short-handed poker tournament

The Best Short-Handed Poker Plays | How to Play Short-Handed

Ah … short-handed poker. Since the majority of Poker Journal focuses on poker tournaments, we’re going to stick with that over cash games, but I’d like to briefly cover an important point about short-handed cash games first.

It’s possible to play short-handed cash games as well, but you usually want to stick to that online. If you play short-handed live, the rake is likely to get you. However, if you’re playing a cash game in a live poker room and the game dwindles down to five players or less, always ask the dealer for a reduced rake.

The dealer will then ask the Floor, and the Floor will approve. If you’re ever in a poker room where they don’t honor your request for a reduced rake, I recommend never playing in that poker room again.

I have learned many things in life. One is the fact that if someone lets you down once, they will let you down again. The same can be applied to poker rooms. No second chances unless there has been a management change.

Now let’s get to short-handed poker strategy for tournaments.


Short-handed poker is often six players or less, but every time a player gets knocked out the dynamics of the game change. Let’s begin with six-handed. That should be obvious given that the subheading is: ‘6-Handed.’ Shit … it’s even in bold: ‘6-Handed.’ And I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I almost wrote ‘Sex-Handed.’ Not sure if it was a Freudian slip or not. Poker players are known for being super sexy and all, so maybe.

Here’s what I do know: SPATS is effective in 6-handed tournaments. No, I’m not trying to promote my own books: The Perfect Range (on sale now) or SPATS 100 (be on the lookout within the next three months). I’m saying that because it actually works.

I have been testing out SPATS as a poker strategy for tournaments and it has been badass. Well, maybe not badass yet because these are small online poker tournaments. But it has still been a cash rate just shy of 50%. That ain’t easy.

To give you some background, I wrote about SPATS in The Perfect Range in 2015. I used that strategy and it brought me much success. It has brought others much success as well. For some reason, I chose to try out new strategies. That’s what I do. I try new things. We’re only going to be on this planet once (assuming there is no mass alien abduction), and it’s important that we have new experiences.

I was really going to write: ‘I’m only going to be on this planet once and it’s important that I have new experiences,’ but then I would be writing the word ‘I’ too much, and that comes off as narcissistic.

I guarantee you that someone DMs me after reading this article and asks if I’m depressed and would like to talk. This shit happens relatively often, and it’s always someone new, as well as someone I have never talked to before. If I’m depressed then the Pope is Jewish.

A little off-topic, eh? No big deal. I felt like doing a lap.

During the time frame I veered away from SPATS, I went cold. My SPATS Readers & Believers (holy shit … that’s like Beliebers! Only my last name is Nals and I Do Care!) kept telling me to go back to my own strategy because they were making money from it. I didn’t listen. Until…

My friend Keith asked, “Hey, are you ever going to write a SPATS book about tournaments?”

A disco ball starting spinning in my head, and it shot idea-lasers onto the dance floor (the idea-lasers were blue), and everyone on the dance floor was another version of me, each version of me absorbing each idea. Then all those versions of me formed like Voltron directly under the disco ball, where a bright white light shot down from the bottom of that disco ball and shot me up and inside.

Once inside, I spun around in circles rapidly until I was dizzy. At that point, the disco ball spit me out onto the dance floor and I landed with a thud. It was like I was the disco ball’s baby. And this is where I had my 6-handed epiphany.

I said to myself: It would be crazy to apply SPATS to 6-handed poker tournaments. It’s too tight. It’s too narrow. It will never fit! But if it doesn’t fit, make it fit. In this instance, no lube required.

While sitting on that imaginary dance floor, I shot my right arm into the air like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club and said, “Fuck it!”

I often use the “Fuck It!” strategy in life, and it often fails. In this case, it didn’t fail. As long as there were still six players in the game, when I stuck with SPATS, I did well. A lot of this has to do with psychology. I know you math people will cringe, but just listen for a minute, would you? The psychology here is important, and it has nothing to do with us. In a 6-handed game in a poker tournament, everyone thinks, “You need to attack!”

Well, shit, if everyone has the same fucking strategy, how the hell are you going to gain an edge? Put that on your poker tips list! Just kidding. I love you.

Let me put it to you this way. Let’s say there are six nations going to battle in a neutral country. They all want that land. Every army is relatively equal size and capability. The only difference is that one of these armies has an unconventional General. His name is General Different.

While the other five Generals are planning how to attack, General Different holds his army at the top of a large hill and watches the other armies battle. One army is eliminated. At this point in time, General Different’s men beg to attack. General Different tells them to hold their ground. Another army is eliminated. Now there are four armies remaining.

The key to this strategy isn’t just patience. When General Different’s army attacks, the other armies aren’t going to know what to expect or how to battle against this army because that army hasn’t revealed anything yet.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t play any poker hands when you’re 6-handed or 5-handed in a poker tournament. It does mean that you should definitely apply SPATS when 6-handed. You will absolutely be staying out of trouble and avoiding bad spots.

Think of it this way. Even though you’re playing SPATS, other players aren’t going to know that. In their minds, it’s a 6-max, so you can be raising with anything when you 4x the BB from the Button. If you’re playing within the SPATS range and this hand goes to showdown, you will table a premium hand. That will happen again and again. Where do you think I’m going here? It’s a trap. And it works in short-handed Texas Hold’em poker games. For sure.


I still recommend applying SPATS here, but not to the same degree. For instance, if you’re on the Cutoff or the Button, you have a marginal hand or better, and it’s folded to you, it’s recommended that you attack more often than not.

A lot of people believe in raising 3x the BB as a rule, but that’s not playing the situation and the players. Sometimes I’m at a table where raising 3x the BB isn’t enough. On some tables, you need to raise 3.5x the BB or 4x the BB. On some tables, a 2.5x BB raise is enough.

You might not realize it, but a lot of it has to do with who is in the Big Blind when you’re on the Button. Are they a TAG player? Is it a NIT? Is it an AGGRO player? Are they a NIT With A Twist? Is it a Maniac?

For the record, the NIT With A Twist is the players who cash the most. They aren’t the most dangerous players, but they know how to navigate a tournament. They don’t play a lot of poker hands, but they’re not who you think they are either. They are very capable of making moves. A true NIT doesn’t do that.

If you’re 5-handed and TAG player is in the Big Blind when you’re on the Button, you need to know how to approach this situation. TAG players are often strong players. The trick here is to never fall into the same pattern. If you do, they will pick it up.

While you generally want to keep it simple, you can’t always raise 3.5x the BB with AK. For example, you can raise that amount the first two times you have AK and then change it to a 4.5x BB raise the third time you have AK.

You will be later in the tournament, which means you will pick up more chips from the blinds/antes. It’s also more likely you will pick up chips because it will look like a bigger hand than AK since they expect you to raise 3.5x the BB with AK.

I also recommend throwing in some pre-flop open-raises with hands like 97s and KTo. Mix it up so they have no idea what you’re doing. This is more important in a short-handed game because so much of it is about Pressure From Position, not your actual cards. If you keep collecting blinds/antes without resistance, you’re going to go very deep often.

If the Big Blind is a NIT when you’re on the Button, attack often. Throw in some limps and folds in order to maintain respect, but you want to raise most of his Big Blinds.

If the Big Blind is AGGRO, slow that shit down. If you attack this player in the Big Blind often, it will go one of two ways. You will either take all of his chips or you will lose all of yours.

Players are generally easier to read in the Small Blind because they won’t have as wide of a range and the board texture can give you better clues. The Big Blind is trickier because many players will defend their Big Blind, which gives them a very wide range. This is especially true for AGGRO players.

Here’s the difference. If you raise pre-flop, the SB calls, the flop comes 247, and they bet into you when you have AQ, you’re beat. That’s it. It’s a fold. Live to fight another day.

If you raise pre-flop, the BB defends, the flop comes 247, the SB checks, and you’re the only other player in the hand, that BB might bet into you because he already detects weakness from the SB and there are a few more chips out there. He also knows that you’re most likely to have two high cards. He can have anything from QT to 74.

This is a dilemma. This is also why we don’t want to raise an AGGRO BB as much. The way to beat an AGGRO player is to trap him somewhere along the line of a hand that plays out street by street. And trapping doesn’t always mean checking. It can mean betting out with the nuts because that can look weak. It depends on your opponent and how you perceive they perceive you.

If it’s a NIT With A Twist, attack more often than not, but be wary. This is a deceptive one. DO NOT use standard logic if you play out the hand! For instance, don’t say to yourself: Well, he checked the turn so he can’t have top pair. That wouldn’t make sense.

Remember the word ‘Twist.’ Anything is possible. Do not apply standard logic. The best thing to do here is ask yourself: Why is this player still in the hand? What are the potential reasons?

If there is a Maniac in the Big Blind, it’s actually an opportunity, but it’s tricky. I know it sounds crazy, but crazy is fun. Raise pre-flop with bad hands earlier in the tournament when the blinds are low and the pots are small. This will only work if you show those hands, such as 73s and T6. The Maniac will remember.

Later in the tournament, when the blinds are higher and the pots are bigger, and when you have AA, KK, QQ, put in the same raise but a little more. He will likely raise you regardless of what he’s holding. This is what Maniacs do. Jam it! If he’s holding a marginal hand, he will call. Maniacs operate on Ego, and they love the crazy calls.


I recommend only playing SPATS if you’re first to act here. Otherwise, 4-handed should be a blend of patience and aggression. You almost never want to limp. That’s all you need to know. Don’t get carried away on the aggressive side, but be aggressive whenever you sense an opportunity thanks to your cards or opponent(s).


You want to know how to win in poker tournaments when it’s 3-handed? I wish I could give you some definitive advice, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s 100% about learning the patterns of your opponents. Does this one call, fold, or raise when you apply pressure? How about the other one? How will they play against each other when you’re not in the hand?

three-handed poker

One thing is for sure, you want to apply methodical yet consistent pressure while also folding dangerous hands. There is no limping unless you have a bad hand and it’s limped to you in the Big Blind. Don’t automatically raise vs. two hands with rags. One of them might be trapping you with a limp-raise. No sense in wasting chips. Remember: Why are they in the hand?


The more aggressive player wins.


We covered everything from SPATS to powerful disco balls to how to attack playing styles in the Big Blind to more Texas hold’em poker strategy. I definitely recommend reading this article again, especially if you’re about to play in a short-handed poker tournament.

Play in 100 short-handed poker tournaments following the poker strategy here and let me know how you do. It’s an effective poker strategy. Here’s one of the best poker tips I can give you: Stick with SPATS in games of six players or more. You know the rest (see above). See you at the WSOP!

♠ pokerjournal.org | Tyler Nals

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