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The Transition to Shorthanded Play

By Tony Guerrera

You have been a successful fullhanded no limit hold’em player for quite awhile. You’ve made a ton of money by playing patient, calculating poker against the multitude of reckless opponents who fill the casinos and online poker rooms. You’ve learned that beating most fullhanded games involves playing “hit-to-win” poker, meaning that you only get involved when you have good hands and that you know how to assess the strength of your good hands so that you don’t lose money when your opponents have your good hands beaten.

Mastering hit-to-win poker is important, and it will put you above the average poker player, but if you want to beat a wide variety of games, then hit-to-win poker isn’t enough. Playing hit-to-win poker works in loose fullhanded games, but you won’t make much playing hit-to-win poker in tight fullhanded games. Furthermore, you’ll need more than just hit-to-win poker if you are playing shorthanded poker, and if you want to make the most money possible, then shorthanded no limit hold’em is the way to go.

Shorthanded no limit hold’em is more profitable for skilled players, and it’s more fun…double bonus! In fullhanded poker, you are handicapped by your cards. Skill is important in knowing when your hands are good and when they are bad, but that’s about the extent of what you need to beat a majority of today’s fullhanded games. In shorthanded poker, you are no longer handcuffed by needing hands that will stand-up in a showdown. You play more hands per hour, meaning that you get more information about your opponents-information that you can use to identify weaknesses that you can then mercilessly pounce upon.

The key to becoming a successful shorthanded no limit hold’em player is realizing that shorthanded hold’em is played under an entirely different paradigm than fullhanded hold’em. When playing fullhanded, most flops are seen by at least three or four players. Given that you will hit the flop about one third of the time with unpaired hole cards, it’s easy to see that in most fullhanded games, you’ll be getting money odds to sit and wait to hit hands. In a fullhanded game, the general thought process is that “at least one player has hit the flop,” meaning that you can’t continue if you haven’t hit the flop.

Meanwhile, in most shorthanded games, most pots are contested by at most three players, and a vast majority of them are actually contested heads-up. Under such playing conditions, you usually won’t be getting money odds to sit and wait to hit hands. Furthermore, if you sit around and only wait for premium hands, the blinds will eat you alive, meaning that you generally need to play more hands. If you play more hands but surrender a vast majority of them postflop when you don’t hit a hand, you will be crushed. To avoid being crushed, you need to take advantage of the general rule governing shorthanded no limit hold’em: “most likely, no one has hit the flop.”

Taking advantage of this shorthanded playing dynamic means being aggressive. Raise preflop when you are in position to get heads-up. If your opponent checks to you on the flop, then fire a continuation bet. You’ll find that most opponents will back down in the face of this aggression, and you’ll take down many pots like this. It’s very important that you only exercise this aggression in position, though. Raising out of the blinds and continuation betting out of position isn’t as effective as raising on the button and continuation betting into an opponent who has checked to you.

Raising out of position also poses another problem. It builds larger pots that are trickier to play when you have hands like middle board pair. You want to play small pots when you have tricky decisions and big pots when you don’t. Basically, play small pots when you don’t have position, and play large pots when you do have position.

Raising preflop and continuation betting postflop are major weapons in most shorthanded no limit hold’em games. However, the best shorthanded no limit players are really successful at two things:

  • Winning hands uncontested when no one has hit anything
  • Extracting value from made hands by manipulating opponents into yielding high implied odds

Raising preflop and continuation betting postflop will help you win hands when no one has hit anything, but they aren’t the only things you can do towards that end. You should look for betting patterns and tells from your opponents that indicate weakness to come up with other ways to take pots uncontested when you don’t have anything. One betting pattern that I particularly like in pots where I have limped along with one or two other limpers is to check on the flop when I missed and to then bet on the turn when everyone else checks the flop. This bet works best if the turn card is an undercard to the other board cards, but you’ll find that it works well in other circumstances as well.

Tactically sound bluffing will let you chip away at your opponents’ stacks, but if you want to completely decimate your opponents, you need to become involved in big confrontations as a big favorite. In fullhanded hold’em, big confrontations happen naturally because of the sheer number of players in each hand. In shorthanded hold’em, you need to force big confrontations-you need to manipulate your opponents into yielding you high implied odds.

Interestingly, you can manipulate your opponents into yielding high implied odds through the aggression you use in your tactically sound bluffing. If you have a conservative image, you may only get your opponent to call a bet on the flop, but if you have a maniacal image, you opponents will sometimes call you down to the river with bottom board pair or even ace-high. Of course, once you’ve bluffed your way to a maniacal image, your bluffs will no longer win as many hands.

Being successful at shorthanded no limit hold’em is ultimately about knowing where you are in the flow of the game. Is the game in a state such that most of your profit will be derived by winning hands uncontested, or have you shifted the scales such that you’re opponents have greatly devalued the hands they’ll play against you with? If you always know which way the scales tip, you should be well on your way to deriving significant shorthanded profits.

Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker by the Numbers


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