Small Ball

Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu are trenchant supporters of the ‘small pot’ school of poker

Phil Hellmuth has 11 WSOP bracelets and they’re all in hold’em events. Call me crazy, but this guy might just be onto something here. Hellmuth’s style is well-known, often imitated, but never duplicated. He likes to play a lot of pots. You might call it ‘small pot’ poker. I like to call it ‘small ball’.

His approach is quite ingenious. He figures – and quite correctly in most cases – that he can outplay his opponent after the flop, after the turn and after the river. He doesn’t want to put many of his chips at risk pre-flop. Daniel Negreanu is another player who likes to mix it up. He loves to play as many pots as possible, slowly building up his stack without much risk.

Both Hellmuth and Negreanu know one important thing: every time you go all-in, you are risking your tournament life (except for the very rare cases where your opponent is drawing dead). These top pros would much rather increase their chip stack without the risk.

Think about this: if you’re a 70% favourite two times in a row and each time you risk your entire stack, you will only survive 49% of the time. If you put your tournament life on the line a third time – you are only a 34% favourite to survive. This is why top pros just don’t want to risk their stack too often. They would much prefer to play small pot poker and build up their stack without the risk of being eliminated.


If you’re anything less than a top pro, would you want to play small ball? Like most answers to poker questions, it depends on what your level of play is and what kind of players your opponents are.

Here’s the scenario: you’ve made it to the final table of a big tournament and look across the felt to see Roland de Wolfe, Ram Vaswani, Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, Negreanu and Hellmuth. You’re a good player, but are you ready for the big time? Do you really want to put yourself in a position to have to outplay these guys after the flop?

These players are going to want to take all the luck out of the game. They’ll want to see the flop cheaply. They figure that they’ll be able to outplay you after the flop. Don’t give them that chance. Play ‘big pot’ poker against this line-up; raise and re-raise with premium hands. These are the best players in the world – the last thing they want to do is gamble against someone they think they’re better than.

They are not looking to get their money in with pocket nines against your Ace-King. Since we know this, we can use the information. Put them to the test; force them to call off their chips; force them to put their money in before they want to. And most importantly, force them to gamble. Take the post-flop play out of the game.

Against these players, we have one rule: raise or fold. This would not be a situation to play small pot poker. But, let’s be honest, how often are we going to be at the final table against guys like this? Let’s bring it back to reality – when might I want to play small ball and who are the best players to utilise it against?


Against players who can obviously outplay you on the flop, your tactic is simple: don’t let them see the flop. Raise and re-raise pre-flop and force them to gamble if they want to play a pot with you


Early in a tournament, many players subscribe to the theory that they should play extremely tight. Why get involved? All you can do in the first couple of hours is lose, right? Wrong! There are so many bad players in the tournament during the first few levels. Yes, I know bad players advance far in tournaments, but I’m not talking about one bad player – I’m talking about all of them.

I want to play as many pots as possible against these players because they are going to make a lot of mistakes. That doesn’t mean play every hand, which would be suicidal. If you’re at a table against some weak competition – play as many hands in position as you can; look for excuses to play hands (that doesn’t mean you should be playing J-3 on the button).

It isn’t enough to know that your opponent is a bad player – you have to know what type of bad player they are. What kind of mistakes do they make and how can you take advantage? When we talk about playing small ball, it is essential you know who your opponent is.


Against this type of player you’ll want to raise in position and try to isolate. When they miss the flop – which they’ll do more often than not – they will check and you’ll be in position to take the pot away with a simple continuation bet.

This is a perfect player to play small ball against. There is almost no risk because when this person puts their chips in the pot they’ve got the goods – rest assured. One note to keep in mind: this is not the player to slow-play against. There really is no point. They’ll just continue to check until they make a hand.


This is the player who can’t get away from top pair. In some cases they’ll call you down with any pair. Against this player, you can go ahead and raise in position with your premium hands for value, but what you really want to do is be in as many pots as possible. Look for excuses to play hands in position.

This player will make so many mistakes post-flop it would be a crime not to play with him. He’s going to lose all of his chips – just make sure some of them go to you.


1 Don’t bluff this guy. He’ll call you down no matter how scary the board looks. If you bluff your chips off to him, you’ll be left muttering to yourself, ‘how could he call with third pair?’ See a lot of flops with him and wait to make a hand.

2 When you make your hand, don’t forget to bet. Value bet, value bet, value bet. Once again, there’s no need to slow-play. Give him the opportunity to make that mistake.


This is the tournament player who is constantly re-raising you. I played in the $1,500 WSOP no-limit event and there were two players at my table who were constantly coming over the top of me. I had no trouble raising with my good hands, but I really didn’t want to call a big re-raise and commit a lot of chips pre-flop unless I had a monster. I had to adjust.

During the break, I went to the bathroom and I had an epiphany. I decided to play more pots against these players in position, but instead of raising pre-flop, I would do a lot of limping. My game plan worked to perfection; by limping, the pot was small and less attractive for my opponents to steal. The few times they did raise out of the blinds, I could call knowing I had position for the remainder of the hand. The one thing I noticed about these players was that they didn’t have a clue what to do post- flop and I could outplay them then.


As long as your stack is healthy you can continue to play small ball in the middle stage of a tournament, but keep in mind that some of your opponents will begin to get short-stacked and might be getting desperate. They will stand their ground at some point. Just make sure when they do, you’ve got a real hand. Small pot poker will work best against those stacks that are large enough to actually play post-flop.

Depending on the structure of the tournament, it can be very difficult to play small pot poker as the tournament gets into the latter stages. Most players are in all-in mode and you obviously have to adjust and adapt.


1 As you approach the bubble, you will find a good opportunity to play a bit of small ball: just go after the player that really wants to make it into the money.

2 If you’ve been successful playing small pot poker, it is crucial that you don’t risk a lot of your chips on a coin flip. Yes, you might win, but if you lose it will put you in a position where you won’t be able to play small ball at all. Wait for a better spot and try to win those chips without risk.

Going into the final table, whether or not you rely on small ball typically depends on who’s at your table. If the structure allows it, and your opponents are weak, why not continue to do what has worked?

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