Multi-Way vs. Heads-Up Pots: Five Key Strategic Differences
In most no-limit hold’em tournaments or cash games, if players are following typically sound preflop strategy and are selective with their starting hand selection, the majority of hands will be heads-up after the flop. A player will raise, another will call, and often just two are still around in the hand to see those first three community cards.
As a result most no-limit hold’em strategy regarding postflop play tends to focus on heads-up situations, since they occur more frequently than do multi-way pots with three or more players still involved after the flop. But there are certain contexts where multi-way pots will occur more often, such as in lower-stakes cash games, daily tournaments with inexpensive buy-ins, or even in higher buy-in games where the table happens to have a lot of players playing passively preflop.
Since multi-way pots do sometimes arise, it’s worth keeping in mind key strategic differences between dealing with several opponents as opposed to just one. Here are five of them — one from before the flop, and the others having to do with postflop play. The general theme running through all five items is how certain “creative” or less direct plays that you might try versus a single opponent may be less attractive when up against two or more opponents.
1. Starting hand selection in multi-way pots
As noted, preflop play more often results in heads-up situations after the flop. But sometimes you find things developing before the flop in a way that suggests you might get to see a flop with a group of players, such as when many have limped in before you, or when playing from the big blind and you can close the action by calling a raise that has gotten a few callers.
In multi-way pots, non-premium “big card” hands like or can create some headaches for you after the flop. While flopping the nut straight with such hands is nice, that is much less likely to happen than flopping a pair which can make things tricky to negotiate against several others. Holding and seeing a flop come with three other players in the hand can subsequently put you in an awkward spot, especially if others show interest with bets and raises going forward.
By contrast hands like suited connectors, suited aces, and small pocket pairs can play well against multiple opponents. Flopping a set with your small pocket pair is always an encouraging situation, while flopping a big draw and then pursuing it with favorable pot odds can be profitable as well. Think of being in a four-way hand and holding rather than when that flop comes .
2. Bluff and semi-bluff less often multi-way
Moving over to postflop, keep in mind that against more than one opponent, the need to make a hand obviously increases. A consequence of this is that it becomes more difficult to win without making such hands, and so generally speaking you should be less eager to bluff.
In situations where you were the preflop aggressor and get several callers, even a simple continuation bet may need to be avoided if you have missed the flop. Say you raise from late position with and get three callers, then are checked to following a flop. Against a single opponent the c-bet is probably in order, but against three opponents you might well be throwing away money with what is essentially a bluff versus a crowd.
Take another situation, say, where you flop a nut-flush draw when playing from the blinds with a suited ace. Heads-up you might lead or check-raise as a semi-bluff, but against multiple opponents you probably need to be more straightforward, check-calling instead.
3. Avoid slow playing versus multiple opponents
Slow playing represents another non-straightforward move that might work well heads-up, but against several players can be a recipe for disaster.
Say you have and a flop comes . Slow playing against a single opponent here (checking and/or calling with your set) can be risky, but potentially profitable. But against several opponents you open the door to big problems not betting or raising this flop, potentially allowing many draws (or backdoor draws) see a turn card cheaply.
When heads-up you can often narrow your opponent’s range in situations like this based on preflop play and previous reads, allowing you to assess whether just checking and/or calling with your bottom set might be the best way to extract the most value. But against multiple opponents slow playing — like other “fancy” or non-straightforward plays — is rarely warranted.
4. Don’t check-raise, make blocking bets, or float multi-way
Speaking of “fancy” plays, others like check-raising, making small blocking bets, or floating (i.e., calling with an intention to bluff on a later street) are also moves best set aside in the multi-way situation.
A check-raise can sometimes work, actually, to clear a field of opponents seemingly weak after the flop. Say you’re in the blinds, a preflop raiser in early position makes what various factors suggest to you is a less than confident continuation bet, and a couple of players call who also seem obviously on draws or with relatively weak holdings. A check-raise looks very strong here (whether for value or as a bluff), and sometimes the dynamic of having multiple opponents all worried about each other in such a spot can elicit folds all around.
But that’s a relatively rare scenario. Especially with a genuinely strong hand you’ll more likely want to bet now, not check and hope to be able to check-raise later.
5. Be mindful of better pot odds multi-way
When talking about starting hand selection above, it was noted how pot odds improve in multi-way pots, which can make suited connectors and small pairs attractive to play. With more players involved, pots are necessarily bigger, which often will make for some inviting pot odds after flopping draws.
There’s also an increased chance you’ll have better implied pot odds, too. With more opponents involved, if you make an especially strong hand (e.g., a set, a straight, a flush, or better), the chances go up that someone else will make a strong second-best hand and be willing to pay you off.
Considering the difference between heads-up versus multi-way pots, it’s a little like the difference between talking to one person or lecturing to a large group.
With one person you can be more subtle, perhaps joking around more and being less direct. You can also get a good idea how that person is hearing and interpreting what your saying, which helps you figure out how best to communicate as the conversation continues. But with a group you have to be clear and straightforward, sometimes keeping things on a general level so a wider audience can understand you. With a big group, it’s also harder to account for all of the different reactions you might evoke.
Similarly with multi-way pots it is usually better to avoid non-straightforward postflop plays, or at least remain aware they are often more risky to try than when heads-up. Meanwhile before the flop you can take chances getting in there with good drawing hands or small pairs that can reap big rewards in multi-way pots.