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Short Handed Poker Strategy

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There are many different nuances to playing short handed poker cash games. The strategy at a five or six person table, or even heads up if you've whittled the group down, is far different than what you would do at a full table. Right off the bat, there are several philosophies you should consider at a short handed cash game versus a full table:

  • Play more aggressive. With only ten cards dealt out to five players, there are far fewer excellent starting hands than with twenty cards dealt out.
  • Solid hands can be played like excellent hands until a player's tells say otherwise.
  • If you are a conservative player, you will have to learn to choose your spots to be more aggressive.
  • Be even more wary of chases

These tips all directly relate to how the short handed games tend to be more aggressive, not only in the number of hands played, but in how players bet heavy into one another. If there are five players or less, almost any ace is worth playing as long as you are simply calling the blinds, or a moderate raise. In fact, if you’re first to act, an ace is almost always worth at least a moderate raise.

A good aggressive player who knows how to read opponents should also play more middle pairs, and solid king hands, as well. Cash games are by nature more aggressive than tournaments, but short handed either form requires the ability for a player to push. Pushing makes it difficult for your opponents to call, and even if the board comes up all blank, a continuation bet can be a powerful strategy.

A continuation bet is when you bet pre-flop, then immediately bet on the flop. This gives the impression of strength (which can be true or a bluff) and is used by pros to not only steal pots when nobody hits anything, but also to get information on other players and their style of play. If someone re-raises you often when the flop shows potential “loose straights,”—such as 5-6-9, or 4-6-8, then that tells you either the player knows how to bluff, or they consistently chase with hands like 5-7 or 6-9. This will help you know when to punish them and when to be cautious.

Being aggressive is absolutely necessary in a short hand game, so how do you know when to push and when to pull up? More important than perhaps any other part of your game is reading your opponents. Since everyone at a smaller table knows that you have to be aggressive, it is really hard to simply bully people without catching an insanely good series of hands that show down for the table to see. Reading when your opponents are bluffing versus chasing versus second pair versus big hand is crucial. Second pair can be a strong hand at a shortened table, so knowing when to push it and when you’re beat is crucial to success in short handed poker.

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