McHaffie: MCU lesson 052 / Short-handed poker

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2005.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 52: Profiting from short-handed poker

My lesson today is used with Mike’s permission and taken from his Tuesday Session classroom lectures, held at Hollywood Park Casino five years ago.

Mike states that he enjoys playing heads-up poker more than short-handed or full-handed poker. For an experienced player, he believes, short-handed is better than full-handed poker, because it is “more productive.” He means, there’s more money to be made.

According to Mike, short-handed poker games are usually more profitable than full-handed. One reason for this is that your opponents probably have less experience playing short-handed than full-handed. Also, it’s easier to focus on only one or two opponents instead of several in order to read tells and to use any psychological skills that you’ve developed. Furthermore, you’ll get to play more hands and make more decisions each hour. And if you make them correctly, you earn more, because the way you get paid in poker is to make the right decisions – as Mike keeps reminding me.

Four types of short-handed games

There are four general types of short-handed poker games: short by intention; short by wearing away; momentarily short for a few hands; momentarily short because the game has just begun.

When the games are short-handed by intention or by wearing away gradually, they have a tendency to last longer and are usually more profitable. However, if the games begin with a full table and abruptly become short-handed, they could end prematurely. If a player acts like he’s going to leave try to talk him into staying. There’s extra profit in it.

Generally games that start short-handed are in less danger of collapsing, because the original players enjoy playing short-handed. You need to realize that players in games that are short by intention may frown on anyone crashing the party. Another thing to aware of is games that are short by wearing away. These games may have players hanging on who are losing and could be on tilt. That’s usually good. Conversely, sometimes this circumstance is not good – when all the weak players have gone broke and only strong ones remain.

Important concept

When you’re playing heads-up, seating doesn’t matter. There is no positional advantage. However, if you’re playing in a three- to five-handed game, you’ll want loose, skillful, or forceful players on your right, acting before you. Mike says this is a very important concept in a short-handed game.

Checking and calling is something you’ll do more often in a short-handed game. Many times you’ll find yourself up against an opponent who is betting aggressively. To handle this type of opponent, you’ll need to raise and re-raise less often and capitalize on the overly aggressive wagers by calling more often.

If you’re playing heads-up, the most return that you can ever get on your investment is 100%. However, you can get more than 100% in multi-handed pots. Mike points out that the highest single card is always the favorite, if played to a showdown in heads-up hold ’em.

Small edges

When playing short-handed, it’s how many lucrative hands that you’re playing instead of how superior the hands. A medium hand can sometimes be just as profitable as a big hand. Mike states: “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.”

When playing a full-handed game, if most of the players have folded, it usually means that they aren’t holding first-class cards, and that the remaining high-ranking cards are more likely to be found in the hands of players still active. It’s only a minor indicator. But it’s even more minor in short-handed games, because not as many players fold before the action reaches a “late” position.

Mike says that one of the important secrets in short-handed play is to usually just bet, raise, and re-raise with big hands. There is usually no need to mislead your opponent by slow-playing big hands.

Even many professionals refuse to play short-handed, or heads-up poker. Too bad, because it has many advantages for the experienced player. — DM

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