The Biggest Mistake in Short-Handed Games

My book, Internet Texas Hold’em, focuses on limit Hold’em at a full table of 9-10 players. I learned this game playing in full ring games, but my real passion is playing short-handed. I don’t play nearly as much online as I use to, but when I do, I play mostly short-handed. Short-handed has more action, more hands, more strategy, more bluffing, and is simply more fun. It also is a lot more profitable.

I am still amazed at how most players simply do not understand basic short-handed strategy, even at limits such as $50-$100. Let’s cut to the chase – the biggest mistake by short-handed players in limit games is simply calling a raise against a lone opponent. This is often a mistake in full ring games, but in short-handed games, it is absolutely essential to either reraise or fold. The one exception is when playing from the big blind.

Many players simply do not understand this concept as I see players make this mistake in practically every single short-handed game I have ever played. Before discussing some of the concepts behind either reraising or folding, let’s answer a simple question. When you raise, do you like players to call behind you or reraise behind you? Unless I am holding a premium pocket pair, I am always a lot happier when my opponents simply call behind me. I’m also not too crazy about aggressive opponents sitting behind me who seem to reraise me every hand. I suspect that this is how almost all players feel. So why do so many players give their opponents a break by simply calling?

Let’s look at some of the reasons why reraising is always the better play.

You ensure that the blinds pay a large price for entering the pot.

Let’s look at a simple example. You are in a $10-$20 limit game with five players. The player under-the-gun raises to $20. You decide to simply call his raise from the button for $20. It is now time to act for the big blind. There is $55 in the pot so he is getting 5.5 pot odds to call. By simply calling, you are giving the big blind excellent pot odds to enter the pot! There are a lot of hands that would be correct to play when receiving 5.5 to 1 pot odds in a short-handed game. For example, you could play many small pairs or suited connectors with 5.5 to 1 pot odds.

Let’s look now at what happens when you reraise. Now there is $65 in the pot and your opponent is faced with a $20 call. Instead of 5.5 pot odds, he now is only receiving 3.25 to 1 pot odds. Not only that, he also faces the risk of the original raiser capping the pot. You have now put your opponent into a situation where he will be making a mistake by calling with a wide variety of hands. For example, your opponent is now making a mistake by calling with his small pairs. In poker, you want to put your opponents into situations where they will make more mistakes. Most players simply can’t get away from those small pairs and will chase you down even when you reraise.

Realize also that by reraising, you might be knocking out hands which have you dominated. Let’s say you decide to reraise with T9s. By reraising, you are probably knocking out hands like K9, KT, etc. It would be a disaster to simply call a raise and then lose a big pot when a ten flops and the big blind is holding KT.

You put the pressure on the original raiser to hit his hand.

Realize that most of the time the flop misses your hand. If you don’t hold a pair, you’ll only hit a pair about 33% of the time on the flop. By reraising, you force your opponent into hitting a hand rather than you hitting a hand. Let’s look at a simple example.

Your opponent raises and you reraise. The flop comes A84 rainbow. Your opponent checks and you bet. Your opponent missed the flop and folds. You take down the pot quite frequently whenever your opponent misses the flop. Think about all of the hands your opponent might be holding here…KQ, KJ, KT, QJ, QT, JT, T9s, or any medium or small pair. You will win the pot in most cases.

Now let’s assume you just call the original raise. Now the pressure is on you to hit a hand. Your opponent will almost always bet out the flop and you would be forced to fold most of the time. For the price of one small bet before the flop, you put yourself in the driver position in a pot that has about three big bets in it. This is a small price to pay for a big advantage.

You gain information.

You gain a lot of information from typical opponents by reraising them. Most opponents will not cap it unless they have a premium hand. As soon as they call your raise or cap it, you know right away if their hand is strong or weak. If you simply call the original raise, you gain no information from your opponent about the strength of his hand.

You also gain information quickly on the flop. In the typical scenario, your opponent will check to you and then react. The typical opponent will not get too tricky against an opponent who reraised them before the flop. You should expect fewer bluffs. Therefore, if your opponent checkraises you can be fairly confident that he has hit his hand. For example, with the flop of A84, you gain a lot of information if your opponent checkraises that flop.

Of course there are always exceptions. Advanced short-handed players won’t give away the strength of their hand so easily. They will cap preflop sometimes with suited connectors or checkraise the flop with nothing. In most cases though, a reraise before the flop gains you a lot of information.

You have position.

You have position over your opponent so use it! Position is gold in Hold’em, especially in short-handed games. The exception to this is when you are in the small blind. Even then, you should still either reraise or fold for the other reasons given above.

So why do so many players simply call raises? I suspect they feel like their hand is good enough to play but they aren’t sure if it is better than their opponents. It doesn’t matter! For all the reasons we have discussed, you can reraise with inferior hands and still make a profit. I routinely reraise with hands like 88, T9s, or AT. Maybe I don’t have the best hand going in but my opponent is forced to hit the flop and overcome acting first on every street.

So the next time you find yourself in a short-handed limit game, either reraise or fold when against a lone opponent. Making this one adjustment will have a huge impact on your results. And if you’re looking for a great game, just look for a game where two or three players are calling a lot of raises. Hopefully after reading this article you won’t be one of them.