A poker essay by Jonny Vincent
We've all seen it a hundred times. That annoying player who, whenever the game gets short-handed, turns into what appears to be a maniac. He's betting, he's raising, he's re-raising - and completely dominating the game. To the beginner, or to those inexperienced in short-handed play, he appears to have no idea of how to play. You wonder, 'What's he doing raising with K7 offsuit - he must have no idea!' But yet he wins - and wins well. What's his secret then?
The secret lies in one word: aggression. The short-handed player must - absolutely must - be able to play a solid aggressive game. Whilst you can do well playing passively in a full ring game, where others do the betting for you, when the game gets short-handed (five or less runners), you must be able to change your playing style and be able to bet aggressively hands you wouldn't even have considered playing in a full game. Unfortunately, if you don't, the aggressive players will run roughshod over you, controlling the betting to their advantage, and you will find your stack diminishing rapidly.
This is often bad news to poker players, as it takes them out of their comfort zone. However, it is also exciting, fun, full of action and - if one develops and hones the unique skills of short-handed play - can be extremely rewarding. Short-handed games have more variance, which means they have more risk - but with increased risks, come increased rewards.
Playing aggressively encompasses more than simply betting or raising more than you would in a full ring game. It's about knowing when you have the best hand (remember, in short-handed play, you must lower both your starting hand requirements and the hands you would take to a showdown) - and about taking advantage of those who play too conservatively. You want - through your aggressive betting - to make these people fold at incorrect times and, in doing so, incorrectly give up their equity in the pot. Roughly two out of three times, the flop won't even give you a pair. The skilled aggressive player realises this, and takes advantage of players who don't. Skilled aggressive players also know how to determine whether they are in front of their opponents, and thus when to speed up and slow down in their betting.
This may sound relatively simple, but unfortunately, it isn't. Strong short-handed players are not born, they are made. It's hard work and it takes dedication and a great deal of practice before you will start reaping the dividends. You will need to be able to take in a great deal more information and, more importantly, you will need to be able to process that information extremely quickly. You must be able to assess your opponent's styles of play - be they aggressive, passive, loose or tight - keeping in mind there are varying levels of each. Many would consider my play very aggressive, but my play is quite tame compared to that of some of the super-aggressive short-handed players going around. You have to be able to assess your opponents' styles, and alter your play accordingly. And here's the tricky bit - you have to be able to do this from one hand to another depending on which opponents you are up against in any particular hand. There is a secondary advantage to be gained from doing this - mixing up your play makes it much harder for your opponents to gauge what you're trying to do.
Russ Georgiev, one of the most skilled short-handed players I have ever had the opportunity to converse with, once gave me this piece of advice:
Realize that anyone that waits for a hand in a short-handed situation will lose many blinds while waiting. Also, when they gets involved in betting, the opposition will know they has something and will be waiting to check-raise them and trap them, or let them win the minimum. Short-handed players that win bet their own hands, they don't bet yours. You have to learn to do this yourself. The object of the game is to get the money called when you have the best of it and have free cards given to you with the worse of it. Short-handed is not a game for callers.
Not having the opposition able to read your style is the difference between winning and losing. The key is being able to have so many different styles that the opposition doesn't know how to combat it. All shorthanded players are aggressive. But in a horse race, the speed of the speed is the one to fear. However, do you always want to be the speed, if the pace of the game is fast enough? The answer is no. The name of the game is knowing how to bet to get the most information about a players hand. Sometimes it is best to lay off the pace and punish him in the last quarter of a mile, meaning the river.
The kinds of skills Russ is talking about here can only come with practice. I can't tell you to raise with K9o from late position without knowing the texture of the game, and the styles of your opponents. Knowing when to raise, which hands to start with and which hands to stay with is something only you can learn with time. The trick to starting out is to not underestimate your hands. Simply start betting, raising and check-raising more, even occasionally when you have nothing. Don't take it too far, especially when you're just starting out, but take yourself out of your comfort zone - you might be surprised at how much fun you have whilst you are learning. And you also might be surprised at how quickly you do, indeed, learn.
If you have had any experience in short-handed play, you will already be starting to comprehend the point's I am trying make here, if not yet understanding them fully. If you don't, that's ok. As I stated before, it takes time and plenty of practice to hone your skills. I like to think I know what I'm doing in a short-handed game, but the more I play, the more I realise how many talented players there are out there and how much better I can, and must, become - it just takes dedication, hard work and confidence in yourself. Just between you and me, really excellent short-handed players absolutely carve me up. I can't compete with them!
Which leads me to a very important point: You must be quick to figure out when you are hopelessly outclassed. You then have two choices - stay in the game and learn from the experience (effectively you are 'paying' for the lesson), or leave the game immediately and find a different game. Short-handed players who are serious about making money don't compete with each other (they know the rake will be the winner) - they look for games in which they hold a significant advantage over their opponents to make it profitable. Occasionally talented short-handed players will duel - even if they know there are easier games elsewhere - but this would be an ego thing to assert dominance. There is always easier money to be made elsewhere. If you can't work out what your opponent's are doing, or if you're not confident of being able to work them out quickly, don't feel ashamed in leaving immediately. The only reason you might want to stay in that game is if you feel you can learn from their play.
I hope this little piece has, if nothing else, given you a starting point for making a serious crack at becoming a short-handed genius. Don't put too much pressure on yourself - the skills will come. Don't be afraid to be hard on yourself either - be honest as you sit down periodically and contemplate how you are going. Remember, you will never be the best player in the world - but you don't need to be. Picking up a few simple sets of skills in short-handed play already puts you ahead of the vast majority - who concentrate solely on their ring game play, to the neglect of this all-too-important part of the game.
Good luck and go start dominating some short-handed
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