Full Ring vs. Shorthanded and Positional Protection

Many players at small stakes begin with full ring games as opposed to short-handed games. There are a lot of psychological reasons behind this—full ring games promote a more conservative, safe strategy, while short-handed games are more wild, loose, and aggressive. However, the tangible differences between a full-ring game and a 6-max are often overstated.

I was having a conversation with a really solid player about preflop raising ranges on the button.
I asked him, “How does your preflop raising range on the button change if it’s a six-handed game versus a three-handed game?” He looked at me like I was an idiot. “The button is just the button,” he said. Of course. If you’re playing in a 9-handed table, and then the first three players to act all fold, there is no theoretical difference between your table and a 6-max table. Imagine playing a 6-max game where the dealer throws away six cards before he deals everyone in—in theory, it’s exactly the same.

In practice, though, it’s not exactly the same. Not because we should change our raising ranges dramatically between 6-max and full ring; rather, I think we can play significantly looser than the commonly accepted super-tight strategies that are most usually applied in full-ring. There are a few reasons why we can afford to play loosely in a full ring game:

 If we’re called by bad players, that’s fine. As long as our skill advantage compensates for our lack in card and positional advantage, we’ll make money. Bad players are predictable enough to feel comfortable playing loosely against them, even out of position.

 If we’re called by “good” players, it’s actually better for us in full ring than it is in 6-max. In 6- max, our range is perceived to be very wide. Therefore, good regulars are likely to bluff-raise us often, float often, and generally make it difficult to play profitably OOP. In full-ring, on the other hand, our range is perceived to be tighter (this is simply the game dynamic of full ring). Thus, both our c-bets and 2-barrels are more effective, which means we’re beating “good” players by playing loosely.

Obviously we don’t want to get carried away. Raising A9o UTG in a 9-handed game is relatively suicidal.* That said, understanding the way that perceived ranges change is vital to exploiting the differences between shorthanded and full-ring games. In one of my videos, I say that I’d prefer to have KQs UTG in a full ring game than 44, simply because our opponents are trying to beat our perceived range—big pairs. This means they’re going for 2-pair or better. A set of fours, unfortunately, usually only beats two-pair when stacks go in. We’re often behind higher sets, straights, and flushes. Also, when 44 misses, it lacks equity to effectively bluff or semibluff on the flop and turn. KQs, on the other hand, usually makes the best flush. It always makes the best straight. And it often has enough equity to continue aggression and make a lot of 1-pair hands fold on the turn. The difference is clear—in a 6-max game, the perceived ranges are looser, so a set of 4’s gets paid off by all kinds of 1-pair hands, draws, even pure bluffs. In a full-ring game, the perceived images are tighter, so a set of 4’s gets coolered by a set of 6’s while KQs coolers 78s.

Another vital factor that differentiates 6-max and Full Ring play is the change in emphasis on positional protection.

Positional Protection means the manipulation of perceived ranges to protect the value of your hand preflop. For example, if we raise UTG in a 9-handed game, we are incredibly unlikely to be 3-bet lightly. This is because our perceived range for raising in that position will generally be extremely tight. This means that raising a hand like ATs, J9s, or even 67s has a lot of extra value, as these are hands that we often fold to light 3-bets in a more aggressive 6-max setting. So, we can make looser opens when we have positional protection because we get to see a lot more flops.

By the same token, we can also make looser calls. In a 6-max game, let’s say that an aggressive regular raises in the CO and we have 96s on the button. This is often a fold, in large part due to the possibility of a squeeze from the blinds. However, if someone raises UTG in a Full Ring game, we can count on their positional protection to keep us from getting squeezed out of the pot. This allows us to play more hands profitably in position.

Positional protection exists in a 6-max setting as well, but it’s less prevalent. If a good regular raises UTG, I’ll often call a wide range in MP because he’s still somewhat unlikely to be 3-bet lightly due to his position, and given the table dynamic situation I could easily have flat-called a strong hand like JJ or QQ (even KK, AK, or AA are in my range for calling preflop there), and thus I can count on people being less likely to 3-bet lightly against two players with potentially strong hands.

In short, Full-Ring play isn’t too much different than 6-max play. The existence of three extra players is usually irrelevant, as players play extremely tightly from those positions and, when they fold, we’re just playing 6-max anyway. The significant difference is one of context—the tighter context of Full Ring means that we play back more tightly to aggression but also that we open our game more widely until we face aggression back at us. Being able to adjust through different contexts is critical to understanding poker in any setting, whether 6-max, Full Ring, or Heads Up.

*Probably the easiest way to explain that A9o is a fold is by adding up the likelihood of somebody having a much better hand than us—7% of hands roughly describes how many hands crush A9o. When you consider that there are eight people left to act, you’ll see that there’s about a 56% chance of us being badly dominated. Of course, this doesn’t even take into consideration hands which are coin-flipping with us equity-wise.

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