Killer Poker Shorthanded
by John Vorhaus and Tony Guerrera
Chapter 1: Shorthanded Thinking
No limit Texas hold’em has been called, “a game of people played with cards.” While we like that appellation, we also find it true that, in fullhanded ring games at least, NLHE is still pretty much a game of cards played with cards. That is, your decisions are based more on assumptions about what hands your foes hold than on assumptions about how they’ll play those hands. To take one well-known number, the odds are about 4:1 against being dealt a hold’em hand containing an ace or a pair. In a full ring game, then, if you don’t have a hand like that, you can figure yourself beaten in two places going in – and figure that your best course of action in most cases is to muck the Hammer (7-2) or the Numpty (6-2) or whatever other egregious piece of cheese you’ve been dealt.
In a shorthanded game, by contrast, the absolute number of premium holdings dealt each hand drops way down, simply as a function of fewer hands being dealt. Thus, in a fullhanded game, you begin with the assumption that, probably, somebody has a hand, but in a shorthanded game, you start with the assumption that, probably, nobody does. And the shorter the game gets, the more this assumption pertains. To reorient your thinking from fullhanded to shorthanded poker, then, begin with this question:
HOW CAN I WIN WITHOUT CARDS?
This is not a whiny rhetorical question, but rather the fundamental strategic query of shorthanded play. Before we begin to answer it, though, we must further refine our understanding of what we mean by shorthanded.
Traditionally, fullhanded tables consist of seven or more players, and shorthanded games consist of six or fewer players. Within the spectrum of shorthanded games, however, there’s shorthanded and then there’s really shorthanded. Just as a six-handed game plays differently from a ten-handed game, a heads-up confrontation plays very differently from its six-way cousin. Here is the full spectrum of shorthanded NLHE games:
· 5-4 handed
· 3 handed
· 2 handed (heads-up)
Even though NLHE is a game that takes place across four betting rounds, our thinking about, and differentiation among, the different types of shorthanded games has mostly to do with the betting rounds where most of the action is: preflop play and play on the flop.
Six-handed. Existing in a gray area between shorthanded and fullhanded play, six-handed games are neither precisely short nor exactly full. In six-way action, most flops are contested by at most three players – very rarely more – which sets six-handed poker apart from full ring games and its crowded, robustly contested “family” pots. So six-handed is not fullhanded, that’s for sure. Then again, at a six-handed table, the notion of early position still comes into play. If you call or raise from under the gun (UTG – to the left of the big blind), you have half the players behind you, yet to act, with only the two blinds sitting in front of you. This means that the majority of your foes will have position on you for the duration of the hand, and as we trust you know, putting in lots of money out of position in NLHE can lead to real trouble. Six-handed games differ from shorter shorthanded games, then, in that early position plays remain vulnerable to significant action from a (relatively) large percentage of players in later, better position.
Five- and four-handed. We group five- and four-handed games together because in both cases while there is still a definable early position, if you enter a pot UTG, you’ll never be out of position with respect to the majority of players yet to act. Though you still need to exercise positional caution, especially if the CO (cutoff) and/or B (button) are tricky, frisky players, in five- and four-handed games, the notion of early position preflop play is pretty much gone. Furthermore, as a function of so few starting contestants, postflop play is almost exclusively heads-up or three-handed. Since it’s unlikely that anyone yet contesting for the pot has much in the way of a hand, here’s where the notion of winning without cards really starts to kick in. While six-handed games usually end up playing like shorthanded games after the flop, it’s when you get to five- and four-handed games that the action can be said to be truly shorthanded from the start – and where, for consistent success, we have to start stepping outside the realm of tight-aggressive hit-to-win poker.
Three-handed. Three-handed games are unique in that the only player who doesn’t post a blind preflop is the button. Because of hold’em’s positional advantage, three-handed games consist of a lot of blind stealing by the button. The blinds have to counter by finding a favorable mix of hands to defend with, but something very interesting happens here: Because button raises are usually common in a three-handed game, they become almost meaningless. That is, no one believes that a button raise in any way equates with good cards. Even so, the blinds still can’t freely play back at the button blind stealer because of the positional disadvantage they’ll face in later betting rounds, whether the button has a hand or not. This is a specific instance of the more general phenomenon of knowing your foe is likely bluffing, but being effectively powerless to stop him. The winning player in a three-handed game is thus usually the one who uses the power of the button most effectively.
Heads-up. We’ve already mentioned that cards don’t mean as much in shorthanded NLHE as they do in fullhanded games; this idea reaches its logical conclusion in heads-up play, where the game is much less about holding cards and much more about establishing and exploiting profitable betting patterns. You (and your opponent if he’s skilled) will be constantly changing gears, jockeying for position, trying to get a foe leaning the wrong way. Some heads-up battles are won by whittling down an opponent through lots of small-pot poker. Others battles are won by laying big traps. This form of one-on-one combat is a unique subset of shorthanded play, and probably deserves to have a whole book devoted just to it.
CASH GAMES VERSUS TOURNAMENTS
Now let’s look at the difference between shorthanded cash games and shorthanded play in tournaments. Because waiting for big cards is not a viable shorthanded strategy, a looser, aggressive style of play becomes the norm. As anyone familiar with this style knows, loose and aggressive play leads, among other things, to increasing volatility. In a properly played shorthanded game, stacks may rise and fall like Roman empires, and in a cash game that’s all right for, assuming you’re playing within your means, you can always reload with available funds from your pocket, ATM, or wealthy maiden aunt.
In tournaments, of course, volatility is a potentially fatal problem. If your stack fluctuates all the way down to zero, you’re done, with nothing to do from that point forward except repair to a cash game, or the bar. Tournament play, then, requires that we strike a balance between chip accumulation and survival. In the shorthanded hothouse of a tournament’s end stage, this balance can be hard to achieve. One must evaluate the chip EV (expected value) and subsequent payout EV of every move, and weigh these moves against the chip EV and payout EV of other possible moves on possible future hands. Moreover, since tournaments tend to get shorthanded at the exact moment when the pressure of rising blinds becomes extreme, we further have to weigh our choices as a function of relative stack size. Shorthanded tournament strategy, then, is not just a matter of making the moves dictated by decreased hand values and temporary positional advantage. It’s also a matter of gamesmanship, where considerations of a high money – or first place – finish come into play.
You may, for instance, be in a shorthanded tournament situation where every player has less than ten big blinds; or you may be in a shorthanded tournament situation where you have five BB and your two opponents have 30 each. The pure dictates of shorthanded play will be severely skewed (sometimes turned completely upside down) by the meta-considerations of tournament play.
Tournament play, then, differs from cash game play in that all of our money moves exist in the context of greater strategic concerns. That said, the basis for sound shorthanded play lies in deducing chip EV for a particular hand, and measuring that EV against what we know, or can deduce, or can manipulate, about our foes. Thus, part one of this book is written with cash games in mind, and part two will take those concepts and make adjustments with tournament-specific considerations in mind.
A CRUCIAL TRUTH
When we first started playing hold’em, most of us played in fullhanded, low stakes games, where the “any two will do” ethos prevailed. In those games, virtually every flop was contested by three or more players (often many more) (often everyone), regardless of whether there were preflop raises. The way to beat these games, we quickly discovered, was to play somewhat tighter than the mean, to try to hit our hands, and to bet the hell out of them for value when we did. Later, we were introduced to the concept of pot odds, and learned to play drawing hands only when the pot was laying us the right price. Not too much sophisticated poker thought went into beating these games, but beating them was the first major step in our evolution as poker players.
As we advanced, we found ourselves in tougher fullhanded games, where our foes (curse them) didn’t donate their money quite so willingly. Still, our standard, kosher, tight-aggressive hit-to-win recipe continued to be a winning formula for even the relatively rougher fullhanded games. To improve our results, we started adding new weapons to our arsenal, such as bluffing in position and semi-bluffing some drawing hands. Even with these wrinkles though, the controlling idea for our fullhanded play remained hit-to-win. And you know what? Hit-to-win works. Why? Because with so many players contesting so many pots, somebody usually hits something, and therefore it usually takes at least a little something to take down the pot. Let’s look at the numbers.
Suppose you hold two unpaired hole cards. You are a 2.125:1 underdog to hit at least a pair; it’ll happen roughly one time in three. Now here’s the thing: When you play in fullhanded games where many players see the flop, you are usually getting at least an immediate 3:1 on your preflop investment, so you are getting proper odds to draw to at least a pair.
Now let’s shift to shorthanded play and see how the situation changes. In most shorthanded games, we’ll have at most two opponents postflop, meaning we are usually only getting at best a two to one return on our preflop investment. If we’re playing in a shorthanded game, and only playing when we hit the flop, suddenly we’re no longer getting the right price to play any hands at all. So we have to play something, and we have to base our play not on our cards but our foes. With this leap of logic, we step suddenly outside the whole hit-to-win mindset, and outside that mindset is where we absolutely need to be. Most successful fullhanded players who can’t beat shorthanded games haven’t figured this out. To aid in your transition, we offer the following crucial truth:
IT’S HARD TO HIT A FLOP
So hard to hit a flop. Two times out of three, you will miss the flop… not so much as pair. Two times out of three, your foe will miss the flop… not so much as pair. Four times out of nine (more or less) you’ll both miss the flop… not so much as pair. This means – and here comes the essential bedrock reality of shorthanded play – most flops will be contested over little or nothing at all. This is why our whole hit-to-win paradigm doesn’t work shorthanded. Learning to play hold’em at fullhanded tables, we trained ourselves to “fit or fold,” to wait patiently until we connected with the flop before we started getting involved. Good for us for learning how to play fullhanded games correctly but that strategy simply doesn’t work shorthanded. If we wait to connect with flops in shorthanded play we will, not to put too fine a point on it, simply wait ourselves broke.
Just to make the picture abundantly clear, consider Table 1.1 below. It assumes that the flop is unpaired and that you haven’t at least paired. Here you see the probabilities that various numbers of foes likewise whiffed.
Table 1.1: Probability That None of Your Opponents Have a Hole Card Matching a Board Card on an Unpaired Flop if They Have Random Hands
Number of Opponents
P(None match a board card)
As you can see, as the number of enemies increases, the likelihood of everyone having missed the flop drops like a rock. Against even three foes, the board helps no one only one time in four. Against five or more foes, it’s a virtual certainty that someone has something. That’s why hit-to-win (and fit or fold) works in a crowd – but not in a thin field.
Now let’s assume that the probabilities in Table 1.1 match the probabilities that your foes will fold if you bet into them. Of course, this assumption is not entirely valid because your opponents may have draws or pocket pairs, or may play back at you on stone cold bluffs. Such caveats aside, the probabilities indicate that making a two-thirds pot sized into one or two opponents when the flop has missed you is a potentially profitable play against certain players. Even if you have nothing, when they have nothing too, it’s hard for them to call. For some of them, it’s impossible, for the simple reason that they do not know the real math of hitting the flop, as you now do. Knowing which of your foes you can run over is an important part of being a winning shorthanded player, and we’ll show you later how to parse your enemies accurately. For now, though, just know this: that running over your foes is essential to shorthanded victory. Get used to it. Your level of aggressiveness is about to go way the fuck up.
BE A CODEBREAKER: HACKING 101
Live or online, shorthanded NLHE play features many more hands per hour than fullhanded play. Online, shorthanded games will boast a hand rate in the neighborhood of about 100/hr. Thanks to the fast pace of play and the small number of foes, you get a whole lot of useful information in a very short space of time. This high level of so-called context density makes available to you a rich, meaningful data stream about your foes’ betting patterns – a stream you never get in fullhanded games. In a full ring game, you might see a player use a certain betting progression only a handful of times, and there’s a decent chance that you won’t see a showdown any of those times, so you won’t have a lot of hard information with which to make inferences. Shorthanded, those betting patterns repeat over and over again (because everything repeats over and over again) giving you plenty of reliable 411 to work with. Granted, some common betting patterns still won’t lead to showdowns, so you’ll still have to make some educated guesses, but in general, the shorthanded environment is much more information-rich and information-relevant than its fullhanded cousin.
And that’s a good thing, because with basic TAG play no longer a consistently viable path to profit, we need to find other ways of carving out our edge – and it turns out that analyzing betting patterns is a handy tool for this. We analyze our foes’ betting patterns to discern who can be bluffed more profitably, more often. We use these trends to determine who we can profitably call with hands as weak as bottom pair. We let our enemies’ tendencies show who will yield their blinds too often without a fight. These are small edges, but small edges are the bread and butter of shorthanded play. Fortunately, with all the hands we play, small edges add up quickly. Unfortunately, since the blinds come around so often in a shorthanded game, and also represent a higher overall percentage of pot size, not taking advantage of small edges can end up costing us a lot of money. So we need to push edges. Which means we need to break codes.
As an example of how to break codes effectively, consider an online 6-max NLHE game. Say you have discovered that a minimum bet on the flop in this game almost always means that the player making the bet has a draw, or else a weak hand such as bottom board pair or middle board pair with no kicker. Armed with the information revealed by this betting pattern, what is your best course of action? Answer: overbetting the pot. Most opponents on draws won’t call if you provide the disincentive of an overbet, and foes with weak made hands are similarly likely to fold because the whole point of their min bet was to reduce their financial exposure in the first place.
Shorthanded play, then, serves codebreaking two ways. First, by offering frequently repeating patterns in an environment of high context density, shorthanded play gives us plenty of hard information to work with. Second, by repeating common game scenarios so frequently, shorthanded play gives us abundant opportunity to put our counterstrategies to work.
To be a successful codebreaker (we prefer the happy term hacker) simply follow these three steps.
1. Identify a meaningful betting pattern.
2. Come up with a +EV strategy to exploit it.
3. Recognize that exceptions exist and constantly update your hack.
Some opponents may be so slack-witted or stubborn that step #3 never comes into play (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but the third step is usually important because once you launch a strategy to exploit a pattern, your opponents will usually begin to adjust. Say you’ve made some decent coin by overbetting your foes off their draws. How will they respond? Either by betting their draws bigger (to make them look less like draws) or betting their made hands smaller (to invite you to overbet yourself into a pickle). Each of these countermeasures requires yet another countermeasure from you, and so your hacking efforts are never a set-and-forget proposition. You’re constantly breaking codes, constantly monitoring your foes’ adjustments, and constantly responding to the changes you detect in their patterns. For instance, if you’ve been successfully bullying minimum bettors, but suddenly find yourself in a situation where people are minimum betting their monsters and getting you overcommitted with understrength hands, you don’t have a problem on your hands, but rather an opportunity. After all, by minimum betting huge hands, your foes are offering you highly favorable drawing odds, so you just thank them kindly for the gift, and draw cheaply. If you’re really fortunate, these tricky trappers will cough up big bets on later rounds, giving you maximum return on your implied odds. Even if they don’t, their adjustment to your adjustment has made drawing hands more favorable than usual in a shorthanded game.
Bottom line: When you’re a hacker, your opponents are always giving you something you can use.
BE A CODEMAKER: CRYPTOGRAPHY 101
If your opponents aren’t paying attention and adapting to your play, then your role at the table is exclusively that of a hacker. Crack everyone’s code and comfortably play some +EV poker. Of course, sitting at a table where nobody’s paying any attention is not very likely. More commonly, you’ll be facing at least one other hacker, and in order to defeat your fellow hackers, you’ll need to generate some meaningful and misleading code of your own. You’ll need to present them with betting patterns that lead them astray and cause them to draw false conclusions.
Let’s craft some code. Suppose you’re still in that online 6-max game and you notice that, as described above, a fellow hacker always overbets the pot when someone makes a min bet. Holding pocket sixes, you find yourself heads up against this criminal, when the flop comes Th-6h-8d. Based on your hack, you can reliably predict that he’ll take the bait of a min bet and overbet the pot. He’ll have to, won’t he? Either to protect something like top pair, good kicker, or just to steal the pot from the weakass min bettor you appear to be. At that point, you can spring your trap with a big reraise, or just call along and hope he’ll oblige you by betting yet again on later streets. Now a couple of orbits pass, and you find yourself heads up again against the same hacker – only this time you have the flush draw. Since you trapped last time with a min bet, he’ll naturally be leery of making a big raise if you min bet here. He may just call along, giving you favorable odds for your flush draw, or possibly even follow a “won’t get fooled again” line of reasoning, and fold right here. Either way, you’ve accomplished three worthy goals.
· You’ve given yourself a great chance at winning two pots.
· You’ve analyzed your foe’s play.
· You’ve misled him with yours.
This is called keeping your head in the game, and also keeping one step ahead of the pack. In the name of exploiting small edges, it’s exactly the sort of thinking and acting, codebreaking and codemaking, that you need to be involved with when you make shorthanded NLHE your game of choice. Remember that you only have a handful of foes to figure out, so figuring them out shouldn’t be all that tough a job. Really, it’s the only job that matters. Shorthanded, you can’t count on cards. You have to count on code.
Now, since each of your opponents has a different code, you’ll probably have different misleads and countermeasures for each of them. What’s really interesting is that you can use optimal play against one player to set up a profitable hack against someone else by wedding correct play to false code. To see how this works, let’s say you’re in a pot against a loose, passive player, a so-called Cally Wally, with the following attributes:
· On the flop he’ll call a two-thirds pot bet regardless of his hole cards.
· On the turn he’ll call a half pot bet with king high or better.
· On the river he’ll call a one-third pot bet with ace high or better.
Against shorthanded foes in general, your default game plan for many games will be to bet the flop heads up with any two cards, and if you get resistance, to shut down on the turn and the river unless you have top pair. Against this Wally, though, your hack tells you that you can comfortably bet as little as bottom pair with a high kicker on the turn, and as little as second pair on the river. This is a profitable way to play against the Wally – and it’s secondarily profitable because even while you’re beating him out of pot after pot, you’re transmitting seductive false betting patterns to others at the table!
After a few hands in which you’ve shown down some sketchy, but winning, holdings, some of your foes will conclude that you’re willing to bet your second and third pairs pretty hard. However, only the craftiest ones will recognize that you’re making these bets exclusively against the Wally. The others will assume that you’re generally wildly overoptimistic on the turn and river. If you exclusively bet into these others with just the high end of your spectrum – top pair or better – they’ll pay off what they see as your promiscuous betting. Thanks to the Wally, and the primary target he presented, you now have fruitful secondary targets: your other opponents, who will no longer fold the hands they should on the turn and the river.
Playing different opponents differently is a great way to send out confusing signals to your foes, especially if you can do it in such a way that you’re actually playing optimally against each individual opponent. The beauty of shorthanded play is, again, that you have fewer foes to solve, fewer foes to mislead, and many, many more situations where you’re heads up against a single foe whom you well understand, but who doesn’t really understand you at all.
JUST SAY NO TO EGO
You’re starting to get the sense, we hope, that shorthanded play is a much more mentally engaged and engaging version of poker than its fullhanded cousin. It’s compelling. It commands all your information-gathering, information-processing and information-blocking strategies. We here at Killer Poker World Headquarters like a fighter pilot metaphor: Players in shorthanded hold’em are engaged in a perpetual dogfight, trying constantly to get inside each other’s turning circle – and inside each other’s head. Winning such dogfights feels good. Real good. So we feel it’s only fair to warn you that feeling good, the buzz you enjoy from beating your foes, will become the tail that wags the dog of your shorthanded play. In short, ego – the emotional response to poker – is a greater problem in shorthanded hold’em than it is in full field play.
All poker, of course, can be an ego-driven enterprise, as will any setting involving competition, money, glitz, glamour, and the chance to eviscerate and crush one’s foes. Amplifying this ego impact is the close-quarter nature of shorthanded play, where personal – sometimes very personal – confrontations are the norm. It’s easy to stay dispassionate in a fullhanded ring game when you’re just sitting and waiting for hands. Shorthanded, where every deal is a dogfight, and where trash talk is often liberally applied (for edge, or just for the hell of it), it’s an extra struggle to keep one’s ego in check. But wait, there’s more.
In addition to all that competition, money, glitz, glamour, personal confrontation, evisceration, crushing, dogfights and trash talk, shorthanded NLHE is a game where bluffing plays a pivotal role. In fullhanded play, bluffing is a luxury, a tool you may or may not choose to use. In shorthanded play, where it’s hard to hold a hand, bluffing becomes de rigueur, and of course, the bluff packs an inordinate ego punch, whether it works or not. Our egos swell when we bluff successfully, and shrink when someone does it to us (especially if they show and/or trash talk it through as well). Shorthanded play is also a bully’s game, and no one likes to be bullied, so there’s another opportunity for our emotions to become negatively engaged.
Ego pitfalls are everywhere. Suppose you’re in a shorthanded game and just crushing it: raise, continuation bet, everyone folds. Next case! Suddenly, a new player arrives, and he starts preempting all your bully behavior and bluff runs. At this point, it’s natural to feel thwarted. Frustration blooms, and you find yourself thinking, “Who the hell does this dickweed think he is? This is my game, not his. I’m gonna show this bitch what’s up!” Next thing you know, you’re making decisions that are ego-based, not hack-based and then, well, you’re doomed. Especially shorthanded, where the pace of play amplifies small errors and turns tiny leaks into flash floods.
Shorthanded NLHE is a macho game, no question about it. The few seats at the table are often filled with hotheads, hotshots, and big, swinging dicks. To profit in this game, we must check our egos at the door. Let others take the glory road. Strive to be the emotionless assassin whose only interest is to kill as efficiently as possible. Treat all bets, bluffs, and confrontations as mere points of information: information you can feed back into your game to improve your performance and your results. It will help you detach from ego, and from emotional investments of all kinds, if you stop thinking of outcomes in terms of good and bad. In other words:
AVOID VALUE JUDGMENTS
To borrow from the Buddhists, who are masters of this sort of thing, we ask you to contemplate the following Zen koan:
The Abbot’s Gift
A Zen monk, early in his training, is preparing to leave the monastery and switch locations, for that is common in the Zen practice. Before he leaves he goes to the abbot of the monastery to say goodbye. He does so, but the abbot says he has a gift for him. Now, it is part of the Japanese way to accept gifts and be appreciative; to do otherwise is rude and, therefore, wrong. The abbot takes a pair of tongs and picks up a red hot coal from the adjacent fire pit on which he has a tea kettle.
The young monk starts to contemplate what he should do, and after a few moments, runs out of the hall distressed, for he cannot figure out how to act. He can take the coal and be burned, or he can refuse the gift of the abbot and be rude. Both, in his mind, are things he cannot do.
He meditates on the problem for the next week, and comes back to say goodbye. However, the same scene is played again, and the same frustration blooms when he tries to figure out what the abbot wants him to do.
He meditates further on the subject and feels he has discovered how to respond to the abbot’s gift. He returns, for the third time, to say goodbye to the abbot, and as before the abbot picks up a red hot coal and presents it as a gift to the young monk. The young monk simply replies, “Thank you.”
The abbot breaks into a grin, nods his head, and returns the coal to the fire pit. “You may go now,” he says.
Accept what is offered you, say the Buddhists. A thing is not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing that is. If someone successfully bluffs you off a pot, even if he gloats and taunts, simply accept the outcome, make appropriate adjustments, and move on. In the swirling dogfight of shorthanded NLHE, the minute you let your ego get engaged, you’re toast.
It will happen from time to time – and be a challenge to your ego – that you find yourself in a game that is unbeatable. Perhaps you are slightly better than your opponents but not to the point of being able to overcome the rake. Maybe you’re not even as much as slightly better. It could be that you’re usually better, but on this occasion your foes just have you dialed in. For whatever reason, if you determine that you’re in an unbeatable game, don’t try to come up with excuses. Instead, come up with a game plan that works. Here’s the default game plan for meeting the challenge of difficult games:
Of course, sometimes we’re forced to play against tougher competition, as in a tournament where leaving is not an option. And sometimes we need to play against tougher competition in order to sharpen our skills. But we don’t need to play against tougher competition just because our egos won’t let go. That’s a guaranteed way to blow your bankroll. Remember: just because they hand you a hot coal doesn’t mean you have to hold it.
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