Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players (Sklansky and Malmuth):
“…you must know your opponents…the better you understand how your opponents think and thus how they play, the better you will be able to choose the correct strategies to use against them.”

Lesson 3 will discuss the importance of psychology in shorthanded poker. We will examine explanations for why players choose the shorthanded game, and why many of them make the same faulty decisions with consistency.

Who Plays Poker?

First, let me admit that an overall generalization of who plays poker would be futile. Furthermore, I am not a professional psychologist, and I will not make the mistake of suggesting I am qualified to “know the minds” of others simply because I play poker for a living. But some common traits are irrefutable. Poker players must find some satisfaction, or they would find another hobby.

In his book The Psychology of Poker, Dr. Alan Schoonmaker lists some possible reasons people spend their time playing poker.

  • Make Money
  • Socialize, Meet People
  • Relax
  • Get Excitement of Risk
  • Test Self against Competitive Challenges
  • Sense of Accomplishment from Winning
  • Pass Time

For the sake of brevity, let’s overlook the entirely recreational players teeming in the lowest limits who play only to relax, meet people, and pass time. The remaining reasons describe shorthanded players quite well. We will briefly examine the reasons behind each tendency and consider its impact on us.

Make Money and Sense of Accomplishment from Winning

Shorthanded players are more likely to play with the primary intention of making money because shorthanded poker provides more opportunities for a good player to accomplish this precise goal. It is a phenomenon that is mentioned often. Despite high variance created by marginal situations in shorthanded poker, it is clear that there are more opportunities for decision-making, especially choices that cannot be considered automatic. Good players benefit from the increased opportunity to outplay their opponents. Their satisfaction is a higher win rate, in terms of big bets per hour, then what is available in a ten-handed game where many judgments are relatively standard.

What this means to you is not entirely obvious. First, the shorthanded game will have higher than its share of professionals or semi-professionals playing the game, especially at the higher limits. Of course, I am referring to online play where specific tables have been set aside as 5- or 6-handed. Second, the shorthanded game will also house more than its share of ego. The impact of ego is most prevalent when considering delusion or overconfidence, rather than solid egotistical winners. Remember, not every player who believes they are a winner is actually playing profitable shorthanded poker.

Two predictable performances are displayed repeatedly. The first is tilt. A person who believes they are a superior player is susceptible to frustration and anger when they continue to lose to “inferior” play. Of course, shorthanded poker will grant many occasions for the “winning player” to lose to “lesser” competition. It can be shocking when AKo or QQ loses to 52o or J4s. Or, the losses might be much more subtle. For example, the misled player may be folding too easily, failing to steal pots, or actually bluffing and semibluffing too much (depending on the competition.) Not knowing why one is losing can be even more frustrating than being shown bad cards.

The second example is steadfast or stubborn adherence to one’s “winning” style, despite evidence of its limitations. I will never forget one of my first experiences at a live shorthanded game. We were playing 3 and 4-handed $15/30, and I was playing with a solid full-ring player. Lacking experience in a shorthanded setting, he played very aggressive and refused to fold even bottom pair. He bluffed too much, paid off too much, and loved to put in chips on the flop with any piece. I won by playing very straightforward poker, but with a tendency to call down to catch the numerous bluffs.

After the game, I had shown exceptional profit. The floorperson, a solid 10-handed competitor in their own right (but not shorthanded), was congratulating me when he said, “You had a great run of cards. Poor Jim never could beat you. He played perfect shorthanded strategy, but the cards were awful for him.” My jaw honestly dropped and I immediately replied, “We played for four hours. He never once adjusted to what I was doing, and I kept winning the big pots because I only played big hands.” The floorperson (a good guy and friend) shrugged and said, “Maybe.” Lesson learned. A normally winning player may not react well to losing, failing to see the solution to their current dilemma, since they believe they are already playing ‘perfect’.

So, we’re left with a warning and an opportunity for shorthanded players. Players who predominantly compete for money or a sense of accomplishment might be very good shorthanded players, or they might be susceptible to tilt and inflexibility.

Test Self Against Competitive Challenges

Poker is by nature a competitive contest between human beings. Participants constantly work to deceive, manipulate, or simply outplay their competition. Yet, some poker players seem to avoid confrontation and competition as much as possible. They’re called rocks, tight old men, weak tight, or a number of other names. Their tight, passive style shows some success in a 10-handed setting, especially against loose, overaggressive opposition. However, you rarely see these rocks move to shorthanded poker, because their patience is no longer a major advantage and their passive play is now a significant liability.

Consider the advantages of shorthanded poker to a player whose main desire is to test themselves against competitive challenges. There are more hands in shorthanded poker. There are more tough decisions in shorthanded poker. There is more variety available in shorthanded poker. And, most importantly, a shorthanded game tends towards a loose aggressive nature, establishing a pace that such players may find closer towards their nature. After all, how can one test themselves effectively by only playing the nuts?

The result is that players who seek competitive challenges will tend to be more confrontational. They want to attack with marginal hands, put themselves in spots to outplay their enemy, and demonstrate their skill by using fancy, advanced plays.

Get Excitement of Risk

Last, but certainly not least, are the thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies of the poker world. They are gamblers, and they compete for the rush of excitement when they drag down a pot or outplay a “sucker.” Playing boring tight poker is out of the question.

The shorthanded game is filled with thrill seekers. We’ve already shown that these loose, aggressive “maniacs” would not survive long in a full, ring game. We’ve also shown that they might earn a profit in a shorthanded game against players who fail to adjust. So, it makes perfect sense that those people driven by the excitement of risk would naturally gravitate to shorthanded poker. Even if they are not motivated by money, nobody likes to lose large amounts of money either.

We’re all probably familiar with how maniacs play. They bluff a lot, since they love to “outplay” their opposition and steal pots with lesser hands. They show extreme aggression, usually pushing marginal hands hard. They’ll attack with the nuts and they’ll attack with nothing, depending on their own mood and whether or not they sense weakness (and they sense weakness often.) In a word, maniacs are fearless.

The Overall Impact

The goal of this article was never to purely outline the reasons people play shorthanded poker. After all, Dr. Schoonmaker already did that for us. Instead, we went a step further and determined how those reasons impact our play. We come up with a short, yet encompassing list outlining our competition.

  • Very good, professional-level players
  • Ego-driven competition: stubbornness and tilt
  • Confrontational players
  • Maniacs and Bluffers

Our conclusions are notable. First, be aware of the high proportion of professionals, especially at the higher limits. The ability to identify and avoid the best players is certainly advantageous, regardless of one’s reasons for playing. Second, watch out for tilt in your self and others. I mention tilt continuously in my articles because it possesses such a large function in one’s overall success at shorthanded poker. Third, be prepared to adjust. Most players refuse to adapt meaningfully, and they suffer defeat recurrently because of it.

Most importantly, be prepared for confrontation. If our rivals desire in shorthanded poker is to attack and overpower their competition, our winning strategy changes. Stealing becomes less attainable because psychologically, the competition wants to compete, either to test themselves or out of excitement. Semibluffing and bluffing works less often because they are met with semibluff or bluff raises (and reraises) far more than during a full, ring game. Furthermore, many players love to catch a bluff, and so they’ll call down with bottom pair or less just to keep everyone honest. Finally, inducing bluffs can earn spectacular profit when the competition continually bluffs and semibluffs at the first sign of weakness.

In other words, don’t expect to run over the typical shorthanded game. While the mathematics might suggest a hyper-aggressive strategy would win, it presumes reasonable and tight competition. Against confrontational and maniacal rivals, one must expect to showdown frequently. Adjust accordingly. Until next article, good luck!