At brick and mortar cardrooms short-handed (i.e. six players or fewer) games are generally quite unpopular. The nature of poker is such that each game requires a table and a dealer whether there are four players or ten, so from the cardroom’s point of view, full games are a far more economically viable option. Furthermore, many players are uncomfortable playing in short-handed games, which require that they make adjustments to their play, since the standard full 10-player ring game tactics are usually unprofitable in this instance. Indeed, some players try to avoid playing short-handed at all, if possible, either taking a break or leaving the game altogether when numbers run short, whereas those players who do prefer short-handed games are often able to play for only a brief while before the game either fills up or breaks up altogether.
However, as a result of online poker a new breed of player has emerged – the short-handed specialist. These players focus on the special five- and six-player (and even heads-up) tables that most sites offer as an alternative to normal ring games. Unlike brick and mortar cardrooms, online sites are generally more than happy to accommodate these short-handed tables, since of course they do not have to pay a dealer or take up valuable floor space with such games. Furthermore, the fast-paced nature of these games is ideal for the cardroom from a rake standpoint.
The main attraction of online short-handed games from the player’s point of view is obvious: such games are dealt at a much quicker rate than a normal ring game (typically well over 100 hands per hour for hold’em), so if you are the best player at the table, your advantage will be greatly enhanced. In addition, the quite different nature of the short-handed game (in particular, the increased importance of attacking and defending the blinds since, with the blinds coming around so quickly, you cannot afford simply to wait for premium hands) lends itself more to a looser, more aggressive ‘action’ style of play, which is particularly suited to those players who don’t enjoy having to wait patiently for a good hand. Furthermore, if you are able to identify a desirable opponent, you are that much more likely to be able to benefit from their bad play, whereas in a full game other players may reap the rewards rather than you.
Typically the maximum rake for a typical six-handed game is capped at $2 compared to the usual $3 for a full 10-player ring game, despite the fact that the average pot size is often not that much smaller, since short-handed play generally has more raising and re-raising than full ring play. Set against this, of course, each individual player will be winning a greater percentage of pots than they would in a full game, and will therefore be obliged to pay the rake far more often (although in short-handed games more hands are decided pre-flop, without a rake being charged). Certainly, if you prefer heads-up play, it is important to choose your site carefully, since heads-up rakes can vary tremendously, but in general if you have good control over your opponents you should be able to beat the rake in a normal short-handed game.
Rather than focusing on five- or six-player tables per se, one strategy that short-handed experts sometimes use is to search out full 10-player ring games that are either just breaking up or just getting underway. This way they are able to compete advantageously against full ring game specialists in a short-handed game, rather than merely against other short-handed specialists.
Whether you are someone who heads straight to the short-handed games, or immediately leaves a game when it is reduced to six players or fewer, is largely a matter of taste. If your playing style leans towards waiting patiently for good opportunities (using better hand selection strategy than most of your opponents), then you will probably be best suited to normal ring games, but if you enjoy the cut-and-thrust of a poker game, in which bluff meets counter-bluff and bet meets check-raise bluff, then online short-handed games may prove to be your forte.