add to your repertoire and how you should play them.

In short-handed games, hands that do well hot and cold, meaning they could win without improvement, go up in value, while speculative hands, like 6-7 suited, go down in value.

It's very different at a 10-handed table.

Short-handed vs. full
A hand like 6-7 suited does very well when there are five or six players seeing the flop. Something like K-7 offsuit doesn't fare as well. Conversely, the K-7 does much better in short-handed situations than does the 6-7 suited.

In short-handed play, it's also more important to maintain an aggressive style than it would be in a full ring game.

In a full game, if a player raises from early position and you, in middle position, hold a pair of fours, there is no need to even get involved with the hand. You can safely fold since you have nothing invested.

In a five-handed game, however, this would be an opportunity to get aggressive and re-raise before the flop. Yes, I understand that it's a small pair, but a 4-4 is still the favorite to win, even against the Big Slick, A-K, heads up.

As a rule, short-handed play is more of a battle for the antes, while full ring game play is more about waiting on premium cards in good situations. There isn't as much pressure to play because the blinds don't come around as fast.

Don't get pushed around
That's why so many players seem afraid of playing a short-handed game. It's high-stress, high-energy poker, which forces you to make complex decisions with much weaker hands. Frankly, short-handed games are where stronger players thrive while weaker opponents simply get pushed around.