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Five key areas for strengthening your Short Deck game

With Hold’em having been puzzled over and analysed under a microscope for over twenty years, the strategic elements of the game are beginning to follow a choreographed tightrope of game theory. Increasing numbers of players are playing almost every situation optimally with fewer and fewer mistakes being made at the highest level. Short Deck has now torn up the playbook however and forced every player to rethink Hold’em strategy, bringing a freshness into the game which hasn’t been felt in years.

Just to remind you what Short Deck is, the game involves all cards valued between 2 and 5 being removed from the deck. This creates stronger hands, more balanced equities and plenty of sweats post-flop. It also alters the fundamental strategic aspects of the game.

Here are some tips to help you jump into the action.

1 – Know the rules

It may be tempting to just sit down at a table and work things out as you go because on the surface, Short Deck seems identical to Hold’em, just with the 2’s to 5’s missing. But in fact, there’s a lot more to it. For example, a flush beats a full house, As,6c,7h,8s,9d is a straight and no blinds are posted, just antes. In addition, the button will post an extra ante which helps agitate the pre-flop action.

The game is sometimes known as 6+ Hold’em and there is a less common version which differs slightly in rules compared to the Short Deck game you will find in most places. The difference in that version is that three of a kind ranks above a straight, but in Triton events it does not. Nor does PokerStars use that version in its games, which are called 6+ but still adhere to the normal rules of Short Deck.

Aside from the differences listed above, all the same rules from Hold’em apply. Betting moves around the table the same direction, with the action starting left of the button and there are four betting rounds as usual. You can use one or both of your hole cards to make a hand just like Holdem and other than flushes beating full houses, the hand rankings remain identical (unless you are playing the less common version mentioned above, of course).

2 – Pre-flop Equities

Whatever you thought you knew about Hold’em pre-flop equities, it’s time to throw those ideas out of the window. Surprisingly, there are less than half the number of starting hand combinations (630) you can be dealt in Short Deck compared to Hold’em. As an example of how pre-flop equities shift, 10sJs suited has 51% equity against AsKd off-suit. You may be shocked at this because at first glance it seems that the suited aspect of the 10hJh is the only positive it has over the AsKd.

Importantly, straights are made much more easily in this game, and so any hand which has three ranks of card above and below it in the deck has the maximum number of straight completing combinations that could hit the board. The only straights AhKc can make are broadway or Short Deck’s version of the wheel. Count the different straights 10sJd can make by comparison, and you’ll see the difference.

For this reason, connected hands from 8c through Js have more strength than you might expect, especially when suited. Being suited is clearly preferable in a game where flushes beat straights, but the difficulty in completing flushes limits its impact. Your odds of being dealt a suited hand remain the same as in Hold’em, despite flushes being made less often.

The dream starter in Hold’em, AdAc still maintains its position at the top of the tree, but against a hand like the 10cJc above, it now only has 63% equity. Against KsKc, without any shared suits,         AdAc has 73% equity to KsKc’s 25%. With pocket pairs now being dealt once in every 11.7 hands, pairs walking into overpairs will happen more often and you should be wary of this when facing or making a three-bet. Equity-wise, this places you in one of the worst places you can be pre-flop (much like in Hold’em) as you are a 3 to 1 underdog.

A huge number of scenarios, preflop and post-flop will allow you to have above 35% equity in this game and so you shouldn’t be going anywhere near situations where you could have 25% for your whole stack. At least, not if you can help it. Even AdQs against AsKc still has 30% with 10% chance to chop and 8c9c against 10sJs having 38% equity makes these hands more appealing, particularly in terms of taking flops in smaller pots.

3 – Flop Equities

One of the equity scenarios you might find most surprising is to be found in post-flop play, and once again, it is linked to pocket pairs. If you see a flop with AhAd, you might think a board of 6h8cJs is about as safe as it gets, and it is. But nonetheless, an opponent with 9c10h has between 52% and 53% equity against you depending on suits. If you are used to the ‘2 and 4’ rule of thumb for approximating equities when drawing in Hold’em, you should now adjust that to a ‘3 and 6’ rule for Short Deck. Count your outs on the flop and multiply by 6 to approximately calculate equity. Multiply by 3 on the turn. If you are still in doubt, here are a few post-flop equities to help you get started:

Bottom pair and gutshot vs AhAd 39% / 58%
Flush draw with backdoor straight draw vs top pair-top kicker 41% / 59%
Gutshot and flush draw vs top pair-top kicker 53% / 47%
Bottom pair and flush draw vs overpair on the flop 53% / 47%
Flush draw and gutshot vs top set 42% / 58%
Open-end straight draw vs top set 47% / 50%
Open-end straight draw vs flush draw and two overcards 39% / 61%
Open-end straight draw and two overcards vs flush draw and gutshot 51% / 48%

One of the important points to bear in mind with these calculations is that, while I have endeavoured to avoid backdoors and calculate these draws in naked form, back door outs are hard to avoid. In fact, if you hold two cards between an 8d and Qs, it is impossible to not have a backdoor draw on any unpaired flop. That tells you a lot about the mechanics of Short Deck.

Naked draws alone will rarely be miles behind and as soon as you add a pair, gutshot or some backdoor combinations, draws can easily come out with the stronger equity. It should also be noted that, although sets are more vulnerable in the normal form of Short Deck, you will flop them 17% of the time rather than 12%.

4 – General strategy

In Short Deck, you are ideally aiming to make flushes and full houses because these are where you biggest pots will be won. Too many of your opponents will struggle to adapt their Hold’em mentality when they are facing big bets and will call off with hands they should be folding. In Hold’em, players may not worry too much about the fact their straight isn’t the strongest when they have 7c8d on a 9c10cJd board. But if the money is being piled in on this flop in Short Deck, you can very easily be drawing dead to a better straight, as sets will be more tentative on this type of flop.

If you do find yourself playing the Short Deck variant where sets beat straights, pocket pairs clearly have more value and so set mining rises in value considerably. In normal Short Deck however, you have to be careful with the mid to weaker pocket pairs. Additionally, a hand like AcKs becomes a mid-strength starting hand in Short Deck. This is because its straight and flush options are restricted and one-pair hands normally aren’t enough to win the pot at showdown. You should also be careful you don’t overvalue Acx pre-flop, because while opening from late position with As6c Ad10s in Hold’em is perfectly reasonable, these hands do not play well in Short Deck.

While open-ended straight draws, especially with an overcard or two can be attractive semi bluffing spots on the flop, be careful when it comes to jamming nut flush draws on flops. You only have 5 outs to your flush, not 9. The flip side though, is that flushes can win big pots against straights or full houses. Also, if four of your suit hits the board, you’ll be more likely to get looked up by the Jc,Qc or Kc high flushes as they know it’s harder to make a flush in this game and may be less inclined to believe your value bet.

In the variant of Short Deck where three of a kinds beat straights, flopped sets are your big money situations. They already qualify as that in Hold’em of course, but in Short Deck your opponents will stack off light with open-enders that might also have overs, or a flush draw with a gutshot etc. In this situation, all their overpair and straight outs are already dead equity. If they’ve flopped a straight, they’re drawing dead too if they do not have flush outs to rescue them.

The fact everyone pays an ante and the button pays two is another important difference between this game and Hold’em. It means there is more in the pot to contest from the outset, and while you may be tempted to start trying to steal the pot more often, you will get called much wider and be put in plenty of tricky, close spots post-flop. Many good players advocate limping a relatively wide range instead, which allows you to contest those bigger pre-flop pots without bloating them with marginal hands. Players will be more likely to take a flop with wider holdings in Short Deck too, which makes multi-way flops very common.

5 – Pre-flop hand selection

Suited starting hands offer a slight boost in strength, but cards being somewhat connected is arguably more important. Hands like pocket aces and kings are also very strong pre-flop, but the value of pocket pairs 8c8d falls away quickly as you move down through pocket queens, jacks, tens and beyond. For example hands like AcKd and AcQh are playable, without being premium holdings. Hands in the region of AcQsAd9h and QhJcQhKs off-suit which would have been opens in certain situations in Hold’em are now limps or folds when facing a raise. It should also be mentioned that smaller suited aces are playable but not overly strong despite flushes having elevated ranking status.

Another point to keep in mind is that with so many antes in the pot and equities being closer, larger sizings and three-bet shoving bigger amounts is completely normal for Short Deck, because equities will normally still be very close post-flop making it mathematically unfavourable to three-bet preflop and then end up folding flops.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Short Deck can be incredibly fun to play, with increased action and more frequent interesting post-flop decisions compared to Hold’em.

You should understand how the differences in Short Deck interact with different starting hands and affect your play with regards to the pot size pre-flop and the decisions you subsequently make. Know exactly which version of the game you are playing and whether trips will beat a straight too, as this will change the value of starting hands. Be sure to utilise post-flop skills such as bluffing scare cards and reading board textures and be sure to learn your equities, as there are plentiful semi-bluffing opportunities to be had in this game.

One of the unsolved and attractive complications of this game is that generally, more players are seeing flops from a variety of positions without anyone having a betting lead. This makes it much harder to put opponents on ranges which makes decisions on later streets far less clear, especially as you may be betting into more than one person on the turn or river, which only happens rarely in Hold’em.


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Article by Craig Bradshaw


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