6-max (or 6-handed) poker is by far the most popular format of online cash game.
Full-ring (or 9-handed) games are rare or absent from most online poker sites because 6-max games have replaced them.
Skilled regulars prefer 6-max because of the increased hands per hour, and the removal of the three tightest positions (UTG, UTG1 and UTG2) means more opportunities to play pots with weak, passive players. Fewer tight positions is also the reason many recreational players prefer 6-max–they get to spend less time folding and see more flops.
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 can’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):
- What is 6-max poker?
- Open-raising ranges and strategy
- Calling raises and 3-betting
- How to play from the blinds
- Tips for postflop play in 6-handed games
Let’s hop to it.
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)
While there are 6-max tournaments, the format is most commonly a cash game, which is what we will be focusing on here today.
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.
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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):
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.
Our raise-first-in (RFI) 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.
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. We should exploit our opponents whenever possible, and modifying which hands we open is a good way to do this. For example, at a table where all players are playing tight and conservative, we should expand our opening ranges to play looser and pick up uncontested pots. On the other hand, if we have an extremely aggressive player to our left who are constantly 3-betting us, we should use ranges that are tighter than those outlined above. This gives us a stronger set of poker hands that play easier against raises.
- 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 our edge post-flop. 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 by playing more hands against bad players, and narrow it by playing only strong hands against good players.
In games with particularly high rake, there is a good argument to be made for playing a slightly narrower range of hands. Rake is usually taken only when a flop is seen, so you can avoid rake by playing fewer hands preflop. Plus, 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, we should raise a size between 2.25 and 3 times the big blind (BB).
A smaller size gives our opponents a great price to call, which want to avoid because it is more difficult to win multi-way pots. On the other hand, raising much larger than 3BB makes our open’s pot odds worse, forcing us to tighten our range (theoretically, at least).
An exception to this rule is when we’re in the small blind, where a larger size (between 3 and 4BB) should be used. This is because the player in the big blind has position and money already committed to the pot. Both incentivize him to defend very liberally, which we want to prevent. We can’t do anything about our positional disadvantage, but we 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 tool when done right. There are a number of reasons to 3-bet preflop:
For Value. Re-raising with our strongest hands allows us to build a pot and extract value from weaker hands that our 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 our 3-betting range allows us to keep our range balance and prevent our opponents from realizing their equity. If we only 3-bet with nutted hands, our opponents could exploit us by folding almost every time we 3-bet. When our last opponent folds, we win the entire pot even if our hand had only, say 60% equity to win. In this example, we denied our opponent 40% (his equity) of the pot.
To Isolate. When we 3-bet, we decrease the likelihood of a multi-way pot. This is in our interest, as the equity of our 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:
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):
Now, let’s take a look at a loose range (BTN vs CO raise):
In the HJ vs. LJ raise range, the HJ player has only 34 combos that are always raised for value (QQ+, AKs, AKo). In the BTN vs. CO RFI chart, the player on the BTN has more than twice the number of combos in their 3-bet value range (TT+, AJs+, KQs, AQo+). This wider value range allows the BTN to 3-bet more bluffs as well.
Note: Watch Andres “educa-poker” Artinano analyze his top 25 biggest pots in the Play & Explain section of Elite Cash Game Mastery. Learn more below.
Here’s a few rules of thumb to consider when facing a raise:
- If your hand is too weak to raise with but clearly too strong to fold, then 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, such as suited and connected hands, function well as 3-bet bluffs. (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.
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, especially against a loose range, your pot odds and hand may warrant a calling range.
The reason to 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.
Here’s an article with some small blind-related tips from Ryan Fee.
Big blind vs raise strategy for 6-handed
The player in the big blind is in a unique position for having 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 an many player 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.
Tips for postflop play in 6-handed poker games
Postflop 6-max strategy is something that takes years to master, but I’ve gathered 4 simple tips you can follow to 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. 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’ll of course run into some opponents who fold too much and situations that warrant bluffs. But you should be cautious 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 metal 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 hero 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 in these spots unless you’ve got a very strong hand.
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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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