One of the most common types of questions people ask me has to do with how to make adjustments to your in various situations. Often the question is about adjustments between cash game play and tournament play. As well, people often asked how to adjust to shorthanded play. So it makes sense that the ultimate question in this category would be how to adjust to shorthanded tournament play. And my answer, which surprises most people, is that you don’t adjust to any of these situations.
Okay, I know that seems like a strange answer, so let me explain. Everything that you do at a poker table is conceptually and mathematically driven. How you choose the hands you play, and how you play the ones you choose, is determined by the math of poker, the game theory and the psychology. Poker is not a situation specific game. There are infinite situations that come up in poker so learning situation specific poker would be impossible. That would be like someone who could only sight read certain rules without understanding the correspondence between the letters and the individual sounds. Someone who understands that each letter stands for a particular sound can read any new word I throw at them, like frockenbatten. It doesn’t matter that you have never seen that word before or that I just made it up, you understanding the phonetic rules so you can read it. I want you to think about poker in the same way. Instead of sight reading in poker you need to understand it at a deeper level so whenever a knew situation comes you way you can play accordingly, even if you have never seen the new situation.
So let’s see how this way of thinking tells us the likely way you would play at a 6 handed tournament table. First let’s look at hand selection and then we can look at bluffing frequency. There are a few factors that drive hand selection in a poker game. The first is your position, are you early in the action or late in the action. The earlier you are in the action, the worse your decision making problem will be because you will be having to act with less information than your opponents throughout the hand. When you know you will be playing at a disadvantage, when you will be having to decide first or close to first during every betting round, you should avoid getting involved at all. This is one of the main reasons why players will play tighter up front. In back, close to the button or on the button, the opposite is true. You will be acting with a big advantage during the rest of the hand, getting to decide what to do after you have seen your opponents act first. In that case, when you know you will have a huge advantage, you can be more liberal in your hand selection.
Now, in a 6-handed game or a 10-handed game this fact about the decision making problem still holds: It doesn’t matter whether you are under the gun in a 6-handed game or a 10-handed game. You are still going to have act before everyone else so you should play more conservatively in your hand selection either way. Nothing changes there. Play looser in back and tighter up front no matter how many handed the game is.
But where do you start in your hand selection? Well, what determines what you choose to play up front really has to do with the probability that there is a better hand out against you. When you know you will be acting first you want to have a high probability of starting with the best hand because, frankly, if I am going to put myself into such a crappy decision making situation I am going to make damn sure that I have the best hand to start. As the number of players behind you, the number of cards out against you, increases so does the probability that there is a better hand out against you. In a 10 handed game there are 18 cards still out against you that you know nothing about when you are under the gun. In a 6 handed game there are only 10 cards out against you when you are under the gun. This means that you can loosen up your hand selection under the gun in a 6 handed game because the sheer number of cards left in play is less. Basically, in a 10 handed game I recommend as a baseline playing AQ off suit and AJ suited as your minimum unpaired hand up front and no less than 66 as your minimum paired hand under the gun. In middle position, I recommend loosening this up to KJ suited, KQ off suit and lowering your pairs to around 33 or 44 depending on the game. In a 6 handed game, you can behave like you do from middle position in the 10 handed game because what is driving that bar you set is the same in either game. In both cases, middle position in the 10 handed game or under the gun in the 6 handed game, there are 5 people behind you and 10 cards out against you. So your hand values should be about the same for you being first to open the action in either game. See how that works? You aren’t making any adjustment at all really. What drives your choices in either game is the same.
Now, there is another driver to how loose or tight you play in a poker game which has to do with your risk of ruin. The higher the risk of ruin, the more hands you will choose to play. Risk of ruin is determined by two factors: The first is how quickly you will go broke to the antes if you wait for a hand and the second is the size of the game, how big the reward is for waiting, in comparison to the size of the antes. Mathematically, the bigger the game in comparison to the size of the antes the tighter you should play. Also, that slower the antes come around, the tighter you should play.
Let’s take a couple of hypothetical stud games to illustrate the concept. If you are in a $300-600 stud game where you never ante and there is no low card, where you only ever put money in the pot when you choose, then you would play very, very tight because there would be no risk to you for waiting for a very good hand. By tight I mean that you would only play roll ups. That is a situation where the risk of ruin is very low and the game is very large in comparison to the size of the antes (in fact that ratio is infinity to 1) Now, what if everyone in a stud game started with $1K and that was all the money you would ever have and you had to ante $500? Now you have to play very loose because you if you don’t play the first hand you will have the put the rest of your money in on the next hand. You would basically just look at the first hand and decide if you thought it was better than random because your risk of ruin is so high on one of the next two hands and because the game itself ($300-$600) is so small in comparison to the size of the ante that there is not a big reward to waiting anyway. We can actually see this concept in action in regular stud games and tournaments. I have seen tournaments where there is a $50 ante at the $300-$600 level and I have seen tournaments where at the same level the ante is $75. In the first case you can play tighter because it is only costing you $400 per 8 hands played. In the second case it costs you an extra $200 per 8 hands for a total of $600 per round. That is 50% more per 8 hands. In the $75 ante game you, therefore, must play a little looser because your risk of going broke to the antes while waiting for a playable hand is 50% greater than in the $50 ante game.
Now, this concept applies to hold’em as well. Hold’em is an ante poker game, you have the antes themselves but also the blinds which are just antes you put in all at once. In a 6 handed game, the blinds come around on you much faster, you get only 4 free hands after you pay the blinds in comparison to 8 free hands in a 10 handed game. Since you get 50% fewer hands per blind paid in the 6 handed situation we know that from this mathematical standpoint you must play looser. You can combine this with the fact that with fewer plays in the game the pot size itself will tend to be smaller and the bigger the pot size in comparison to the size of the antes the tighter you can play because we get a bigger reward for waiting. If the average pot size in a 6 handed game is lower, then on average you will play looser in general in that situation.
Now, you can look at one last factor in figuring out how to play in general in a 6 handed tournament and that has to do with bluffing frequency. One of the things that determines the frequency with which we bluff has to do with the probability of success of the bluff. That is partly determined by how willing your opponents are to lay a hand down. In a cash game where your opponents can go back in their pockets if they lose a hand they are usually more willing to call people down. They know that if they are wrong in their call they are not out of the game. They can still keep playing. That can make your opponents hard to bully in a cash game. In a tournament, though, the chips are finite. There is no buying back in. Because of this, opponents will often play a little more scared. They tend to be more susceptible to your putting pressure on them because they know that if they are wrong about a call that that is the end for them, they are out of the game. You can be more of a bully in a tournament than in a cash game. You can bluff more.
In any game where bluffing will be more successful, you will be playing more hands in general. Whenever you choose to play a hand that is less than AA you are choosing to add a little bluff to your play. Every hand has a value component and a bluffing component to it. AA is all value. KK is nearly all value with a tiny bit of bluff. Get to AQ and you have quite a bit of bluff to the hand. Once you get all the way down to 72 off suit you are playing a hand that is basically all bluff and very little value because you know for certain that you don’t have the best hand. How far down off AA you are willing to go must have to do with how much power you think the bluffing component of the hand will have. In a game where opponents are easily bullied, the bluffing component has a lot of power so you can choose to play hands that have quite a bit of bluff to them, you can play quite loose. In games where the bluffing component doesn’t have a lot of power, then choosing to play hands with a lot of bluff to them doesn’t make much sense.
Now, we know that in a tournament situation people will be more easily bullied. We know that the number of cards out against you determines how loose you play. The fewer the cards out against you the looser hand values you can choose. We know that the quicker the antes come around you, the higher your risk of ruin in the game, the looser you must play. And lastly we know that the smaller the pot size in a game in comparison to the size of the antes, the looser you will generally play. All of the above factors in a 6 handed tournament poker game come together to give the same answer, you will be playing looser hand values in a 6 handed situation.
But, what is important to notice because, to go back to the early metaphor here, you are not poker sight readers, loose is not always the answer in the 6 handed game. If you are at a 6 handed tournament table where the players are very, very loose themselves then a couple of things will be true: First, the game will be playing very big, the pot sizes will tend to be quite large in comparison to the size of the antes. Second, players who are very loose are not easily bullied, they are not easily bluffed. In that case you would tighten up because those two factors would be compelling drivers toward more conservative choices, toward playing more of a trap poker game than a bluff poker game. Your choices are not determined by the fact that you are in a 6 handed tournament game per se but rather that the way the game you are in is playing, has determined what hands you choose to play yourself. In 6 handed tournament games that will usually mean that you loosen up but not always.