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      Do you play shorthanded poker? Before you say “No” answer these twp questions. Do you ever play in poker tournaments? Do you ever find yourself one of the last four players in the pot, except for the blind or a forced bet? Obviously, you must answer “Yes” to at least the second question. Whatever our proclivities, we all need to know how to play shorthanded. To be sure, being one of the last four players in the pot is somewhat different from being one of four players dealt in at the beginning. The remaining deck stub figures to be richer in the desirable cards for that game, if a number of additional players have been dealt in and folded. The degree this affects the situation varies considerably with the form of poker being played. It is particularly noticeable at lowball draw and hold’em; But the other elements of shorthanded play other than a rich deck will apply.

      If the game itself is shorthanded, the first question to ask yourself is, “Should I play in this game?” If it is the final stage of a poker tournament, you of course do not have a choice. But in a money game, you do not have to play.
      This most important factor is who the other people are in the game. If they are inferior players, you may have a bigger overlay than in a full game. The type of player you wish to gamble with is the kind that plays only his own hand, without paying much attention to what you do. If you check, and he has nothing, he contentedly checks right along behind you. If you cannot beat this kind of weak player, we recommend taking up a game that has much less emphasis on psychology, such as Scrabble or chess. You have no future in poker.

       Inferior players come in all shapes and sizes. If your opponent knows poker well, but is overly aggressive and has no discipline, you have a better chance of parting him from his money in a full game. In fact, with the elements I have described, it may well be you who rates to be the loser in the setting I have portrayed.
        Most of the time, a shorthanded game arises at either the beginning of a session, or at the end. Either way, there is a lot of social pressure to play poker, as one additional poker player can easily be the difference between having a game or not. In such situations, a smart gambler evaluates the situation objectively, rather than succumbing to peer pressure. Remember that everybody else’s interest is actually diametrically opposed to yours. You want to increase your bankroll, whereas they want to diminish it. Most of the time, if you would be at a disadvantage, or have a limited amount of capital and feel your chances would be superior with a full table, the right thing to do is take a break or go home.

      Do not fall into the trap of getting ego-involved, and feel you should not back off in any poker situation. I remember a no-limit hold’em game that occurred in the early eighties at the Horseshoe Casino during the World Series of Poker. I was in a fivehanded game with fop pro players Ray Zee and Steve Lott, and a couple of weak players whose identity I have now forgotten. The two weakies got up and went to dinner, but left their chips on the table. The three of us wanted to hold the game together for their return, so we kept playing. I am a reasonable shorthanded player, and came pretty close to completely running over us. By the time the twosome returned from dinner, I had lost back all the money I had won earlier, and Zee also had a bad result. To add insult to injury, the two returning turkeys expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that no new players had taken a seat, and picked up their chips. (One may wonder who they thought was going to saunter in and kindly make up a fourth player for Steve, Ray, and me, without their own magnetic presence.) So the moral of the story is you are not under contract to play in any poker game.
        Here is some of the ways shorthanded play differs from a full game, and the subsequent influence on strategy:

  1. Hand values are increased. A hand that rates to beat two other people does not need to be nearly as strong as one needed to beat other people. For example, top pair at hold’em figures to be good enough to play for all your money, unless the chips are really deep. Two pair is even a reasonable Omaha poker hand, if there is nothing too terrifying on the board. So you need to get familiar with the hand values for the number of players arrayed against you.
  2. There are more moves. Giving a free card is not as dangerous, so a skilled shorthanded player is willing to check a good hand fairly often when he gets one. If you are up against aggressive players, this is necessary to stop then from running over you. Otherwise, it is too easy for them to adopt the policy of simply betting every time you check. 
  3. Aggression becomes even more important. It is less likely that the opposition has a hand that can take pressure, so you bet and raise more often. The hold’em player that places a lot of emphasis on having outs before undertaking any aggressive action has standards too high for shorthanded play. Remember, the only prerequisite that is essential to bet is some chips in front of you.
  4. You must adjust every time a new player enters or leaves the game. For example, when you go from four players to five players, the number of players has increased by 25 percent. That is like going from eighthanded to tenhanded. So make the appropriate adjustment in hand values tempo.

              Here is the most important thing to know about being a strong shorthanded player. In big-bet poker, the fact that you have the leverage of betting a large amount in relation to the pot gives you a powerful cannon to fire. And as any good military commander or athletic coach will tell you, “If you’ve got a big gun, shoot it.”

              As you can see, knowing how to play shorthanded is an important part of anyone’s poker education. It is foolish to avoid shorthanded play, as the value of playing in any poker game depends on the quality of the opponents, not their number. In a shorthanded game you get to participate far more often than in a full game. This gives you more opportunity to bring your skills to bear, and makes the game more fun as well.


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