Adjusting to Opponents (Part 1)

The aptitude to adjust is as essential as any other single ability in shorthanded poker. In this article, we examine why flexibility is so critical, and we investigate our options so that we may establish the best corrections in any given situation. Ultimately, we will build on the tools discussed in this article to build our base plan when entering a new game.

While adjustments must be made during a full ring game, there are three compelling factors that magnify the importance of flexibility in a shorthanded setting. First, as articulated in Lesson #1, shorthanded poker is a breeding ground for extreme playing styles and acute tactics. Second, shorthanded poker contains more semibluffing and bluffing opportunities, as well as a higher number of possible hand combinations. Third, shorthanded poker by nature includes fewer opponents, amplifying the advantage of the attentive player.

Re-examining Extremism

Extreme styles stem from two main causes in shorthanded poker.

Extreme styles often earn profit.
Many players misinterpret shorthanded play as a consequence of limited observations.

Shorthanded poker is also conducive to a third category of players whose decisions center on psychological or recreational needs. For example, a hyper-aggressive player might utilize a fast, reckless approach simply because they enjoy the adrenaline rush. Players with these extreme tendencies are often not purged of their bad habits in a shorthanded game. Let’s examine why this is the case, first looking at a maniac, and then a passive calling station.

Bob the Maniac

Maniac Bob plays any ‘reasonable’ hand. To Bob, this selection might include JXs, 97o, 53s, and any Ace, regardless of position. Furthermore, Bob raises preflop with most of these holdings. In a full-ring game, Bob is dead meat. Patient players snare him effortlessly. They might wait for AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT, AK, AQs, AJs, or KQs. These hands alone comprise 4.4% of all possible hands, and one of the 9 players (not including Bob) at the table will hold one of them almost 40% of the time. Adding AQo, AJo, KQo, 99, 88, ATs, KJs, QJs, JTs still represents only 9% of all possible hands. Yet, somebody at the table would hold one of these premium offerings 80% of the time. No matter what, Bob is likely going to be at a significant disadvantage when the table sees a flop.

Any experienced player knows what happens next. Maniac Bob might steal some blinds or win some small pots. Occasionally, Bob will luck out and win a big pot. But usually, Bob will lose, and he will lose big. Since most players at the table will simply wait until they have a huge edge on Bob, taking advantage of him at his weakest, Bob will have little chance of winning in the long run.

What if Maniac Bob moves to a shorthanded table? Suddenly, his opponents lose their greatest advantage because they cannot afford to linger for premium cards. Bob steals the blinds more often, and he picks up many flops when neither party connects. More importantly, inexperienced rivals may begin to tilt. There are lot of ways to lose money to a Maniac Bob. An inexpert player can find such a situation very unfamiliar, and they compound their frustration by misplaying marginal hands post-flop. Bob might earn free cards he wouldn’t normally see, and he will certainly see undue action when he has a real hand. Some players will freeze up and allow Bob to run over them with semibluffs and blind steals, making it difficult for them to earn back their losses when they do hit their hand. But, of course, Maniac Bob is still beatable. An extreme strategy is a losing strategy in the long run.

Jimmy the Meek

Jimmy the Meek plays tight, but he does not attack aggressively once he is in a hand. He may or may not raise preflop with a strong holding. If Jimmy connects on the flop, he will see a showdown, even if he is not the one betting. Jimmy the Meek might be constantly afraid he is against the “nuts.” Or Jimmy may despise confrontation, so he avoids it by check-calling passively. Either way, Jimmy will never experience real success in a ring game, but neither will he lose big with his tight, weak strategy.

In the shorthanded game, Jimmy the Meek should get crushed. Jimmy doesn’t gain the benefit of picking up pots when both players miss. Meanwhile, opponents will still earn plenty when they have a strong hand, and they should save money on their mediocre or weak hands. Bluffs or semibluffs are best not utilized due to their limited success. After all, Jimmy won’t fold once he’s committed to the hand.

On the other hand, Jimmy will often be successful against unobservant or inflexible competition. Many shorthanded players feel semibluffing and bluffing are so fundamental to their strategy, they will not adjust in the face of even overwhelming evidence. Semibluffs with no chance of winning immediately produce damaging results: adding money to the pot without the best of it. Meanwhile, when Jimmy does have a very strong hand, such as top two pair, a set, or a made nut straight or flush, he will commence betting and raising. Since aggressiveness is naturally expected in a shorthanded game, the increased action may not even raise a red flag to the inattentive player, when it should result in an abrupt reappraisal of the circumstances–and a probable fold.

Jimmy the Meek acts as a bluff-catcher, winning oversized pots with mediocre holdings because his opposition insists on bluffing. And Jimmy continues to win nice-sized pots with his best hands too. But a good player can make rudimentary adjustments to control and defeat Jimmy the Meek. Proficient observation and a fundamental grasp of the proper adjustments are sufficient.

Persistent Encounters

Observation is important all the time, but moreso in shorthanded poker. In shorthanded games, individual conflict is far more regular than during a full-ring game. A tight player in a ten-person game will play around two hands out of ten (and even less in a game with persistent preflop raising). A tight player in a five-person game will play closer to five hands out of ten. In a ten-person game, there may be four or five people seeing the flop regularly, while a 5-person game typically comprises encounters between only two or three adversaries.

Since continuous confrontations reign in shorthanded poker, we cannot help but compete directly with the same players over and over again. Therefore, every decision made that tackles an individual foe’s play will directly earn profit. If we make a first-class laydown on the river because our opponent never bluffs, a big bet is immediately earned. If we call down a check-raise bluff on the turn, a whole pot is saved. But our decisions are only guesses without familiarity of opponent styles at our table.

Multi-way choices rely far less on the predispositions of individual competitors. A good player will generally never bluff with four or more opponents (or even semibluff) because there will on average be at least one caller–somebody who hit their hand or calls too often anyways. Furthermore, potential hands number much fewer. If a standard opponent calls or raises on the flop, it narrows their potential holdings significantly. Therefore, decisions are moderately uncomplicated.

By contrast, during a heads-up or three-way clash, the particular styles of the live players assume a far greater impact for obvious reasons. Semibluffing and bluffing are now prominent options mathematically, especially on a ragged or unusual flop. Each player’s starting requirements influence the likelihood of connecting with the flop. And each person’s prospects to check with weak hands, bet with strong hands, or call down bluffs will provide opportunities to value bet, fold against strength, or immediately profit by winning a pot without a hand. And the list goes on. While the information might be comparatively useless with a large number of opponents, it is exploitable against only one or two.

Variety: The Spice of Life

If two polar opposites such as Maniac Bob and Jimmy the Meek can both show some success in the shorthanded game, it should be no surprise at all that a very complex diversity exists along the whole spectrum of tight/loose and passive/aggressive tendencies. Complicating matters further are the amplified opportunities for semibluffing/bluffing and the increased range of starting hands. Interpreting an opponent’s cards and inclinations can be extremely difficult.

Yet, each difference matters.

Does a player bluff?
Does a player check-raise or bet out with top pair?
Does a player semibluff check-raise the turn?
Does a player limp/reraise pocket Aces/Kings?
Does a player fold to a turn or river raise?
Does a player defend their blinds adequately?

There will be varying degrees to the answers of each question, and there will be dozens of other questions that can be asked. Understanding the impact of each issue and the best counter-approach will allow us to undertake two critical ambitions. First, we can train to defeat any strategy. Second, we can pilfer the successful maneuvers of others to use in our own play. In other words, we can see what works by watching what other winners do.