Small-Ball Poker

Daniel Negreanu shares his unique tournament formula that has made him millions of dollars…

Small-ball is the style of poker employed by the majority of successful tournament players, as it enables you to steadily increase your stack without taking significant risks. When you watch a player who’s employing a small-ball strategy at the table, you’ll notice how well they appear to control the action, yet at the same time appearing to play with reckless abandon, giving little thought to the strength of their starting hand. Needless to say, there is a method to the madness…

Preflop betting

The secret to small-ball success isn’t the hands that you play – it’s the amount that you bet. The strategy works in three phases. First, you bet less in order to win more, which allows you to play more hands preflop without bleeding your chipstack away. You also need to know when to call, re-raise, limp or fold. Popular poker theory has it that a standard preflop raise is three times the big blind because it gives you a decent return on your investment when no one calls. But what happens if you lower the raise to 2.5 times the big blind? You’re risking less to win more. The more aggressive your image at the table, the more likely your opponents will be to defend their blinds with more marginal hands. That’s not a bad thing because more often than not they’ll miss the flop and you’ll have position and momentum on your side.

Weighting your bet

Since players are more likely to call a raise of 2.5 big blinds you may find that you’re inviting some very good players to see a cheap flop. You don’t want that. So feel free to change the price you charge depending on your opponents and make it more expensive for tougher players to see the flop. Don’t change your bet size according to hand strength but do change it based on the skill level of your opponent. If you’re at a tight, easy table that has one tough player, why would you want to play against him? The larger bet will help define this tougher foe’s hand. You should gladly make small raises against weaker players, because the mistakes they make postflop should outweigh what you give up by not defining their hand.

More action, less money

The biggest benefit of playing an aggressive, yet small betting style is that you’ll get more action on your strong hands while risking less chips. If you’ve raised three of the last four hands and then get dealt pocket Aces, someone may make a move on you with something far weaker. However, if you’ve got a fast and loose image it also means that the re-raise steal after a raise isn’t going to work so well. It just doesn’t fit with the small-ball way, so if you’re going to keep re-raising make sure you have the goods. That’s not to say that you should eliminate the re-raise steal from your playbook, just that you must be careful when you use it.

Calling vs re-raising

If you’re one of the better players at the table you want to make the most of your decisions after the flop, and that means calling is often the better play. I seldom re-raise before the flop; it allows me to disguise my hand and trap opponents who take my smooth-call as a sign of weakness. I’ve busted lots of players by not re-raising with pocket Aces preflop. You might get outdrawn, of course, but the rewards far outweigh the risks.

Dead-money grabs

Dead-money grabs are slightly higher risk plays that also offer a higher success rate. The aim is to win what’s already in the middle with no intention of playing your hand postflop, making your starting hand insignificant. There are two ways to do this:

1. Pound the limpers in position If several players limp in, leaving a juicy amount in the middle, a big raise can sweep away the dead money. The most important thing is to focus on the first limper, as if you can get past him the chips should be yours. Don’t overuse this play though, as people will catch on, and make sure that you never pot-commit yourself with a weak hand.

2. Coming over the top Sometimes you need to make preflop re-raises, just to keep players honest. If a preflop re-raise is too high a percentage of your chips then you should let it go. Generally, your raise should be about four times what they bet so you don’t price them in. Lastly, be aware that if an opponent raises by over 25% of their chips they’ll call any re-raise after that – so don’t three-bet light in that situation!

Playing against a re-raise

When you play small-ball you’ll be playing a lot of pots and for most of those you’ll be coming in for 2.5 big blinds. At times you’ll get raised, and if that’s the case, generally you should just dump your hand unless the situation is just right. It’s very important not to lose your composure and avoid making sloppy calls. The factors to consider are:

1. Your hand strength If you have Aces or Kings, you’re obviously not going anywhere!

2. The minimum raise If someone makes a min-raise there is no circumstance where a fold is correct, even if you know your opponent has Aces!

3. Position is power If the re-raiser has position on you then you should only call if you have a strong hand. If you have position it can turn a marginal hand into one worth calling with.

4. Stack size This is the most important factor, aside from hand strength, when deciding whether to play on. You can call re-raises with the hope either of hitting your hand or bluffing your opponent using the board cards. Generally speaking you shouldn’t jeopardise more than 10% of your stack on bust’em-type hands.

Calling all-ins

Later on in a tournament you’ll be faced with a lot of all-in bets and raises. You should run through the following thought processes when deciding whether to call an all-in:

1. What range of hands does my opponent have? If they are really short-stacked and desperate you can broaden their range. If they are tight then you can narrow that range.

2. What price am I being laid? When facing a bet you should count what’s in the pot in comparison to the bet that you’re facing. You don’t need a calculator – a rough amount should guide you.

3. How does my hand do against their range? This isn’t an exact science. When you’re calling an all-in bet, or any bet for that matter, you shouldn’t be calling just because you think you have the best hand, rather because the odds the pot is laying you dictates that it’s a good investment.

Playing a short stack

Unfortunately the small-ball strategy of liberal raising goes out the window when your chips dwindle. For small-ball to be effective your preflop raises need to represent a very small portion of your chipstack. If a small-ball raise would account for 15% of your chips you should consider limping instead. If your chips dip below ten bets then you have no choice but to play for all your chips when you find the hand that you’ve been waiting for.

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