Within the no limit hold'em games offered by online poker rooms three forms can be distinguished: full ring, shorthanded and heads-up games. Shorthanded games are the games played at tables with a maximum of usually six ('6-max') and sometimes five seats while full ring games are played with a maximum of nine or ten players. A game with only two players is called a heads-up match. Because heads-up games are not very common at the micro stakes they will not be discussed in this article. At first the difference between the other two forms, full ring and shorthanded, might not seem at all that big. It will be apparent that with fewer players hands play out more quickly and because of this you'll see more hands in the same timeframe. Besides the speed of the game, there are some other differences as well which will be explored in this article.
It probably won't come as a surprise that with more players at the table the chance of someone holding a premium hand, or at least a better hand than yours, will increase. And to that you will have to adjust your strategy. Positional awareness is key here. Some say that shorthanded games play the same as the last five or six positions in full ring games. Although I don't believe this is entirely true, this rule of thumb shows that early position in full ring games does not compare to any of the positions in shorthanded games. Being tight and strict with your starting hand selection here is very important. A hand like AJ in the first position pre-flop ('under the gun' or UTG) is not a very profitable hand in full ring games. A commonly accepted range of profitable hands would be something like AQ+ and 88+, meaning that you only play the strongest aces and medium pairs and up as a starting point. In shorthanded games (6 players) this range would look more like AT+ and all pairs.
The reason why I think that the last 5 or 6 positions in a full ring game do not play the same as shorthanded games is because you have to adapt to the very tight hand ranges of early position players here (that is, if your opponents are positionally aware). On top of that the overall playing style of your opponents is very likely to be different; both full ring and shorthanded poker attract their own breed of players so to speak. Full ring games at the micro stakes tend to be tighter, more passive games, whereas in shorthanded games aggressive plays like 3-betting, squeeze plays and blind steals are much more common. More blinds have to be paid for the same number of hands and therefore the incentive to play less strong starting hands will be higher resulting in looser games and wider ranges. Post flop play will generally be more complicated in shorthanded games with the wider hand ranges and relying on the strength of your own hand becomes less important. Instead you will be relying more on reading the board correctly, taking advantage of initiative and reading your opponent.
Does all this make shorthanded play more difficult than full ring games? Not necessarily, but it will require a more developed understanding of basic poker strategy fundamentals. Shorthanded games on the other hand also offer the ability to play more hands against the fish; the ability to 'pick your target and milk it'. This can lead to very profitable sessions and if you're good at game selection, playing shorthanded might even result in a higher win rate for you. However, shorthanded play might expose you to a lot more variance because of the looser games than playing full ring poker. Multi-tabling full ring games will be easier than shorthanded games. This could result in a higher hourly rate (including faster clearing bonuses when playing more tables) even when your win rate would be lower than in shorthanded games.
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For beginning poker players it would be sensible to start learning the game at the full ring tables. Here you will encounter less difficult situations and you can take it easy without blinding your chips away as fast as you would in shorthanded games. After learning the game the choice to either play full ring or shorthanded online poker games is a very personal one and there's also no rule saying you can't play both. Shorthanded games are faster, looser and more aggressive than full ring games. They might result in a higher win rate for you, but they can also bring more variance than you are able to emotionally deal with. A common strategy of many players is to play shorthanded as their main game, and to play full ring for a change or when things aren't going all too well in the shorthanded games. Play the game you feel comfortable with and enjoy. That probably also is the game with which you will win the most in the end.