Playing in short-handed cash (non-tournament) poker games

Highly regarded poker columnist Diane McHaffie (“Lessons from Mike Caro University of Poker”) recently presented her perspective on playing in short-handed cash (non-tournament) poker games.
I much respect Diane and always enjoy reading her columns. A short-handed game (sometimes called a “short game”) occurs when there is less than a full table of nine (sometimes 10) active players. Personally, since I play for recreation (Although the more I win, the more fun it is!), I don’t mind if the table gets down to 7 – even 6. Anything less is not for me, nor is it for many other hold’em players.
I have seen games break up with five players because many people are opposed to such short-handed games. Some will take a break. Others will gather their chips and leave the table. (That’s their prerogative, and I can’t blame them.)
Diane cites several interesting reasons why she favors short-handed games:
• With fewer players, you are involved in more pots; and hence have more opportunities to win.
• It’s easier to develop a relationship and manipulate your opponents.
• More money will flow your way with fewer opponents.
She also offers a caution with which I fully agree: Some casinos often employ “prop players” who they use to fill in vacant seats. Problem here is props usually sit back and avoid getting involved except with top starting hands and fold if they do not connect on the flop. They barely participate in the game.
It’s best to avoid having props at your table, she warns. Diane makes a good point. Props tend to be “poker sharks” and very tight, to the disadvantage of the other players. What’s more, by adding the prop player, the casino usually avoids reducing the drop by one chip per hand; so it costs the players a corresponding extra amount.
My perspective: Diane offers her reasons for favoring short games. She is entitled to her opinion. But I do not agree these games are best for the players – at least in brick and mortar casinos. Short-handed is fine in a home game where there is no drop (or rake).
The casinos where I play, rake chips from the pot every hand regardless of how many players are involved. At some casinos, if only two players stay to see the flop, they usually “chop the pot” – take back their bets, ending the hand. But the casino still rakes one chip.
You might say, “Hey, it’s only one chip. What’s the big deal?” Consider that short-handed games are faster; there could well be 40 or more hands dealt per hour. Taking $40 out of the game every hour of short-handed play is a huge penalty for the remaining players, especially in low-limit games.
What’s even more onerous, the blinds come around much faster in short games. With four or five players, you can expect to be in the blind twice as often as in a full nine-handed game. Considering the majority of hands dealt to you are not decent starters just adds to your “cost to play.”
Furthermore, with fewer players at the table, the pots are bound to be much smaller. Casinos attempt to allow for that by reducing the drop somewhat. That does help, but it doesn’t make up for the smaller pots nor the players’ additional investments and cost to play.
Of course, there is no harm in playing short-handed games online when the games are free, as is often the case today. Diane’s suggestion there makes good sense. And it also applies to home games where there is no rake.
I have to disagree with playing in short games in B&M casinos. I’m not sure whether the casinos “earn” more or less chips in short-handed games, but I do know it costs the players much more than they can expect to win.

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