Get shorty

When you're down to the last three or four players in a tournament strategy should be about perfect timing

Testing yourself in the field is the only way to find out if your instincts are good. If you have a feeling, go with it and see where it leads

Over the last few months we’ve discussed many aspects of tournament strategy, but for this instalment I’d like to cover short-handed play. By this I don’t mean the six-handed games you can get on the internet, or even the five-handed tables that you can find on newer sites such as Virgin Poker, but the three or four-handed situations that occur just before you go heads-up.

Playing with three or four people can be tricky for a new player; obviously there’s a big difference between playing in a full ring game, but it’s also very different to heads-up. With fewer players at the table there won’t be as many premium hands out there, but you can still get caught if you don’t watch your hand selection and carefully gauge your opponents’ strength post-flop.

Be a bear, but be grizzly

My strategy for successful short-handed play is simple: you need to play aggressively. You have to start playing lots of pots and trying to win as many small pots as you can get away with. I’ll lower my starting requirements and play hands strongly, unless I encounter anyone playing back with any strength. Tournaments usually have big jumps in prize money for the final four places, so it is worth taking risks to climb a few. The traditional wisdom is that big cards go up in value when you play short-handed, but that doesn’t mean suited connectors and small pairs are worthless, and you should still play them aggressively. After all, you’ve got to remember that most people will miss the flop and there’s always a chance you can bet them off a marginal hand.

One theme I keep coming back to in this series is that poker is a game of partial information. If you want to succeed, you need to gather as much information as possible to help you make the right decisions. In very short-handed situations this again means you should play aggressively. With less people, you can make fewer assumptions of the strengths of hands that people are playing and consequently you have less information about their likely holdings to base your decisions upon.

Aggressive betting, as well as giving your opponents the opportunity to fold, also gives you a chance to play for extra information. For example, if you have put a tight player on a draw and she calls your overbet, she’s likely to actually have made her hand and you can put your bottom pair down if she starts betting. If you keep betting aggressively and making the right decisions you should be able to pick up lots of small pots where no one has anything. This will help you to build up the momentum to achieve your ultimate goal of going into heads-up with a decent chip lead.

Kill or be killed

One tricky aspect of playing short-handed late on in a tournament – when the blinds and antes are high – is that you will often face a situation where someone reraises you all-in, without giving you the right pot odds to call. Inexperienced players can sometimes put too much faith in pot odds during tournament situations, but you should never forget the added value in knocking out another player.

For example, if I raise with a marginal hand and a short-stacked opponent pushes all-in to offer me 3/1 to call and I rate myself at 7/2, I would almost always make the call. Although it does have to be close, I wouldn’t advocate calling a 3/1 bet with a three outer on the river just to knock someone out. This is not ‘text book’ poker in that your pot odds strictly aren’t good enough to call, but if you pass in this situation, you are allowing this player to survive and continue to compete with you. New players often don’t realise the equity in knocking someone out – if you are not prepared to take a shot, then you’ll never hit the target.

There’s also an element of advertising in calling in this situation, as other players will see you are willing to gamble to eliminate a short-stacked player and will be less inclined to bluff all-in at you with marginal hands.

Timing – luck or judgement?

One thing that is inevitable towards the end of big tournaments is that a lot of action will occur pre-flop; you (and your opponents) are likely to be raising a lot pre-flop to pick up the blinds and antes and pressure the smaller or medium stacks to fold or push for their tournament life. One essential ability to develop for such situations is timing. Like changing gears, timing is a poker skill which people talk about but no one ever really explains. My take on whether a player has good timing is that it’s a skill which rests upon two main abilities: luck and your skill in reading how people play.


Luck is definitely a factor. If you decide that now is a good time to raise pre-flop with a pair of 3s and someone behind you wakes up with Aces, you could be said to have timed it poorly, but the reality is that you were just unlucky. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to improve your luck so you just have to accept this (though of course, not walking over three drain covers and avoiding black cats can help).

The second ability is reading people. This is probably the key to developing good timing. For example, the prefl op bluff re-raise is a powerful weapon in tournament poker, particularly when you get down to very shorthanded tables. In this situation people are loosening their raising requirements to steal the blinds and antes – if I sense a raiser is actually weak, I’ll come over the top of them and re-steal. Judging when people are actually strong is the key skill here, through their body language or how they make their bets. It’s the same to some extent when you are making the pre-flop raise yourself. If you have noticed that the table captain always puts his card protector on his cards when he’s going to play the hand and he does so when you are considering a raise with 4-5 offsuit, throw them away. He’s going to call your raise and you’ll be in trouble. Being aware of the table – gathering information about your opponents’ relative strengths – even before the flop, can help you to make the right decisions and improve your timing.

How to develop ESP

For good timing you need to be able to read people. Reading people is a much discussed intangible in the make-up of a good tournament player – what Doyle Brunson calls ‘ESP’ (extra sensory perception) in Super System. Although I tend to believe the ability to read people is a combination of learning tells and your subconscious analysing what you see and hear at the table, the effects are the same as ESP.

Of course, elementary analysis such as reviewing the betting in a pot is the most reliable way of judging the strength of an opponent’s hand. But the great players seem to have an ability to read people with the accuracy of a psychic. So how can you develop such skills yourself? The simple answer is practice. The only way you can judge your ability to spot bluffs is through trial and error. Testing yourself in the field is the only way you can find out if your instincts are good – and you will find out. If you have a feeling, go with it and see what it leads to. When you get it right, try and analyse why you made that decision. There are drawbacks to this method in that sometimes you’ll get a read wrong and lose a pot as a result. But it’s not going to work all the time, and if losing one pot destroys you, then maybe it’s time to drop down a level to a game you are more comfortable with.

Even the best players make bad reads, they just make less of them. If I get suckered into calling a guy with the nuts, then that’s fair enough – he got me and we move on. Sure, you can ignore your instincts and fold to every big bet to conserve your bankroll, but you could be missing an opportunity to really develop your game. So start trusting yourself and see what happens.

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