Shorthanded Table Strategy

Abdul Jalib (Mike Hall) from

Short-handed tables tend to be heads up by the flop, and heads up play is a tremendously psychological game. Categorize your opponents and exploit their weaknesses, radically adjusting your play for the opponent. Against overaggressive players you should be passive-aggressive; be tenacious and let the overaggressive player bluff into you, shedding your passivity for aggressive counterattacks for value late in the hand. Against weak-tight players likely to fold, you should be overaggressive, but just be sure that they are really weak-tight, not passive-aggressive. Against passive-tenacious-loose players (i.e., calling stations), bet for value and almost never bluff.

Do what you can to encourage them to continue to be predictable in one extreme or the other; for example, against chronic bluffers, don't embarrass them by forcing them to show their hand at the showdown. Against weak-tight players, cow them into submission with your glorious superiority (as long as you and they believe you are the superior player, you will be!

Those tight-aggressive players, well, they are a problem, especially if they have loosened up appropriately for the short-handed game; you have no choice but to be tight-aggressive against them, and much of the below strategy emphasizes this approach.


Yes, you should see more flops when short-handed. Don't get carried away with this, however, as you'll need good hands to support the semi-bluffing that you'll be doing later in the hand. Short-handed preflop play is nearly identical to late position play and play on the blinds at full tables when everyone folds to the last four players. (The only difference in theory is that there were not a bunch of people folding before, so in short-handed play the card distributions are uniform, whereas at a full table that has folded down to a few players the last few hands are more likely to contain aces and other high cards.) Review the late and blind position sections in Sklansky&Malmuth's _Advanced Holdem_ book, and see also their comments on heads up play and semi-bluffing and just about everything else. See also the FAQ.

Attack the blinds by raising with any playable hand. A naked ace, which is a trouble hand at a full table, becomes a playable raising hand when short-handed. Kings with decent kickers are okay too. I tend to dump hands such as 86s, however, as I really don't want to get heads up with it, though if the blinds are likely to fold I might go for it. When short-handed, big unsuiteds are fine, while small suited connectors are trouble. When your blind is being attacked, call with most playable hands and reraise with the better hands (such as AQ, KQs, ATs, 88) to punish your opponent for raising your blind with his 86s.

On The Flop

Heads up, an ace with a good kicker is often a value-betting/raising hand on a flop that completely misses it (i.e., no pair), even if the kicker is not an overcard, though proceed with caution if you get called (you have to hope your opponent is on a draw and that your ace high will hold up in the showdown or that you'll hit your ace or its big kicker on the turn or river.) When I say proceed with caution I don't really mean to check... although sometimes you can, much of the time you should be betting, betting, betting until your opponent shows you the error of your ways by raising you, and then you should often fold, not call.

Giving free cards is not so dangerous heads up as at a full table, but showing weakness heads up can be a fatal mistake, so in addition to betting real hands that you could later get pushed off if a scare card hits, you should also usually bet your draws.

If your opponent is showing strength by betting or raising you but you have an awesome hand that you are sure beats him or a weak but nonvulnerable hand such as ace bad kicker with an ace on the flop, then it's usually best to "rope-a-dope", that is, back off and just check and call, letting him defeat himself with his own strength. You can even do this with weaker hands such as middle pocket pairs, especially against overaggressive opponents. Although sometimes when out of position you will give the dreaded free turn card in this manner, this is really pretty rare, because your opponent does not wish to show his weakness by checking.

Because betting is so important, you can nearly count on your opponent to bet if you check, and so you can and often should check-raise on the flop with as little as top pair or a good draw or less. Because you are often check-raising, it's okay to check your really crappy hands... you won't be giving your opponent a total license to steal. Generally bet your middle pairs heads up as if they were top pairs at a full table (especially with an overcard kicker, double so an ace kicker), generally check-raise the better hands such as a good top pair, and check-fold the hopeless hands.

On The Turn

If on the flop you bet and your opponent called, don't make the mistake of showing weakness by checking the turn, especially if you are going to fold if your opponent bets. It bears repeating: keep hammering until you are raised. Don't let a scare card slow you down. Remember, since you have just one or two opponents, it's much less likely that they are helped by a scare card than at a full table, and they are probably just as scared of the card as you are. Look out for bluff raises when a low card on the board pairs on the turn.

If the flop got checked through, then you should often bet on the turn even if you don't have much. When out of position, it may appear to your opponent as if you attempted to check-raise the flop but failed and so now you are betting the turn with a real hand. When in position, and your opponent checks again on the turn despite your checking after him on the flop, well, it sure looks like he is just begging you to take the pot. However, if you have a really bad hand with no hope of winning in a showdown, you might want to save your cold bluff for the river, since you don't want to run a cold bluff on both the turn and the river, and you don't want to bluff on the turn and then concede on the river when you have no chance of winning the showdown yet aren't sure your opponent has a hand.

When out of position and rope-a-doping a powerful hand by checking on the turn, you should almost always (check)raise if your opponent bets, because you are probably going to want to bet the river anyway, and so you might as well spring the trap now for that extra bet. Also, if you opponent is on a draw, he will pay that extra bet on the turn but not on the river (unless he makes his draw.) When out of position with a drawing hand and the turn gets checked through, then you should often bet into your opponent on the river regardless of whether or not you made your draw. And with position on the river, you should often bet if your opponent checks. Again, see S&M.

If you check-raise on the flop, then bet on the turn and prepare to reevaluate/dump if your opponent raises you on the turn. However, your opponent with position on the turn may make a powerful play by raising you when he intends on calling on the river anyway, especially if he has an okay hand with some draws, even if he strongly suspects it is second best now. One can even do this raise on the turn with just a good draw or even as a pure bluff, though this would be risky if the other player showed strength by check-raised on the flop.

Because when your opponent raises on the turn with position it may just be a semi-bluff, don't always dump your no-where-near-the-nuts hand... sometimes reraise! This reraise can be done for value with a hand as weak as top pair or it can even be done as a pure bluff against the right opponent at the right time. If you reraise on the turn and your opponent calls, then be careful on the river, as evidently he was not bluffing and either had a good hand or a good draw or a mediocre hand *and* mediocre draw.

On The River

If you reraised your opponent on the turn, you have a good but beatable hand, and the river card is a flush or straight or pair scare card, then it's perfectly reasonable to check into your opponent with the intention of calling; you may induce a bluff from the poorer players here (your opponent would have to be dumb to bluff on the river when you reraised his ass on the turn, but you might as well give him the chance to make this mistake), and you may save yourself a bet if your opponent hit his draw. On the other hand, heads up often that flush or straight scare card will be just as scary to your opponent as to you, so sometimes you can bluff or value bet without worrying about getting hit with a raise unless you are beat. If you have a no-where-near-the-nuts hand that you want to showdown, then you can check, but if you opponent is likely to fold some hands better than yours (and that's very plausible given given your reraise on the turn) then you should often bet.

More generally, if on the river you have a hand that you would agonize over calling if you check and your opponent bets, then usually you should bet, especially since you can easily fold it if you are raised.

And that points to the fact that you can occasionally succeed in bluff-raising on the river with position. Don't try this too often though, but also remember that it has to work only a fraction of the time to be worthwhile. A bluff check-raise on the river can work too, but it's so tricky to pull off that it's almost not worth mentioning.


Well that's off the top of my head. Again, I refer you to S&M for much more information than can be squeezed into a short article. Short-handed hold'em is a glorious game, where the skill factor really goes through the roof and your play should become much more probabilisticly mixed up and aggressive, including much more bluffing and semi-bluffing than at a full table. If you are a good full table player, you can help adjust your play to a short table by usually betting instead of checking and usually folding or raising instead of calling. That's good advice for full tables too, but it goes double for short-handed tables.

When I post stuff like this sometimes readers think I'm being condescending or arrogant. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I post more than a terse response, then it's because I'm not sure of everything I'm saying, and I'm interested in learning more about the subject. I'm actually seeking feedback from you rec.gamblers, not lecturing you guys, so take it as a compliment and please go ahead and criticize what I said.