Three’s a crowd

Getting down to three-handed play is an achievement, but to go further you must adopt a unique strategy

In most poker tournaments the payout structures are very top heavy. This means that in order to make the big money, you need to place in at least the top three spots. However, once you’ve achieved this, how should your strategy change to give you the best chance of sealing victory?

In this article, I’m going to examine a number of different scenarios and explore the dynamics of three-handed play and how we might consider adapting our playing style.

It is usually the case that the prize difference between third and second place is much less than that between second and first. It is also common to find that when play gets to three-handed, players might agree to some sort of deal in order to flatten the prize structure. In either scenario, it is clear that the correct strategy is to shoot for first place rather than waiting around for one of your opponents to get knocked out and laddering into second spot at the expense of giving yourself a realistic shot of winning the tournament outright.

With three players remaining you should find yourself in one of the following scenarios. Your strategy should be slightly different for each, but in every case it should be designed to help you achieve your ultimate goal: to win the tournament and take home the big prize.


Depending on the extent of the disparity between your stack and your opponents, it is common to find that the other two players are reluctant to get tangled in a big pot with each other. They are waiting for you to be eliminated first – guaranteeing themselves at least the second-place money.

One of the first things to consider in this position is how much play you have left in your stack. By this I mean how your stack size compares to the current blind level and how quickly the blinds will change. This factor will determine how patient you can be in picking your spot and trying to double up.

As ever, with short-stack play, your stack size is probably more important than the two cards you play. At all costs you want to avoid the situation where your stack is so insignificant to the other two, that when you do push all-in, you are guaranteed a call from at least one – if not both – players.

As the short-stack, you really have nothing to lose and so whilst your stack is still large enough to cause problems for your opponents, you should be playing very aggressively. In most tournaments – at the three- handed stage – the blind level and antes are significant to the average stack, meaning if you can pick these up a few times you can increase your stack considerably.

Use the fact that neither of your opponents really want to get involved in a big pot whilst you are still in the game to your advantage. You know that it is very unlikely one of your opponents will knock the other out if you sit back and wait, so this sense that you are free-rolling can provide a significant edge.


In this situation it is always tempting to play very tight and wait to either find a hand against the short-stack, or for your other opponent to knock him out. To some extent this is not a bad strategy; if you’re raising with weak holdings and the short-stack is still to act behind you, you are likely to be pot-committed if he decides to push all-in and you will risk giving him an easy double-through.

A good way to choose which hands to raise with is to put yourself in the shoes of the short-stack. If you find a hand that you would push all-in with if you were him, then you should go ahead and raise with that hand yourself.

By aligning your range with his, you will avoid doubling him up easily and will likely be in decent shape to eliminate him if he does decide to push all-in after you have raised. Whilst I therefore might be tightening up when I’m to act before the short- stack, in hands where the short-stack has already passed, I will be looking to play ultra aggressively against the other opponent.

In particular, I will be re- raising with a wide range – almost any two cards – in hands where he has raised before me and the short- stack has passed. With the short-stack still in the game, your other opponent will be reluctant to get involved in a big pot with you and risk going out in third place when he is almost guaranteed second-place money.

This is a strategy I used very effectively at the GUKPT earlier this year – when we were three-handed. Ian Nelson was the short-stack, while Praz Bansi and I both had fairly big stacks. Although three-handed play didn’t last too long, I used the opportunity to win quite a few chips from Praz by re-raising him without looking at my cards in pots where he had raised and Ian had already passed.

Whilst adopting this strategy, it’s important to bear in mind a couple of things. Firstly, you can’t do it every time your opponent raises – or he will quickly grasp what you are doing and may start playing back at you. Secondly, if you’re having success with this strategy, it’s important to recognise that when you do get played back at it is very likely your opponent has a hand.

Remember, although you’re taking advantage of the fact that your opponent won’t want to go out in third place whilst there is a short-stack at the table, you also want to avoid it yourself. So, don’t put your whole stack at risk doing this.

Finally, keep in mind the experience of the players you are up against. Whilst this strategy will work against most players, you must remember that aggressive and tournament-savvy opponents may use it against you by three-betting all- in, knowing you can’t call without a monster hand. As with any tournament situation, your strategy should be flexible to current and changing table conditions.


This was a situation I faced recently in a tournament in London. With three players left, one had almost 3/4 of the chips in play whilst the remaining two of us were level in chips. In this particular example, the other shorter stack was an extremely tight player who was definitely not about to risk elimination in third spot.

For me, this was a huge mistake on his part and my strategy could not have been more different. The prize jump from third to second was almost inconsequential compared to first prize. Sitting and waiting to try and lock up second place would almost certainly cost you a realistic chance of winning. The big stack will just continuously pound on you, reducing your stack to almost nothing by the time either you or your opponent find a hand to make a stand against him.

It is normal to find the big stack raising most hands to put the pressure on the shorter stacks. If you are situated to the right of the other short-stack and there are any opportunities when the big stack has passed a hand on the button, my strategy would be (depending on how deep the stacks are) to put maximum pressure on by moving all-in (if the other short-stack or your stack is around ten times the big blind or less) regardless of my two cards. Nine times out of ten you will find that the other short-stack will pass (especially if he has shown an inclination that he is trying to hold on for second place).

If he does find a hand that he wants to call with, I’m happy enough for a showdown. Why? Firstly, all the times that he has passed to my all-in will have given me chips to gamble with and secondly, the only way you’re going to have a good shot at taking on the big stack is by doubling up. With the prize structures that are common in most tournaments, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of going all out for the win rather than costing yourself your shot by trying to ladder into second place.

The other half to this strategy involves your play against the big stack. If he – as is often the case – is playing very aggressively, then both your calling and pushing range should be very wide. In fact, in cases where the big stack is showing a willingness to call with almost any two cards against the short stacks – because of how small they are in relation to his stack – then your calling and pushing range may be almost identical. In short, you should not back down from any potential opportunity to double-up.

Whilst you shouldn’t be pushing with junk hands because of the likelihood of being called, I would definitely be moving in with any above average card (any picture card) and I would be moving over the top or calling all-in with at least any King-high or better. Realise that your sole aim is to go for first place. If he is playing most hands, you are odds-on to be a favourite with this range of hands – so the correct strategy is to put yourself in a showdown. You will be a favourite to double-up.


This is the ideal situation to be in when three-handed. You can control the tempo of the game and have enough chips to put maximum pressure on the other two players. You can also afford to gamble in order to complete the job.

The first thing I look for in this situation is which one of my opponents is trying to hang on for second, and which is gunning for first. If I spot that one of the players is playing very tight, I will be applying the pressure on him relentlessly – knowing that his blinds are almost always up for grabs.

Pots in which the other player (who is playing more aggressively) has either raised already – or is still left to act after me – I will be tightening up my range considerably as I don’t want to give him an easy double-up. I’m more inclined to wait for a strong hand against him, knowing that the longer three-handed play continues – with at least one person hanging on for second place – the more I can grind down these shorter stacks.

Although I am tightening up against more aggressive short stacks, I’m certainly not making any big laydowns. After all, the stack sizes are such that I can gamble and lose a number of times and still avoid trouble. Remember, even if I get all the money in against this player as a slight underdog every time (say 60/40), I’m still a favourite to win one of these if we run it more than once. My big stack affords me many lives – whereas the short-stack only has one shot.

The overall theme to three-handed play – whether you are a short-stack or a monster chip leader – is to maximise your chance of winning the tournament. Hopefully, you will find yourself in this spot many times in your poker career. Risking busting out in third place will no doubt be more than compensated for by the victories that you achieve overall by adopting this strategy.

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