NLHE 6-max: An Introduction

Whoever regularly sits at a no-limit-hold'em full ring cash game table with nine other players and plays successfully with a full stack (100 BBs) will perhaps be able to confirm some of the following theses:

  1. You need a lot of patience. This is simply because, firstly, with nine opponents we need better starting hands than with less opponents (heads-up or shorthanded). Secondly, the games last longer, since there are more players involved and they take more time for their decisions.
  2. Impatience and frustration due to the many poor starting hands can lead us to lower our own standards and play poorer hands or stay in a hand too long with a mediocre holding.
  3. We have to play very tight and selectively because when our opponents do play, they generally have very strong hands.
  4. In most cases we can determine the strength of the hands well, and above all, reliably. If we have top pair with top kicker, for example, and are raised, we can usually assume we're beaten.
  5. Players have to pay the blinds less often (twice every ten hands). The blinds are therefore not defended so strongly. This makes stealing the blinds in late position a little easier.
  6. A lot of full ring players play pretty tight. This makes it difficult to get paid off with our good hands.

Many of these points can turn out to be advantages in one sense and disadvantages in another. Player A, who is aggressive and/or impatient, will have to rein himself in and discipline himself in many situations because his bluffs or those of his hands that don't hit the flop well will win less often against the better hands of his opponents. The conservative, careful Player B feels far more comfortable here because he isn't willing to invest in bluffs or risky situations anyway. Often enough, amongst the rest of the nine players there is someone who will also pay him off when he has a good hand.


Let's return to players like player A. He loves bluffing, wants to play more hands, wants a lot of action, doesn't like having to wait for good cards, wants to see flops and bet money in order to win lots of it as quickly as possible. It's exactly this type of player who would rather sit at a shorthanded table, i.e. a table with a maximum of six players (shortened "6-max"). But those are precisely NOT the reasons why WE want to play at 6-max tables. Our goal is rather to meet types like player A there and make a profit out of them.

Before we continue, there are two important prerequisites for getting into shorthanded games:
  • a fundamental understanding of the no-limit-hold'em theory, and
  • having successfully handled a corresponding full ring NLHE limit with a solid win rate

It is not recommended to get into a shorthanded game without having a corresponding background.

Differences between full ring and shorthanded tables

Shorthanded tables are very different from full ring tables. Play is generally much more aggressive and a lot looser. This is to some extent due to the fact that every player has to pay the blinds much more often than at a full ring table. Consequently, it is more important to steal blinds in order to continue playing another round for free. As a result, many players defend their blinds intensely. As we can see, this alone makes for a cycle that turns the atmosphere aggressive.


Another point is: when there are only six players, the probability that there will be a premium hand such as , , , , , , or amongst those dealt at the table is lower than at a table with ten players (because 40% less starting hands are dealt each round). This means that we can in principle play a greater number of hands profitably. We less often run the risk of having to play against really strong hands. If we look at a typical shorthanded table and see a player in first position (UTG) raising to four times the big blind, then as a rule, this raise doesn't always represent a premium hand as it would at a full ring table. Due to the "smaller" table the players are of course forced to play more hands, and that is combined with a good dose of aggression. In contrast to a full ring table, where it isn't worthwhile raising under the gun because all too often we'll be up against dominant hands, at 6-max tables this hand will often turn out to be the best hand in an orbit (round).

  • Here's an example:

The player who is under the gun raises. At a full ring table it would be very risky to re-raise because we would often be playing against a bigger pair or overcards. At a shorthanded table pocket tens are however very often the best hand in this situation. Accordingly, in this example they are also played aggressively, which brings more money into the pot as long as it is very likely that we have the best hand.

We could now take a slightly milder view of points one and two in the list above, because we are really forced to play more hands.

Tight might not always be right …

Of course we can continue to play tight and conservatively at a shorthanded table and still win. However, the profit that we make playing in this full ring style will as a rule be relatively small. We have to pay the blinds too often (see above), we are forced into the defensive too often, we can't keep up with good hands when all around people are playing their weak hands so aggressively.

"Fullring style" means the playing style of player B: play only strong, well-selected starting hands; if there is aggression, continue playing only with very strong hands; bluff seldom or not all. In the end, poker is still a game that tries to minimise the mathematical variance in the long term, and it has been proven that we can achieve this by playing tight. Invest money if the percentages show you to be ahead with the highest possible certainty. But please note that our opponents tend to play very loosely.

So, if we stay tight and don't open up, even for hands that are average but have potential for development (especially suited connectors such as , low pairs such as , suited aces etc.), we will often miss out on valuable opportunities and all those important small pots will pass us by. When we expand the range of our starting hands, it is essential that we never neglect our position. Since one of the most important no-limit hold'em concepts naturally applies here as well: most money is made when we're in position.


Let's start with the formal designations of the positions. The 6-max table consists of the following seats: small blind (SB), big blind (BB), under the gun (UTG), middle position (MP), cut-off (CO) and button (BU).

Due to the lower number of players at the table and the lower number of non-blind positions, we will find ourselves more quickly in positions in which it is very profitable to play, namely the cut-off and button. But unfortunately the four relatively bad positions mean that we're also damned to playing a lot of games - two out of three - out of position. Overall this requires a good, solid understanding of the game as well as the ability to play out of position with a certain amount of confidence.

So here again is the recommendation: do not get into shorthanded games before you have understood the full ring table theory and successfully implemented it. The key words here are above all "position" and "aggression". Our switch should also be made dependent on whether we see our own strength in reading our own and the opponents' hands well, and whether we are able to deal with the opponents' aggression. This is what we will be permanently confronted with at every shorthanded table. These characteristics are especially important (and necessary) at the higher limits, where lots of money can be won from players bluffing and playing loosely, i.e. just like our example, player A.

Heads-up pots and aggression  

At full ring tables we will often see multiway pots. Thus, our own chances of winning the hand against several opponents drop, unless we flop or draw to a monster. In technical terms: for many players , the equity (the percentage chance our hand has of winning the pot) decreases on average on the flop. By contrast, when we're playing shorthanded we'll end up in heads-up situations very often to almost always, if the table is pretty tight.

Of course, many new factors that previously had little or no importance suddenly have a part to play here. Amongst these are our table image, our way of playing so far, the type of opponent and again, our position. This is just where things like reads or notes on the types of moves a certain opponent has made can help us to play our hand well against him. These heads-up situations make it harder for every player to even hit a flop. As is well known, unpaired hands hit flops on average only once in three hands. For this reason, the more aggressive player will often win the pot immediately. There are uncountable smaller pots to be won. The following is a hand that can act as a good example of the two concepts discussed above:

  • Example one

In most cases, a hand such as is useless at a full ring table. We will be dominated too often by better aces if we flop top pair. Here we raise this hand even from a relatively bad position (MP) with two players behind us, and that AFTER the UTG player had limped into the pot. We have thus adapted our starting hand criteria pre-flop, and so we've made ourselves vulnerable to situations in which we could be dominated. But we have gained an advantage: by raising, we have position on the limper if the raise goes through without resistance. The flop includes a king and almost no possible draws. We bet immediately from our position because the probability that our opponent has missed is 67%. Our ace high could even be the best hand right now. But the king on the board will stop our opponent from playing if  he hit an eight or a four. So we use position, aggression and the assumption that is probably the best hand of the six dealt to take down a small pot. That will and should happen very often in a shorthanded game.

Brief remark: the raise with is pretty loose and not always to be recommended. However, we did have some additional information about our opponents, which we were able to use in this particular situation: the two players after us play very tight and seldom call, so if they had been holding good hands they would have re-raised, in which case we would have folded.

  • Example two

is also a hand that we can play at a fullring table only in carefully selected situations. At a shorthanded table, however, it is on average a pretty good hand, and furthermore, there is only one player behind us, so our position is relatively good. The flop comes ace high and is thus perfectly suited for a continaution bet, because we can represent the ace and by so doing, we can almost always take down this small pot. This brings us directly to the topic of bluffing in shorthanded games. The continuation bet, i.e. a bet on the flop by the player who raised pre-flop, irrespective of whether he has hit the flop or not, is discussed in more detail in the article "NLHE 6-max flop play".

As we have now seen, when playing shorthanded it's very important to be in position against loose, bad players so that we can isolate them if possible with a pre-flop raise. The more often we manage to go heads-up against these players, especially when we're in position, the more probable it is that we will win these players' money step by step. The quality of our own hands here doesn't always play the decisive role, because on average, the really bad players still stay in the game with hands even weaker than, .

Raisy daisy ...

In shorthanded games there is an unwritten rule:

If we want to play a hand we must raise it.

Put another way: there is hardly ever a reason for limping pre-flop. The attentive reader can already deduce two arguments from the sections above:

  • We want to get ourselves into an absolute position and prevent all the players behind us from entering the hand.
  • If possible, we want to play heads-up against any loose, bad player who's already in the hand.

All the other arguments regarding the how, why and when we raise pre-flop in 6-max games are discussed in more detail in the article "NLHE 6-max: pre-flop play".


Once we've adapted the starting hand selection criteria, we have a whole new range of ways in which our game can influence our opponents'. At a full ring table the weaker players are not just loose but usually also bored and even if we don't play a hand for what feels like uncountable orbits, we'll still get paid for the monster that everyone gets dealt every once in a while. It's not possible to generalize that shorthanded opponents are more alert, but the more we play and the more often we play against a particular opponent, the more important our image becomes. This applies particularly when a player has lost a lot to us, whether through bad luck or bad play, and he re-loads in order to continue playing. He will be influenced in his further play against us by what has already happened.

On tilt he could, for example, try and play more hands against us, come what may, which would be a huge advantage for us. He could try desperately to bluff us, or he could suspect over and over again that we were trying to bluff him. All this has a much greater effect at 6-max tables and we have to pay more attention to it here than at full ring tables. The other way round, loose aggressive play can also affect us negatively, causing us to make an increased number of bad decisions when we're up against certain players simply because they've built up loose aggressive images. .


Every poker player loves it and hates it, and no poker player can escape it. We have to thank variance for every upswing and we curse it in every downswing. With six players at the table, aggressive play and, on average, weaker hands, higher than usual variance is pre-programmed. There will be more hands felt to be suck-outs, i.e. pots lost due to an unlucky turn or river card, than at a full ring table. More hands and more aggressive play simply produce more opportunities for winning when we're behind, but equally, more opportunities for losing when we're ahead. This means that at shorthanded tables we need to have a corresponding bankroll buffer put aside. It cannot be said often enough: the basic requirements for a good shorthanded player are:

  • solid bankroll management,
  • strict handling of timely movement up and down the limit ladder, and
  • a healthy mental attitude, which accepts these principles and is thus able to deal with them.

For more details, please read the article "NLHE 6-max: bankroll management".
Full ring players reading this article will have been given an insight into many new aspects, but, of course, many old concepts from the well-known full ring NLHE game are retained and also have to be internalized (pot odds, implied odds, position play, etc.). The 6-max game offers new and valuable opportunities to improve our own win rate. Above all, however, it offers a lot of bad opponents who love the fast-moving action. Moreover, at the higher limits (approx. NL200 and higher) it becomes increasingly important to be able to compete at a six-player table, for the simple reason that at these levels, fewer and fewer full ring tables are available. This article and the following ones will help you to become competitive in the NLHE 6-max discipline.