Tuesday Sessions 24: Bad rule + short-handed tips

Index to Tuesday Sessions

The following lecture was the 24th Tuesday Session, held March 9, 1999, and later appeared in Card Player magazine.

An Annoying Rule – Plus the Great Secrets to Playing Short-Handed

Before we get started on today’s lesson, there’s a new tournament poker rule I’d like to discuss with you. On one hand, this rule ranks among of the most obnoxious, illogical, pointless, and aggravating innovations ever to hit poker. The rule suddenly has taken us from a perfectly fair system to an inequitable one. It makes you want to take the paper it’s written on, wad it into a tight little worthless ball and smash it against the nearest wall. Then smash it again. Over and over. It makes you want to tear the rule to tiny shreds and flush it down a toilet. It makes you want to lash out against those responsible for its introduction and to scream heartfelt obscenities so loudly that the harshness of your rage lasts long and lingers in the lives of the perpetrators until the day they finally die.

On the other hand, it’s really no big deal, and it doesn’t bother me.

In fact, not getting bothered by small injustices is one of the main things I teach. Among life’s little secrets is: Don’t let things that annoy you annoy you. The way I figure it, you are going to run into, say, 429 things that could really put you on tilt next year. People won’t act appropriately. You won’t get refunds you deserve. You’ll crash head first into rudeness, carelessness, incompetence, and indifference. Expect that. If only 389 such things happen to you, you’re having a good year! And if you’re having a good year, wouldn’t it be a waste of energy to try to fight each one of these little injustices that you know is going to happen? You choose your spots in poker; you choose your spots in life, too.

The bad rule

Despite this, I thought I should say something about a bad rule that’s coursing about the country. It recently showed up in a tournament at Hollywood Park Casino. It’s the new “race off” rule. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain. In tournaments, limits are pushed up every half hour or so, otherwise we’d never reduce the field to a single winner and the event might go on forever. But, when you raise the stakes, the smaller denomination chips become devalued and often they have no further use. So, tournament directors have decided that the best method is to buy up all the small chips and hand out larger denominations.

For instance, early in a small buy-in tournament, all the $1 chips may be exchanged for $5 chips. Fine. But what happens to someone with $2 in chips? What about $1, $3, or $4? Different systems have been tried. Some tournaments give you a $5 chip if you have $3 or $4 in chips, and nothing if you have $2 or $1. While that was fair, the fear of eliminating a player with just $2 left – taking his chips away and telling him to go home – was somewhat unsettling to tournament directors. So, the race was invented. Under this system, all the odd chips were put on the table and the dealer dealt one card to each chip. The player whose chip commanded the highest card won all those extra chips in the race. Then those stray, unwanted chips were exchanged for larger denominations.

Then people began to complain that this brought too much luck into the tournament. Then someone decided that all those extra chips shouldn’t go to just one player. If there were four chips, why not have a different high card win each of them? So far, so good. But here’s where the new system got messed up.

Not a good idea

They decided that the same player could not win more than one chip! This mini-dose of poker socialism bothers me. I don’t mind trying to keep all the odd chips from benefiting one player, but let’s be fair about it. If I have four chips and you have one, then I should get four cards and you should get one. And that’s what correct happens. And here’s what doesn’t.

Let’s say there are three $5 chips to be awarded. I have $1, Janet has $3, you have $4, and five other players have $1 each – $13 total, which rounds off to a third chip. Remember, we get one card for each $1 chip. Here’s how the race ends up: Me – 9; Janet 10, Q, J; You A, K, 4; and the others sadly receive either a three or a deuce. Under the old system (which was perfectly fair, by the way), you win the race and get all three chips. Under the new system, you get one chip for your ace, and then you’re ineligible to win more. Mathematically, this means that your other two cards had no value, even though they were chips you controlled during the tournament and were entitled to redeem. Janet, having the highest card among those still eligible gets a chip. And I – with the sixth-highest card (a nine) also get a chip. To do this fairly, you should have gotten two chips and Janet one.

Well, this may be a picky point, but this new system is grossly unfair to the players with the most odd chips. In fact, if you had a totally break-even decision that would allow you to get rid of three of your four extra chips, there would be a slight mathematical advantage in doing so. The injustice of the system isn’t great, but the logic behind the system is greatly flawed. Quite simply, from the point of view of those holding the most odd chips, the “race off” has changed from fair to unfair. And all we really need to do to correct this – assuming we need a new system because we actually care about someone getting too many odd chips on a race off in the first place – is to award one next-level chip to each of the highest corresponding cards, no matter who wins them. One player still may end up with all the chips, but it’s very unlikely – and the procedure is fair.

Meaningless? Maybe. But it’s my column and my point – and I get to make it. OK, I’m done now. Let’s go to class.

Three’s a crowd

Heads-up is my favorite kind of poker. When a third player sits down, I begin to feel crowded, and by the time we get to be five-handed, I’m really claustrophobic. This doesn’t mean I don’t play in full-handed games sometimes. I do. But short-handed poker has so much going for an experienced player that I’ve never understood why so many professionals won’t play.

Let’s examine that today. This was the 24th in my serious of Tuesday Session classroom lectures at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. It was delivered March 9, 1999 and has been specially enhanced for Card Player. The title of my talk was…

Making Money From Short-Handed Poker

  • There is usually more profit in short-handed poker games than in full-handed poker games.
    The three main reasons for this are:

    • Your opponents are likely to have had less experience playing short-handed;

    • You can capitalize fully on your psychological skills and tell reading by focusing on just one or two opponents; and

    • You are involved in many more profitable decisions per hour.

  • There are four basic types of short-handed games.
    They are:

    • Short by design;

    • Short by attrition;

    • Temporarily short for a few hands; and

    • Temporarily short when the game first starts.

    Of these, the most profitable are categories (1) and (2). These games are likely to remain longer in a short-handed state. But keep this in mind: Games that began full and are suddenly short-handed are in jeopardy of collapsing at any moment. These games can be extra profitable, and it sometimes takes a lot of fast talking to keep players seated. Games that begin short-handed are very likely to survive, because the players who start the game generally like to play against few opponents. When a game is short by design, you need to be careful whom you’re against, though, because those players have chosen to play short handed. Games short by attrition leave you with players who did not intend to play short handed, but may now be losing late in the night and may be on tilt.

  • Seating matters three or more handed.
    But not heads-up. In a three- to five-way game, be especially sure to put loose players or knowledgeable and aggressive players to your right, so they act first. (I’ve often explained this important concept.) This strategy matters more than it does in a full-handed game, because of the increased number of confrontations you will have against those players to your right.

    In heads-up, there is no such thing as positional advantage. You are equally to the right of each other.

  • Checking and calling is routine and necessary in short-handed poker games.
    Don’t think that it’s weak or unprofessional to check and then often call.

  • Short handed is a war over pace.
    Often you’ll be against an opponent who is uncomfortable, but temporarily forcing his lead with aggressive bets. You’ll usually regain control against this type of player by simply raising and re-raising until he backs off. Then you again control the pace. Conversely, if an opponent folds too often, that’s just about the costliest mistake possible short-handed. Encourage this by showing medium-big laydowns of your own. I like to show Q-8 in the big blind and throw it away. This makes the opponent think he is doing right by folding. If you raise or call every time, the opponent may adjust and mimic you.

  • About heads-up hands.
    If a hand starts heads up, you can never get more than 100 percent return on your investment. But in multi-handed pots, you can. Also, if you’re playing heads-up hold ’em (with a few insignificant exceptions), the highest single card is always the favorite if played to the showdown. Yes, 10♠ 2♥ is a favorite against 8♣ 7♣!

  • Short handed, it’s often the quantity of winning hands, not the quality that counts.
    You will not gain much more winning with a big hand than winning with a medium hand. Short-handed poker is a game of accumulating profit from small edges, whereas full-handed poker is a game of capitalizing on big advantages – in addition to small edges.

  • The hands you’re dealt are not as strong in short-handed games as they are in a full-handed games after many opponents fold.
    When players fold, it indicates an absence of quality cards, and these may be bunched in the remaining hands. This factor doesn’t come into play short handed.

  • One of the big secrets short handed is to usually just bet, raise, and re-raise with big hands.
    There is little reason to be deceptive, because these bets and raises are common plays with any hands. While you will sometimes slow play big hands, you should mostly use your medium-strong hands to change pace and be creative. – MC

  • Next Tuesday Session

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    Mike Caro

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    Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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