Shorthanded Texas Holdem

Posted by Dave on January 28th, 2015 filed in Poker Strategy

Adjusting your play – An introduction for beginners

This information is not a template for a winning game. It is on the contrary an explanation of the factors that matters when you only play a few players and what the game at shorthanded tables looks like. Will you make a profit or a loss? Well this is mainly up to your ability to read the game and to change and vary it and of course pick the right opponents. Therefore it is recommended that you do not play any NL games before you have played for quite a long time and thus have gained some experience.

The major part of this text applies to fixed low limit shorthanded Holdem although it to some extent also applies to NL.

When the number of players at a table has gone down to about 6 or fewer you start talking about shorthanded play. Playing FL Texas Hold’em like I earlier have been recommended at full 10-tables is a completely wrong method to manage well. When playing shorthanded you are more or less forced to play more hands to be successful at the poker table. Rule of thumb: The fewer players the more played hands by you (If the blinds aren’t smaller than usual). You should also play more aggressively.

This in the first place is due to:

  • That the blinds go quicker around the table. If you do not play they will finish your stack. In other words – what you spend on blinds will not be covered by the occasional winning hands you get by playing tightly.
  • That you have fewer opponents. Thus luck or chance affects fewer opponents. This of course minimizes the risk that a fairly high pair with a pretty good kicker card will be beaten by somebody else. At a 10-player-table it is fairly easy to take down a cocky player who plays bad starting hands as the player frequently will meet high cards or high pairs. When playing at shorthanded tables this is not as obvious.
  • That you have bigger chances to blind steal. The blinds are generally more valuable when playing shorthanded.
  • That players are more afraid of opponents who raise often. More players than you expect can join in up to the river card without calling your bluff after the river card. Calling stations are welcome, that is the players that from the odds point of view play wrongly by being too much in love with their high cards and call all the way without having at least a pair on the hand.

Some background to make the above way of thinking more complete:

Let’s say you are playing heads-up, fixed limit at a $2/$4-table at an online poker room such as Bodog Poker Canada.

You pay the Small Blind ($1) and your opponent the Big Blind ($2)

You raise before the flop and plan to go on playing if the flop will give you anything. This means you are prepared to pay $3 to win the $3 that already are in the pot.

If your opponent call you 50% of the times this means that you already at this stage have an advantage as you are the one who decide if you want to go on, that is if you have got a good hand. You always fold if the flop does not give you anything after first having checked your opponent and he then has made a bet.

If your opponent call you less than 50% of the times you have the best chances to make a profit. This is partly due to the fact that he is folding his Big Blind to you and partly that you sometimes win more hands after the flop.

Now to the extra nice part. If your opponent only calls, for example 33% (1/3) of the times, this means that you win $3 two times out of three and lose $3 the third time. This means that you on average make a profit of $1 per played hand. Add further profits that you make when flopping a good hand and go on playing.

Countermeasures to this way of playing are of course, as you already might have guessed, calling and raising more frequently. This is not a recommendation – it is a must!

The winning concept is often: Raise or fold frequently.

Very often it is better to raise than just calling when you have a playable hand and when the table consists of few players and these are passive. By doing this you take the initiative and can use this in different ways – disguise your hands, bluffing and get some good action when you have the nuts. This is particular suitable when you are in a position for blind steal when players aren’t defending their blinds strongly enough.

Selecting tables – Aggressive play

Passivity is a sign of weakness when you play shorthanded. That is why I look for tables with LOW flop percentage when I want to play aggressive shorthanded. This is in other word completely opposite to what I look for when I play fixed limit with full tables.

Selecting tables – Passive play

It is of course possible to play fairly tight Hold’em at these tables but in order to make this work satisfactory you would like to have 5-6 players around the table and a high flop percentage. The rule of thumb “Call more hands when playing shorthanded than at full10-player-tables” is however always valid.

Starting Hands

In most cases it is enough to have a fairly high card in combination with a fairly good kicker card (7 or higher) to call or raise. Overdoing the aggressive play can sometimes pay off at certain tables but it can also make you lose a lot if you do not notice that your opponents have started slowplaying or that they simply cannot be defeated easily – cause they know that you know how to defeat these tables…

A starting hands table will not be shown here. These hands are far too dependent on the playing conditions at the table.

and something about FL odds

When the flop has been dealt you should see to it that you always have something on your hand when calling somebody. Making a a draw for something else than a flush (when you have 4 cards to a flush) or straight (when you have an open straight draw, for instance 9-T- J-Q) is from an odds point of view a completely wrong decision if you are sure that the opponent has a stronger hand than yours and you also know that he will not give up. And very often it is much better beeing the agressor in those hands.

If you have an A with a fairly good kicker card without anything else worth mentioning I do not say it is wrong to raise as you with frequent raises can force a player with a mediocre pair to fold. This is more common than the fact that you will hit an A on the turn- or river card… This however to a large extent depends on how scaring the flop is to your opponent and your own certainty that your opponent does not have anything that is favoured by the flop.

Even if you join up to showdown and lose your way of playing might have created good conditions for coming hands when you really have a strong hand. As mentioned before it takes a lot of reading and thinking/planning when playing shorthanded compared to playing longhanded (10 players).
Shorthande playing contains lots of hands that goes all the way to showdown with an A as the highest card with a low kicker card after loads of raises which might be good to know (there is of course a big difference between playing against 6 players or against 3 players – so be wise!). You keep your game balanced.

Risk of trouble

The shorthanded tables are probably the place where the players tend to use bad language and cause trouble the most ;-). If you learn to play winning shorthanded you should not expect to hear that you are good player. It is more likely you will be booed at and asked to go to a place which is slightly hotter.

You have to disregard this and merely establish the fact that these comments come from players who do not know what they are talking about and who play too tightly. That is why they literally hate your raising standards with QTo (well, it should’t be standard raise either – it depends on the table…) and even worse hands. Calling the flop in this way is not a problem but going on calling is wrong unless you have something of value.


Does this sound simple? Unfortunately it is not. Reading the players and picking the right opponents is incredibly important in order to beat these tables which is the difference from the low limit-tables where you in the long run nearly make a profit automatically by playing very tightly and by using your positions ( if many players call the flop and play their hands too far).

Be aware that your bank roll will be exposed to BIG fluctuations.

The rake

Playing shorthanded or heads-up without rakeback is a big waste of money. Even at the limit tables the pots will be raked for hundreds of dollars each month. This is an amount that you could have yourself.

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