By shorthanded, I am referring to situations with five or fewer players. Many people think that good players should seek shorthanded games, because the theory is that the good players skills will be able to shine. In my opinion, this theory is right on the money, provided that the player possesses the right skills to beat the game. To people who are not really familiar with poker, it seems natural that the better the player, the more he should want to play shorthanded, since his advantage should be larger. After all, the fewer the players, the more the best player in the game should stand out. But to understand why shorthanded play is a blessing in disguise to a good player, we need to understand why a good player has an advantage over a bad player.
One of the biggest edges that the good player has is his preflop play. The good player does not play very many hands, especially from early position, before the flop. The bad player does. Consider a hand like K-10 offsuit. In a full game, the good player rarely plays this hand. Unless he can limp in from late position, steal-raise from late position, or is playing out of his blinds, he will usually muck this hand. But the bad player thinks K-10 offsuit is a real hand, and will play it from any position, and even cold-call raises with it. Now, the good player makes money from the bad player because of this phenomenon. When the bad player comes in with K-10 offsuit and a good player is involved, the good player will frequently have A-K, K-Q, or even K-J. Since the good player normally doesn’t play K-10 offsuit, the reverse hardly ever happens when the bad player happens to have a bigger king.
But suppose the game is reduced from 10-handed to five-handed. It turns out that K-10 offsuit becomes a more playable hand. So, the good player adjusts his play and starts coming in with this hand, but the bad player is already playing this hand. In other words, the bad player, who plays too many hands before the flop, is actually playing correctly in many cases because the game is shorthanded. So, for many hands, both the good player and the bad player are playing the same. Therefore, that particular edge that the good player had over the bad player becomes dissipated in a shorthanded game.
There are some other problems when playing shorthanded. First of all, the blinds come around twice as fast. Meaning, that you have to put twice as much money in the pot every hour with out seeing your cards first. On top of that, if you continue to play your same tight game, you probably won’t get dealt enough quality hands so that you can see flops, and you will simply blind off all of your money. This means you have to start playing weaker cards. When you have to play more marginal holdings, two things happen, both of which are bad.
First, as stated previously, your preflop play starts to look like everyone else’s. Second, once the flop comes, you will find yourself thrown into more marginal situations. You are going to have to play all sorts of hands such as a middle pair with a weak kicker - for two reasons. Number 1, because everyone else is playing more loosely, you may very well have the best hand. Number 2, because of how few opponents you have, a lot more bluffing will be going on and you have to keep the other players honest sometimes. It also may be harder to tell whether you are leading or chasing.
There is a big difference between a game that deals in 10 players to start with and having three of them take a flop vs. dealing in only five players and having three of them play. The three who took a flop from a population of 10 will, on average, have better starting hands than from a starting population of only five players. Furthermore, many players will start raising with hands that they only limp with in a full game. For instance, A-10 offsuit is usually a limping hand. But in a shorthanded game, it becomes a raising hand. This means that more pots are getting raised. So, in a shorthanded game, you have the double-barreled impact of having to play more hands in raised pots. Having to put up more blind money, playing weaker cards, and paying multiple bets to take a flop all mean that you are gambling more and incurring higher fluctuations. This is why most experienced players at the middle and lower limits simply avoid shorthanded play.
Nevertheless, there will be occasions when you will find yourself having to play shorthanded for a brief period of time. So my advice would be to get comfortable with changes that are required for shorthanded play, and let the other inexperienced players, have to worry about what to do.