If you’ve been following this series with appropriate religious fervor, you’ve no doubt now tried your luck at shorthanded no-limit hold’em, either at the end stage of a tournament or sitngo, or, as we’ve discussed it extensively here, in any cash game with six or fewer players. You have no doubt experienced the adrenaline rush of making huge bets against few foes, and when I now ask you to turn your attention to the constrained betting patterns, and correspondingly constrained buzz, of shorthanded limit hold’em, it might strike you as risible or strange.
It’s like… uhm… once you’re used to jumping out of airplanes, riding an escalator just won’t do. But I’m going to ask you to bear with me, because it may one day happen that shorthanded limit hold’em is the only game available to you, and you’d certainly want to be prepared to play your best.
In a typical limit hold’em game, the betting is structured thus: a single betting unit per bet or raise preflop and postflop, and a bet of exactly twice that size on the turn and river. In a shorthanded $20-40 limit hold’em game, then, the small blind would post $10, the big blind $20, and betting would be in $20 increments for the first two betting rounds and $40 for the last two. While some people think that these constraints reduce the game to a cut-and-paste simplicity, it’s actually deceptively challenging. In no-limit hold’em you can draw connections between an enemy’s bet size and hand strength. In limit, with its one-size-fits-all betting convention, no such correlation exists. So with this we come to the first truth of shorthanded limit play:
In shorthanded limit hold'em, betting is constrained but information is, too.
This means you have to be much more attentive to your foes’ betting patterns, and clued into their nuances. You need to know which foes are playing too tight because they haven’t adjusted from their full-handed game strategy. You need to know which foes have gone too far in the other direction, treating shorthanded limit play as a license to bet and raise at every opportunity, no matter what rags they hold. You also need to know how well your foes are adapting to your own betting patterns. Why? Because in shorthanded limit hold’em, your profit comes not from the occasional monster pot but from repeatedly making the best decisions, and winning (and not losing) extra bets on a regular, recurring basis. To put it another way, in shorthanded limit play, you’re trying to get rich a bet at a time. Here’s why…
In no-limit hold’em, an average pot size is usually about 20-30 big blinds, but in limit hold’em, it’s more like 15-20 big blinds. That difference doesn’t seem huge, but it’s driven by the fact that no-limit pots are usually quite small and only rarely quite big. In the limit game, pot sizes run closer to the average. In no-limit, you can afford to be wrong on the small pots so long as you win the big ones. In limit, you have to be right, and right, and right again. And so we come to the second truth of shorthanded limit play:
In shorthanded play you have to keep your head in the game because every pot matters.
Now I’m going to tell you the two most important words in shorthanded limit hold’em: value betting. Unlike in no-limit, where a big bet can blast an opponent off his hand, in limit hold’em it’s often impossible to deny your foes correct odds to draw. Let’s say there are six small bets in the pot and you bet the flop, throwing in the seventh bet. Now your enemy is getting 7-1 odds to call, which is a profitable situation for a straight draw or flush draw or even (considering implied odds) just two overcards. Thus, fold equity – our best friend in no-limit shorthanded play – goes out the window, and value betting – getting your money in with the best of it, and getting it in again when your foes’ draws don’t get there – becomes the name of the game.
Don’t confuse value betting with not being aggressive! On the contrary, limit hold’em offers you the opportunity to be very aggressive, within the constraints of the structure, as you seek to squeeze all possible value out of every betting round. This can be especially fruitful when you’re up against opponents who are unaware or unwilling to admit that they have the worst of it. Here’s hyper-aggression, limit hold’em style: When you’re heads-up and you rate yourself as better than 50 percent to win the pot, you bet every street, making your opponent pay… and pay.. and pay again. Likewise, if you’re facing two loose, call-minded opponents, throw in your chips at every opportunity in situations where you’ll win more than a third of the time. Limit hold’em, then, can be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s slow or easy. And so we come to the third rule of good shorthanded play – really, it’s the default value for most poker games:
When you get the goods, bet the goods! Make your enemies pay to play.
Now let’s look at this matter of drawing to a hand from a defensive point of view: While it’s true that you can’t often deny your foes the right price to call, they likewise can’t deny it to you. Because of this, you will be folding fewer hands in shorthanded limit hold’em. This is a tough adjustment for many players accustomed to fullhanded play, where patience is profitably rewarded. In a shorthanded game, you simply can’t afford to fold – ever – when you have the right odds to call, for to do so is to yield a small edge, and in limit play those small edges quickly add up. So keep your eye on the pot size and be ready to call, even if you’re behind, when the odds are in your favor.
Fortunately, it’s easier to track the pot size in limit play than in no limit play, simply because all the bets are of a uniform size. Every pot starts out with 1.5 small bets (from the blinds) and goes up from there in increments of one or two – and if you can’t count in ones and twos, you probably should not be playing poker in the first place! As far as card odds are concerned, remember this handy rule of thumb: Simply multiply your number of outs times the number of cards to come, times two percent. Thus, if you’re considering a call to a flush draw on the turn, you’re looking at nine outs times two percent, times one card to come, or roughly 18 percent. If the pot is offering you a better price than 4-1, you definitely have to be in there! Rule four of shorthanded limit hold’em play, then…
Know your odds and act regligiously accordingly.
Okay, next, don’t forget that the relative strength of winning hands goes down in shorthanded play. In many fullhanded limit hold’em games, you usually need at least top pair with a good kicker to go to war. In shorthanded games, you’ll sometimes have to call down with second pair and no kicker – and against some extremely aggressive opponents, you may need to call down with ace-high! While it’s still better to be the aggressor than to play defensively, the fact that your opponent can’t blow you off the hand with an all-in move often makes it correct to call along with hands that wouldn’t be good fullhanded, but might be dominant in shorthanded play. Again, remember that shorthanded limit hold’em is a matter of making small edges add up. Folding to naked aggression is no way to tip the scales in your favor!
Two points to sum up: First, as with shorthanded no-limit hold’em, deciphering your foes’ betting patterns is the key to success in shorthanded limit hold’em. The difference is that the information you receive is more narrowly transmitted across the limited range of bet sizes: In no-limit hold’em, the wide range of bet sizes available to your opponents often makes code breaking easy, for players give away lots of information with the size of their bets. In the limit game, the uniformity of bet size makes it a little trickier to puzzle out their intent when they bet.
Second, remember that even if you have a super line on your enemies’ play, you still need to play correctly according to card odds and pot odds. For example, it does you no good to know that your foe is a lying sack of cheese if you call her down with a hand that can’t even beat a bluff.
Now go get on that escalator. You might just find it a thrill ride after all!