When you first play poker online, one of the first decisions you’re faced with is how many opponents you want to play against. There are a wide range of options (sometimes starting with “one”), but in general, your choices are five or eight. That is, you can be seated at a table of six (“6-max”) or nine (“9-max”).
This applies to both cash and tournament formats; 6-max ring games are more popular than 9-max, and people love to play 6-max Sit-n-Gos (SNGs).
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE?
This may not seem very helpful, but I’m going to make arguments for both formats. Then you decide. Good.
WHY PLAY 6-MAX?
You can make more decisions.
The way you win at poker is by making better decisions than your opponents. If you’re winning at poker, you must be making better decisions than the other guys. How can you increase that edge? Make more good decisions, obviously.
Well, in 6-max, you get to make more decisions. The hands go faster (fewer people to act), and you are in “advantageous” positions more frequently. In a 9-max game, we all get that one position to the left of the big blind—“Under The Gun” (UTG)—is a miserable place to be. But in 6-max, UTG is the position known as the “lo-jack” at a 9-max table; in either case, just three steps to the poker Mecca known as “the button.” So you have many more opportunities to play hands.
More hands, more good decisions, more profit.
Another way to look at it is this: when you play 9-max, there’s a lot more folding going on. Most players realize they need to play tighter in the early positions, particularly in a nine-handed game. While you’re folding a lot in those early positions, they’re folding a lot too. This provides you no “reciprocality” edge, as my friend and writing colleague, Tommy Angelo, puts it. All that time you’re folding crappy and marginal hands in the early seats, if your opponents are doing it too, nobody gains a step on anybody else.
In 6-max games, those three early seats don’t exist. This compresses the action into those seats where you get more opportunities to make good decisions.
IT’S MORE INTERESTING AND FUN
While I’ve long argued—and will continue to argue—that “folding” is just another valid play at most times during a poker hand, I understand “not folding” is more fun and interesting. You get to see a flop, you get to see a card, you get to see a showdown, whatever it is.
When a format allows you to “play” more hands, and the action goes faster, you spend a higher percentage of your time involved in a hand (in a way other than folding). Most of us would consider that “more fun.” If you’re not having fun playing poker, you’re doing it wrong; if this format increases your fun coefficient, that’s a compelling reason to play it.
As an aside, I will say playing 6-max “because that’s what the cool kids do,” is a terrible reason. Playing 6-max because you think you can win more money, or because you think it’s more fun, are both great reasons to do it. But please don’t play 6-max because you think only scaredy cats play 9-max.
WHY PLAY 9-MAX?
It’s more relaxing
If you get more decisions per hour playing 6-max, then you get fewer playing 9-max. Maybe that’s how you’re feeling right now. Suppose you’re watching your favorite episode of NCIS but want to play a few hands of poker as you do it. Choosing 9-max might be the perfect distraction while you watch Cote de Pablo beat up the bad guys.
But even if you’re not intent on relaxing, owing less per-minute mindshare to a single table makes it possible to multi-table more effectively. Perhaps you can play three tables of 6-max simultaneously with few errors. If so, then you can probably play 5-6 tables of 9-max with the same efficiency and accuracy. I’ll leave it to you and your notebook to know which is more profitable, but it’s a legitimate question to ask.
YOUR OPPONENTS MAKE MORE BAD DECISIONS
This idea was first given to me by my poker buddy, JS, to whom I’m indebted for it. I just pointed out above that if you’re playing 9-max, and everybody (including you) is throwing away their lousy and marginal hands in the earliest positions, you don’t gain a reciprocality edge. True enough.
But what if they’re not doing that? What if they’re limping six-five-offsuit, or raising king-ten-offsuit from one to the left of UTG? Those are clearly -EV plays for them. If they’re -EV for your opponent, then they are, by definition, +EV for you. Even if you fold the hand where they do it, that’s money coming onto the table, some of which will ultimately make its way to you.
I just pointed out you can play more tables of 9-max than 6-max, because you need less mindshare per table. Consider this—you may be able to play more tables, concentrate less, and yet still make more money because your opponents are making serious position-based errors, even when you’re not looking at the table.
I can almost hear Tommy Angelo purr.
“NOW IF A 6 TURNED OUT TO BE 9…”—JIMI HENDRIX, ‘IF 6 WAS 9’
Ultimately, it’s your decision. You may find you’re six-ish on some days, and nine-ish on others. James Marshall Hendrix and I agree—I don’t mind, I don’t mind. The two formats feel different; the groove of a 6-max game is very different from that of a 9-max one. Play in the one that fits your mood and goals in the moment and don’t get caught up in the idea that you “should” play one or the other.
That way lies sadness, which you don’t want.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.