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6-max poker strategy

The Ultimate Guide to 6-Handed Poker | 6-Max Cash Game Strategy

6-max (or 6-handed) poker games are by far the most popular online cash game format. They’re so popular, in fact, that they’ve almost completely replaced full-ring (or 9-handed) games on most online poker sites.

If you want to become a successful online cash game player, having a strong 6-max game is mandatory. If you’re a tournament and/or live player, it won’t hurt your win-rate to bolster your short-handed skills.

Here is what we’ll cover in this article (click to skip to that section):

We’re about to dive deep into 6-max strategy. You may want to bookmark the page so you don’t have to read the full guide in one sitting.

Let’s get to it.

This guide has been updated to include more important advice for 6-max cash games (originally published 12/20/2017)

What is 6-Max Poker?

Put simply, 6-max is a format that allows a maximum of six players to be seated at the table. Traditional ‘full-ring’ games, by contrast, allow up to 9 players.

This means that the positions from which we play the tightest — UTG (Under the Gun), UTG+1 and UTG+2 — no longer exist in 6-max; the positions are as follows:

  • Lowjack (LJ)
  • Hijack (HJ)
  • Cut-Off (CO)
  • Button (BTN)
  • Small Blind (SB)
  • Big Blind (BB)

With three fewer players, 6-max just feels looser than full-ring poker. The result is a larger average pot size, a higher percentage of players seeing flops, and more hands per hour. These reasons are why both skilled professionals and recreational players prefer 6-max — they get to spend less time folding and more time playing hands.

While there are 6-max tournaments, the format is most commonly a cash game, which is what we will be focusing on here today.

6-Max Starting Hand Range Charts 

Solid poker strategy begins with good preflop hand selection. Having well-structured ranges will lead to fewer tough spots and more profitable ones. 

Here are 6-handed preflop charts for every position at the table (starting from the LJ) from the Upswing Lab:

6-max poker raising ranges

Click here to enlarge the image or you can save it to your device.

You can see that our range of raising hands gets wider as we move around the table. This is because, with fewer players left to act behind us, we are more likely to win the blinds with our raise and less likely to run into a strong hand.

Your opening range is at its widest from the small blind because there is only one player between us and the 1.5BB in the pot. However, limping with a wide range can also be a reasonable strategy from the small blind, especially against a tough opponent who might punish our wide opening range with 3-bets and floats.

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When to Adjust Your Preflop Ranges

Starting hand charts like the ones above are a great guideline — but they aren’t set in stone. Successful poker players adjust their ranges regularly based on a number of factors, including but not limited to these three:

  • Opponents’ tendencies/specific reads

Your opponents’ tendencies are the main determinant of how you should adjust your opening ranges. You should exploit your opponents whenever possible, and modifying which hands you open is a good way to do this.

For example, at a table where all players are playing tight and conservative, you should loosen your opening ranges so you can pick up more uncontested pots. On the other hand, if you have an extremely aggressive player to your left who is constantly 3-betting you, you should play tighter the ranges outlined above. This gives you a stronger set of poker hands that are easier to play against 3-bets.

  • Skill Level of Competition

You can get away with playing a wider range of hands when you have an edge over your opponents. Playing more hands means more opportunities to exercise your edge postflop. Likewise, if you are playing at a table with very strong opponents, it’s reasonable to tighten up your ranges. The idea is to widen the skill gap against bad players by playing more hands and to narrow it against good players by playing stronger hands.

  • Rake

In games with particularly high rake, there is a good argument to be made for playing a slightly narrower range of hands. Marginal hands that are on the cusp of being break-even can become slightly losing when rake is considered.

The Perfect 6-Handed Open-Raising Size

When open-raising, you should raise to a size between 2.25 and 3 times the big blind (BB).

A smaller size gives your opponents a great price to call, which you want to avoid because it is more difficult to win multiway pots. On the other hand, raising much larger than 3BB makes your own price worse, forcing you to tighten your range (theoretically, at least).

An exception to this rule is when you’re in the small blind, where a larger size (between 3BB and 4BB) should be used. This is because the player in the big blind has position and money already committed to the pot, both of which incentivize him to defend very loosely. You can’t do anything about your positional disadvantage, but you can make his pot odds worse with larger open-raise sizes.

You may have noticed that the big blind is absent from the ranges above; that’s on purpose. We’ll talk about big blind defense shortly.

Understanding 3-Betting is Crucial to 6-Max Success

3-betting is a powerful and highly profitable tactic when done right. There are a number of reasons to 3-bet preflop:

For Value. Re-raising with your strongest hands allows you to build a pot and extract value from weaker hands that your opponent will call with. Many inexperienced players slow-play with their strong hands too often, but fast-playing is usually the optimal route.

As a Bluff. Including bluffs in your 3-betting range allows you to keep your range balanced and prevent your opponents from realizing their equity. If you only 3-bet with nutted hands, your opponents could exploit you simply by folding almost every time you 3-bet. When your last opponent folds, you win the entire pot, even if your hand had only, say 60% equity to win. In this example, we denied our opponent 40% (his equity) of the pot.

To Isolate. When you 3-bet, you decrease the likelihood of a multiway pot. This is in your interest, as the equity of your hand diminishes with every additional player who enters the pot. For example, AA is 85% to win against one player holding a random hand, but in a pot against four other players with random hands, AA is only a marginal favorite:

6-max aa vs random hands

AA drops to just 55.93% equity vs 4 random hands

3-betting to isolate will usually result in a heads-up pot against the original raiser. Against a fish who open-raises (or limps), you can isolate them with a 3-bet (or raise) and take advantage of their weaknesses postflop.

Calling and 3-Betting Ranges in 6-Max Poker

6-max calling ranges and 6-max 3-betting ranges vary more than opening ranges. The larger discrepancy is because calling and 3-betting ranges are heavily influenced by the position and tendencies of the original raiser.

In general, the tighter the open-raising range, the tighter the calling or 3-betting range should be, and vice versa. Let’s compare a tight range to a loose range to highlight this difference. First, the tight range (HJ vs LJ raise):

6-max hijack vs lojack range

Now, let’s take a look at a loose range (BTN vs CO raise):

6-max button vs cutoff range

As you can see, the BTN’s value range is much wider than the HJ’s value range. This wider value range allows the BTN to 3-bet more bluffs as well.

Here are a few rules of thumb to consider when facing a raise:

  • If your hand is too weak to 3-bet with but clearly too strong to fold, you should probably call.
  • Consider 3-bet bluffing with hands that seem slightly too weak to play (break-even or slightly losing calls are usually perfect choices).
  • Hands with good playability when called function well as 3-bet bluffs, such as suited and connected hands. (This has the added benefit of improving your board coverage, which is a generally overrated but still relevant concept.)

These rules of thumb apply to all positions, but there’s even more to consider when facing an open-raise from the blinds.

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Small Blind vs Raise Strategy for 6-Handed

When you’re in the small blind facing a raise, you should lean towards 3-betting your entire continue range unless the raise is very small. Against a small raise from a player with a loose range, your pot odds and hand may warrant a call.

The reason you should mostly 3-bet is to mitigate your positional disadvantage. If your opponent calls, you will then head to the flop with a range advantage and the initiative, which makes out-of-position play easier.

Further reading on small blind play: 6 Steps to Stop Bleeding Chips from the Small Blind.

Big Blind vs Raise Strategy for 6-Handed

The player in the big blind is in a unique position, having already committed 1BB to the pot. This gives them a “discounted” price to call when facing a raise. This is why you can call from the big blind with a very wide range of hands compared to other positions.

You can be especially loose against raises from players in the small blind since you will enjoy a positional advantage postflop. Given that many players will attempt to steal (or limp) at a high frequency from the small blind, you will get to play versus a wide range in position — a recipe for a high win-rate.

Now that we’ve covered the major aspects of preflop play, let’s move to postflop.

6-Max Postflop Play

This aspect of the game is much more complex, and you will forever find something new to improve on. In fact it’s so complex that even the strongest supercomputers in the world haven’t been able to produce a perfect GTO strategy.

In this section, we’ll take a look at the most common plays in the game, and then we’ll discuss how to approach each one.

C-Betting

If you’re an experienced poker player or fan, you’re likely already familiar with this fundamental tactic.

A c-bet (short for ‘continuation bet’) is a bet made by the last aggressor from the prior street. This section will cover the strategy behind c-betting and how you should react to your opponents’ c-bets.

We’ll start with how to approach c-betting on the flop, both in position and out of position (there’s a big difference between the two).

C-Betting on the Flop: In Position

In position, you have a massive advantage for the rest of the hand as you get to act last on each street. Consequently, you will be able to value bet and bluff more effectively.

There are multiple strategies that, if executed correctly, work from in position:

  • You can choose to bet small with a higher frequency and merged range.

This betting strategy works best on dry, disconnected flops (such as A♣️ 9♠ 5♣️, Q♦️ Q 6♣️, J♦️-6♠ 2). This approach works because the out of position player will have a hard time continuing with enough of his range, and your bluffs will profit greatly as a result.

  • You can choose to bet big with a lower frequency and a more polarized range.

This betting strategy is usually best on wet, connected flops (such as Q♠ J♠ 8♣️, 9♦️ 8♣️ 7, etc.). Why? Because the out of position player will have a lot of hands to continue with, and you want to give him the worst pot odds possible while still forcing him to continue with those hands.

You can be a bit more liberal with your value bets in position. Hands like top pair with a good kicker should be bet for value on a wet board. On the dry boards, where you want to use a smaller c-bet size, you can bet all of your pairs for thin value and protection.

You should still bluff with hands that have a chance to improve on the turn or river (draws and backdoor draws).

C-Betting on the Flop: Out of Position

You’ll generally want to play a defensive strategy when out of position, betting fewer hands than you would in position. This is because you’ll be at an informational disadvantage throughout the hand, being first to act on every street.

You should mainly c-bet on the flop with hands that can comfortably bet 3 streets for value (on most run outs), plus some bluffs that have a chance to improve to a strong hand on the turn or river. Your betting range should be quite narrow in these spots, and it’s usually best to play a mixed strategy — sometimes betting, sometimes checking — with your strong hands.

Why is playing defensively so important when out of position? Because your opponent will almost always have a strong, condensed range of hands when they call a raise in position. You have to pick your spots carefully when betting into such a range.

For example, on a board like K♠ 9♦️ 6♣️, your c-betting strategy should look something like this:

  • Value range: 66, 99, K9
  • Mixed strategy: AK
  • Bluff range: QJ, QT, JT, 87s

Hands that may seem like slam-dunk value bets, like KQ, should be checked in order to protect your range. 

If the board is lower, like T♣️ 5♦️ 3♣️, your c-betting range should look something like this:

  • Value range: 55, 33
  • Mixed strategy: AT, JJ, QQ, KK, AA
  • Bluff range: 76s, J9s, QJ

Further reading on flop c-betting: How to Print Money with Your Flop C-Bets In and Out of Position.

C-Betting on the Turn (aka ‘Double Barreling’)

Once your flop c-bet is called, you should double barrel on the turn with a polarized range containing both value bets and bluffs.

Choosing your value bets on a brick turn is the easy part: simply bet with the same strong hands that you bet on the flop. If the turn card is not a brick, you’ll have to re-evaluate your value range and bet with your new strongest hands (e.g. you should not continue betting with K♥ 9 on a board of 9♠ 8♠ 4 Q♠).

You should generally bet gutshots, straight draws, and flush draws as bluffs while giving up with other non-made hands (such as backdoor draws that missed on the turn). However, when the board is dry and drawless, you will need to get a bit creative with your bluffs. For example, on T-3-3-4, you could bluff with hands like QJ/J9 while continuing to value bet normally.

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Playing Versus C-Bets on the Flop

The way you should play against flop c-bets depends heavily on both players’ ranges, the bet size, and whether or not you are in position.

Pay close attention to your opponent’s c-bet size and what it might mean for his strategy. If he bets big, his range is likely polarized and you should expect him to double barrel aggressively. If he bets small, his range is likely merged and you should expect him to check back on the turn often. 

Pop quiz: Against which range should you raise the flop more often: merged or polarized? Click “Show answer” when you’re ready.

Here are a few general guidelines for playing versus c-bets on the flop:

  • You should play looser when in position and tighter when out of position.
  • When out of position, you should check-raise with a range comprised of very strong hands and some draws (gutshots, straight draws, etc.) unless the flop is very favorable for your opponent’s range.
  • Continue with hands that will be playable on turns. Think about which and how many turn cards will allow you to call another bet with your hand. If there aren’t very many, consider folding on the flop. For example, even though 33 will often have your c-betting opponent beat on J94, you should still lean towards folding because you only have 2 outs to improve.

Playing Versus C-Bets on the Turn

Most of the concepts from the flop still apply on the turn, but you can play a bit more exploitatively in a couple of important ways.

First, you can make big folds or lighter calls based on how many natural semi-bluffs are in your opponent’s range. For example:

  • On a draw-heavy board like J♠ 9 5♠ 4, you can expect your opponent to be bluffing fairly often with one of the many possible draws, so you can make some lighter calls versus a bet.
  • On a dry board like K♠ 8♦️ 2♣️ 2, your opponent would have to get creative in order to be bluffing and, since most players aren’t very creative, you can make some big folds versus a bet.

You can also call much looser on the turn if you know your opponent is not aggressive on the river (which is the case for most players). If he’s not going to put you to the test with your medium-strength hands on the river, you can comfortably call with them on the turn and expect to get to showdown relatively often.

Probing on the Turn

A probe bet is when you are out of position and bet into a player who had an opportunity to c-bet on the prior street but didn’t. Probing is only possible on the turn or river.

As a general guideline, you want to probe bet as a bluff with equity driven hands that don’t have showdown value, such as gutshots, straight draws, and flush draws. If your draw does have showdown value (such as ace-high or a pair), it’s usually better to check-call (or even check-raise). Keeping a few draws in your checking range has the added benefit of making your strategy more robust, allowing you to show up with unexpectedly strong hands on the river.

In cases where the board doesn’t have many possible draws, you can expand your bluffing range to include slightly weaker hands. For example, on T-7-2-2 you might bet QJ, which still has outs to improve to what will likely be the best hand on the river.

You should then balance that range with an appropriate, polarized, value betting range, with which you are looking to double barrel very frequently. However, avoid going lower than second-pair top kicker, as you hand will become too weak to barrel for value on the river.

Further reading on probing: How to Play Turns When the Preflop Raiser Checks Back.

Delayed C-Betting

A delayed c-bet is a bet by the preflop aggressor after the action checked through on the previous street(s). It’s an underused and often misunderstood play, but it will help you to win more pots and avoid tough spots. 

The exact delayed c-bet strategy you should implement is heavily dependant on your flop strategy. As a general guideline, you should delay c-bet bluff with an equity-driven range (just as you do for probing), which is made of gutshots, straight draws, and flush draws. And, again, avoid betting with these hands if they have showdown value.

As with probing, you will want to polarize your delayed c-bet range with strong middle pairs and better for value. You’ll usually be able to bet for value again with these hands on the river as well.

Note that delayed c-bet bluffing is a very effective play against most players since they’ve already shown a lot of weakness by checking twice. Few players are savvy enough to include strong hands in their range after checking twice, so you can attack them relentlessly (you don’t even need any equity — you can fire a delay with two random cards).

Further reading on this under-studied play: How to Win More Money with Delayed C-Bets.

Tips for Postflop Play in Low Stakes 6-Max

Postflop 6-max strategy is something that takes years to master, but these 4 quick tips will help you get started on the right track. These were primarily crafted to exploit leaks that are common at the lower limits:

Value bet often and thinly. The best way to win in 6-max games is to value bet heavily with your strong holdings because the most prevalent leak in weaker games is that players love to call. They just can’t help it. This makes betting for value more profitable than it would otherwise be, and slow-playing much less effective. Don’t be afraid to bet on the larger side, too—bad players will often decide they are going to call a bet before they even see what size it is. While you shouldn’t size up too much in tougher games since good players notice sizing tells, you can get away with doing so at softer tables.

Bluff with caution when your opponent has already put significant money in the pot. Since weaker player pools are characterized by a love to call, consistently going for huge bluffs isn’t a great idea. This is not to say that you should never bluff — you should absolutely still attack weak ranges and/or weak players. But you pick your bluff spots carefully against most players at the lower limits.

Take thorough notes and categorize your opponents. If you’re playing on a site where you can tag players and write notes, this is worth doing anytime you can. (You’ll have to settle for a notepad or mental notes if you’re a live player.) It’s important to learn new information about other players in your player pool. It’ll allow you to quickly profile your opponents and adjust your strategy to exploit them. If you’re up against a calling station, for example, you should bluff less since they’re not likely to fold. Or if you’re facing a nit who folds too much, you should be apt to empty the clip.

Don’t make many big calls on the river. Another tendency common in soft 6-max games is that aggression on the river is usually value-heavy. Players at these stakes rarely fire triple-barrel bluffs, so a good adjustment is folding slightly more than normal against river bets. Likewise, an opponent’s raise on the river is almost always going to be a nutted hand. Avoid calling light in these spots unless your opponent has many missed draws in his range.

Further reading on exploiting weak players: Crush Live Poker Games with These 8 Battle-Tested Tactics. (Don’t let the title fool you — these tactics work versus micro stakes online players too.)

Got any article topic suggestions? We’d love to hear them.

Drop them in the comments below.

If you’re looking to improve 6-max poker tournament strategy, I’d recommend starting with this article on big blind defense — a crucial part of 6-max tournaments.

Until next time!

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