Lesson 29 – Short-Handed Play

Home Poker School Lesson 29 – Short-Handed Play

If you follow the No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE) Starting Hands matrix that I presented in Lesson 15, you probably play 18-22% of all the hands you’re dealt, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it also means you spend a lot of time waiting and, as often happens to me, when you finally do get a good hand and open with a raise, everybody at the table folds because they think you’re a “rock.” It’s true that you must give action to get action, but who wants to raise from Early Position with 9-5s in order to get some callers when you have A-A in a later hand?

There’s an excellent solution to this and comes in the form of 6-player Sit & Go (SnG) tournaments that are available at many online poker rooms. The ones I play most are at Intercasino Poker, where the six players each begin with 1000 chips and the blinds are raised every 10 hands – something I prefer over those where the blinds are raised, say, every ten minutes. I do not play the “Thunder” matches they offer, where the blinds are increased every six hands because that’s just too fast for my style of play, but they might appeal to you. In both types, only two players of the six get “in the money” on a 75-25% basis. For example, in a $30 match, each player pays $33 and the total prize pool is $180, with $135 going to the winner and $45 going to the 2nd place finisher. This nets out to a $102 profit to the winner of a match that usually takes just over an hour and much less, I would imagine, for the “Thunder” SnGs. In all humility, I win more than my fair share, so these are a nice way of making $$$ in a fairly consistent manner. If one were to specialize in these games, a bankroll of twenty entry fees ($660 for the $33 match) is probably the minimum; I play with thirty buy-ins or about $1000 and have never had to add to my bankroll, but your mileage may vary.

The “trick” here is that you can still use the NLHE Starting Hands matrix from Lesson 15 with only a few minor adjustments, so it’s not like you need to learn an entirely new strategy in order to succeed. While you may or may not play more hands depending upon the situation, the reality is that most players in these games loosen up too much – at least that’s my experience – so your opening raises will frequently find plenty of callers. If you believe in the adage that one needs a better hand to call with than to open a pot with (the “Gap Theory”), by using my starting hands matrix as modified, you will have the best hand preflop the vast majority of the time because many of your opponents will disregard the Gap Theory (either because they don’t know about it or think it doesn’t apply in a short-handed game) and because my matrix is composed mostly of premium hands. Naturally, as soon as your opponents see that you’re playing only premium hands, they’ll tighten up, but that’s the beauty of these SnGs; by the time they figure it out, the tournament is nearly over.

Let me show you the modified NLHE Starting hands matrix I use and we’ll discuss it below:

As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t a lot of changes in this versus my “regular” Starting Hands matrix. What have changed are the various position designations. In a 6-handed game, Early Position (EP) is defined as the UTG position; the first to act preflop. Middle Position (MP) is UTG +1, or the second to act preflop. Late Position (LP) is the Cut Off and the Button. Of course, the Small Blind (SB) and the Big Blind (BB) remain the same – both act last preflop, but then act first after the flop, which puts them in the least overall desirable positions.

All I have basically done is shift things over to the left a bit, so that a play one might make from MP at a 9- or 10-player table is now an EP play at a 6-player table. And, while this matrix assumes 6 players at the table, that will of course change as the tournament progresses. This means you should continue making adjustments like that, which is to play more hands as the number of opponents dwindles. While there’s no specific point at which you should start treating the LP plays as EP plays – a lot will depend upon how tight or loose your opponents are – I’m usually playing from the LP column when there are three of us left. At that point, if I’m not in the Blinds, I’m on the Button and have great position, even though I must act first preflop. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; let’s go back to the matrix.

High pairs like A-A through 10-10 are played in the same way, which is probably no surprise. In the pairs category, the middle pairs of 9-9 to 5-5 gain in strength, but remember that they’re still not invincible, even in a six-handed game. For the “baby” pairs, 4-4 to 2-2, my strategy is to try and limp in with them (just calling the Big Blind) in EP and MP, which won’t always be possible if your opponents are over-playing their hands by raising with almost any two cards. If that happens, you can see I recommend you fold the baby pairs to a raise, but before you do that, consider the pot odds. If several players call, the pot may be big enough for you to call as well. The key number to remember in a case like that is 7.5. Why 7.5? Well, those are the odds you will hit a third card, thus making a set of Trips on the flop. So, if the pot is offering a 7.5 times return on the bet you must make to stay in, go ahead and call. And, while I might still do it for a 6 times return, because of the “implied” odds, that’s about my bottom limit. Either I get 6+ times on my bet or I fold 2-2 to 4-4 to any raise.

Here’s another important point about which hands to play: Look at the asterisk (*) next to 4-4 to 2-2, A-10s, A-10o, K-Qs, K-Qo, K-Js and Q-Js. That asterisk refers you to a footnote that says to fold these hands if someone acting before you raises, unless you hold those hands in one of the Blind positions. The reason is simple: these hands are easily “dominated”; that is, your opponent raises with A-Qo and you call with Q-Js – you both share the Queen, but his kicker is better so if a Queen flops, you’re toast. Sure, you might flop a Straight and there’s no law that says your opponent raised with A-Q in the first place, but if you’re ever going to be dominated, it’s when you hold a hand like these, so just save your ammo for a better opportunity.

The better opportunity for these hands comes when you’re in the Blinds. You’ll also see a (1) next to the Blinds play for K-Qo, K-Js and Q-Js. That refers to a footnote that says: “If all players limp in, then raise with these hands from the SB or BB.” Certainly, a player acting before you might be limping in with A-A or A-K, but the vast majority of the time they’ll be limping with suited connectors like 5-6s, A-xs (Ace-anything, suited) or small pairs, just like we’ll be doing with 2-2 to 4-4, so raising is the most intelligent way to find out where you stand in the hand. Because you’ll be out of position and have to act first after the flop, you want to end the hand as soon as possible, so no wimpy raises here; make it at least 4 times the BB unless you’re all but certain that the UTG limper has a premium pair. By making a relatively large raise, you’re trying to destroy the 7.5 to 1 pot odds an opponent with a medium or small pocket pair needs to call, but the opponent with a premium pocket pair is going to call, regardless of the pot odds. Would I ever go all in here? Nope. Would I call a reraise? Nope. I’ll give this one shot and that’s it.

Let me just elaborate a bit on play from the Blinds in a 6-player match and we’ll wrap this up. Unless you’re holding a premium pair or Big Slick (A-K) and maybe “Big Chick” (A-Q), whenever you’re playing from the Blinds your first concern should be to end the hand as quickly as possible, as I mentioned earlier. Being out of position after the flop is no joy; you need either a strong hand that can win on its own or you need a good flop – and we all know how often good flops come – never often enough. But that’s not to say you need to send a message that your Blind bets are up for grabs to anyone that raises because they’ll steal if you let them. As in life, the old expression, “people will take advantage of you only if you let them” applies to poker and never more so than when you’re in the Blinds.

In my 6-player matrix, you’ll see that the plays from the Blinds are almost exactly the same as those in the matrix for a full table, other than A-Ko is played exactly the same as A-Ks. But I could have gone further – become more aggressive – and often do in a tournament, once I’ve got a good “read” on my opponents. For example, look at the play for J-J in the Blinds. It says “Re-raise LPR (a late position raise), otherwise call.” In a 6-player game, the probability that your pair of Jacks is beat by a higher pair is only about 7% and for 10-10 it’s 9.4%. Those are relatively small numbers, so if my matrix is too tight for your style of play, this is the place to loosen up. Just one or two re-raises from the Blinds will usually be enough to send the message that you’re going to protect your hand. Naturally, your opponents will begin tightening up on their raises from Late Position (if they actually get the message – some won’t) if you do this, so be careful to re-raise only with a decent hand until you’re sure the initial raiser is just putting in position raises, which are of the any-two-cards-will-do type. Again, you want to re-raise here primarily to end the action – 99% of the time that’s preferable to getting a call and then having to finish the hand out of position.

To sum up, if you want more action, but don’t want to play “loose” (that’s loose; play more – not “lose”, which means to not win), then seek out the short-handed games that are available in most online poker rooms. For my $$$, they’re one of the best opportunities available these days and that’s the only reason why I play poker: for the $$$.

I’ll see you here next time.

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