Action stations: Learn the basics of short-handed poker and profit today

If you’re an action junkie and enjoy the rush of playing a lot of hands, then short-handed poker is the way forward

Typically referring to games with six players at the table, short-handed poker is a lot more intense and aggressive than full-ring incarnations. To keep up with this aggressive pace and rush of action the first and possibly most important strategy concept you need to bear in mind is that your starting hand selection needs to be wider. Playing too tight in these games will often result in a dwindling stack.

So what else should you think about when putting together a winning short-handed strategy?


Your image is a key factor that will dictate your preflop play and this is something you need to keep in mind at all times. The more hands you play (especially when you don’t go to showdown), the more likely your opponents are to brand you a loose player. If this happens then you’ll find it becomes harder to bluff and, thus, you need to tighten up your betting range. Understanding this relationship between your perceived image and your actual raising/ betting range is one of the most important factors in short-handed preflop theory.


Anyone that tells you the process of making post-flop decisions is the same in short-handed games as full ring is out of their mind. Because preflop raising ranges are a lot less defined in short-handed games, it means your decisions after the flop will be a lot tougher. For example, a three-bet in a nine-handed game will often be a sign of strength (because there are so many people involved) and thus carry a narrow range of potential hands. In contrast, six-max games have a much higher frequency of three-betting which means ranges are a lot wider. Thus, because bluffs or semi-bluffing is more common preflop, it becomes much harder to put people on accurate ranges post-flop.

Know your opponent

To improve your success rate and more accurately determine an opponent’s range you need to be much more aware in short-handed games. Consider every move more carefully than you would in a full-ring game and don’t just assume every player will be playing a conventional set of hands. Moreover, statistics are extremely important in six-max games and you should consider using a high quality product such as Holdem Manager 2 or PokerTracker 4 to aid your observation skills.

Another thing you need to remember when assessing your opponents preflop is that a raise won’t always mean strength. This means set mining and implied odds are less important in these games. Moreover, your post-flop play needs to take account of this increased aggression and you must be more willing to re-raise or call players down lighter than you would in a full-ring game.    

Balance and deception

In general full-ring games are less about deception and more about solid play; however, in short-handed games you need to be much more ‘opponent orientated’. Because competent players will understand that the games are more aggressive, it means you need to be more deceptive with your moves. In order to help balance your ranges and become more deceptive there are two things you need to do: play fewer tables and pick out specific reads which you can use against your opponents.

Variance and your bankroll

One inescapable fact of short-handed games is that the variance is much greater than full-ring games. Because your bankroll is more at risk in these games you need to be more conservative with how you manage your bankroll and that means having at least 25 buy-ins for your particular level. For example, if you are playing $0.25/$0.50 your bankroll would need to be at least $1,250.

Another aspect of six-max games is that you’ll experience more bad beats and swings than full-ring games. Because the action is faster and players’ ranges will be wider it means the chances of something going against you are increased. Aside from the financial danger this can pose, it can also take its toll on your emotions and if you’re prone to going on tilt you will need to really work on this if you want to become a winning short-handed player.


Before you step into the world of short-handed play, it’s important to hone your skills in full-ring games. Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of the game you can gradually ease your way into smaller games and learn how to dominate by adopting an aggressive strategy based on timing, image, reads and perception.

This lesson was brought to you by For more no-limit hold’em strategy tips visit their comprehensive poker tutorial.

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