This article will serve as an introduction to Short Deck Poker strategy for players new to the game. In the analysis that follows I share some essential statistics that govern starting hand strength and made hand frequencies, and I will take care to draw attention to some key structural features that shape proper strategic play. Let us begin…

The defining difference between Short Deck and other Holdem variants is the removal of the 5s,4s,3s and 2s from the deck, hence the name ‘Short Deck’. This serves to increase the probability of making many hands that No Limit Hold’em players are used to thinking of as ‘strong’, such as straights and full houses. A random hand in No Limit has a 4.6% chance of making a straight by the river, a probabilty which rockets to 14.1% in Short Deck.

However the loss of 16 low cards from the deck radically reduces the game’s theoretical complexity, and would leave it relying on novelty alone to make it playable were it not for an extra innovation unique to Short Deck poker. The total number of starting hands is reduced from 1326 to 630, and the number of unique Short Deck starting hands is only 81, compared with 169 No Limit Hold’em starting hands.

As we shall discover below, the unusual Ante structure of the Short Deck game, at least as played in the Triton Series and on Pokerstars, is essential to keeping it complex and interesting.

Short Deck Poker Strategy

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What’s the Difference between Six Plus Holdem and Triton Holdem?

Short Deck Poker comes in two versions: Six plus Holdem and a Triton variant, popularized by the ultra-high stakes Triton Series, which hosts live events several times a year around the world. The two versions differ in their hand rankings; both rank a flush higher than a full house, but the Triton variant retains the primacy of a straight ahead of three-of-a-kind. The other version, spread on some online sites, ranks three-of-a-kind above a straight in an effort to keep rankings consistent with the relative frequencies of the made hands. To add to the confusion, Pokerstars has chosen to call its Short Deck offering, “6+ Holdem”,  whilst retaining the hand rankings from the Triton variant!

5-card poker hands are usually ranked inversely to the probability of making such a 5-card hand. With a Short Deck, the probability of making a given 5-card hand with a random starting hand is as shown below. Notice that straights occur significantly more frequently than three-of-a-kind in Short Deck Holdem.

5-Card Hand TypeShort Deck Probability
Straight Flush0.11%
Quads0.57%
Flush2.12%
Full House7.59%
Straight14.14%
Trips7.25%
Two Pair38.3%
One Pair27.74%
No Pair2.81%

The process of choosing the best 5-card hand rankings to use for a Short Deck game is not trivial. The table above shows that two pair occurs more frequently than one pair, yet one has to consider that a Short Deck board will pair 66% of the time by the river, compared to only 49% for the Full Deck cousin. This is not as inconsistent as it may initially seem; if the board remains unpaired by the river, then the probability of making a natural two pair is only 6.2% whilst the probability of making exactly one pair is 14.5%. Reversing the order of one pair and two pair to fall in line with the ‘obvious’ natural frequencies would have all kinds of bizarre consequences, not least that your AA could get cracked by a high card simply by virtue of the board pairing!

For the remainder of this article, we are going to focus our analysis on this more popular variant of Short Deck Poker, known as Triton Holdem. We move now to a discussion of the influence of the ante structure on proper strategic play.

How Antes Dictate Short Deck Poker Strategy

Rather than the blind structure that we commonly associate with community card poker games, Short Deck poker uses a unique ante structure, which sees every player at the table post an ante, followed by a button straddle. The player to the left of the button, who I will refer to as #1 to avoid ambiguity, is the first person to act pre-flop.

This ante structure has a dramatic impact on the play of the game. In a 6-handed Short Deck game, the player in the #1 seat is being offered 7:1 on his pre-flop call. This compares extremely favourably with the 3:2 offered on a pre-flop call in a typical blind structure game. Open-limping goes from being the strategic pariah of the Full Deck game to an essential component of Short Deck strategy. Even players new to the game quickly learn that it is necessary to protect their limping hands against raises by including some very strong hands, such as AA,KK, or AK to limp-reraise.

The most important effect of this ante structure is to guarantee that Short Deck includes a large number of multiway pots, with a very diverse set of pre-flop scenarios, and hence plausible ranges, taking place in any given session. A blind structure game would be very susceptible to computational methods, and would quickly lose its lustre as experienced No Limit players could develop an edge using similar methods to the Full Deck game. With my team I have developed a suite of software tools to aid my research into the game, and the complexity inherent to multiway pots means that my skill in framing problems and using analytical methods is not overshadowed by the machine, but complemented by it.

It is easy to overlook another distinct feature of this ante structure, namely that whenever one opens with a raise one is forced to play out of position post-flop (this is why I chose to call the player first to act pre-flop #1, rather than UTG). This makes the position of every player other than the button far more disadvantageous than in the Full Deck game, and serves to increase the power of the button’s position proportionately. The only way to play in position post-flop from a seat other than the button is to isolate limpers. In theory, this factor should be a powerful suppressor on the frequency with which players enter the pot from early seats, despite the exceedingly favourable pot odds. However in practice, in almost any Short Deck game that you can find, live or online, most players at the table find those odds too sweet to pass up with even the weakest starting hands.

On that note, let’s wrap up this strategic analysis with a brief study of Short Deck Poker starting hands.

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Starting Hand Equity in Short Deck Poker

You may have heard that starting hand equities run closer in Short Deck Holdem, likely from the mouth of a well-known pro, but that description is a little deceptive.

It is true that only 7 unique starting hands have greater than 60% equity against a random hand in Short Deck Holdem (those hands are TT+,AK,AxQx), which compares unfavourably with the 31 unique starting hands (55+,Ax5x+,Ax9y+,Kx9x+,KxJy+,QxJx) that do so in No Limit Holdem… in absolute terms. However those 31 starting hands in No Limit account for 8.45% of all starting hands and the 7 Short Deck hands account for 7.94% of all starting hands. So much of your recalibration in Short Deck derives from the reduced starting hand pool increasing the frequency with which you get dealt any given hand.

You will be dealt AA/KK 1.9% of the time, and KK+ has a 72% equity advantage against a pair of Jacks. Such numbers feel more than comfortable for the many PLO players who read my work, who are used to holding non-trip AAxx 2.5% of the time and consider a 60% pre-flop advantage as solid.

What really makes Short Deck an action game is the combination of player’s unfamiliarity with any given situation, and the sheer number of multiway pots. I’m not going to turn this article into an extensive treatise on starting hand quality by context (for that you need to apply for private consulting) but I will share one of the most dramatic changes in hand strength when you switch game.

Pocket pairs deteriorate in value as they decrease in rank much more quickly in Triton Hold’em than in No Limit Hold’em. The table below compares the equity for a given rank pair against a constrained, top 14% range between No Limit and Short Deck.

HandNo Limit Holdem Equity vs 14%vrShort Deck Holdem Equity vs 14%vr
A♠A85%76%
K♠K73.5%60%
Q♠Q67.5%52.5%
J♠J62.5%46.5%
T♠T58%43%
9♠953.5%40%
8♠850.5%38.5%
7♠747.5%36.5%
6♠645%34.5%

Pocket pairs represent a real trap for players new to the Short Deck game and, if you identify a player consistently overvaluing such hands, then be sure to isolate him with large raises pre-flop with your strong range. The occasional successful set mine will not compensate for the consistency with which his pairs are dominated by your own.

That concludes our first pass over the Short Deck Poker landscape, and I hope that you appreciated the view! If you enjoyed this article and want to dive deeper into Short Deck Strategy, then read The Smart Player’s Introduction to Short Deck Holdem next.