Small stakes poker strategy: Flat more, win more

How do you get better at smaller-stakes poker? Turn off the TV, forget everything you’ve seen on High Stakes Poker and listen to Alexander Fitzgerald

It seems every time you crack open a poker magazine there is an article staring at you: 14 year old, who accidentally wandered in off the street because of Pokemon Go, wins $14.2m in a super-duper high roller played on ice sculptures in Monaco.

Maybe in actuality you don’t read that exact headline. That said, there is a necessary bias in the poker media toward the high-stakes events. It’s just not interesting for the average recreational player to watch some guy play $1/2.

Many professional players I know do not care for most training videos and poker highlight shows because they cater mainly to the highest stakes. This focus on the highest stakes is a shame, because highly complex and profitable poker can be seen at the mid-stakes and even small-stakes games. These games can be a real dog fight, complete with schematics, adjustments, and a multitude of strategies and counter strategies.

To improve at small stakes and middle-stakes poker is to improve at all poker. This is the bread-and- butter area for professionals as most recreational players engage in primarily these stakes. If you can master them, you can later master tournaments.

Phil Hellmuth is renowned by many for his prowess versus new players. While professionals might chide him for not playing more high-stakes tournaments, he’s not-so-quietly winning bracelet after bracelet.

How does someone get better at small stakes? I found the following tips have helped my 1,000+ students the most.

Try this at home

Firstly, flat more. Everyone watches high-stakes tournaments and assumes that the whole game is about three-betting light. Those players are three-betting each other with nothing because they know exactly how the other player thinks about his stack. He knows what options he’s considering and, since he plays with this guy every other week at some tournament stop, he is also very likely to be able to predict his behaviour.

These wily three-bets do not work as well in lower-stakes tournaments.

Recreational players are in it for fun. They don’t like folding to three-bets. They’re more likely to call and see if they can make something happen. For this reason, you need to start flatting with your 10-9 suited, and not trying to push for every pot with a suited connector.

Actually, any suited Ace, suited connector, or even (in rare instances) a suited-gapper should be used to flat. Your opponents are not likely to be too skilled at no-limit hold’em, so there is always a plethora of flatters behind you. Remember, recreational players come to play, so if there’s a raise and a call ahead of them they’re likely to call from the button, small blind, and big blind.

You should flat with those hands because, as you can see, most of the pots these days will be played multiway. Those hands do a terrific job in multiway pots. They make two pair, straights, flushes or better. This is great, because in a multiway pot the most likely winning hand is going to be better than one pair.

What hands are bad to flat with? If you’re short-stacked you can play the big cards, but with 35BB or more it’s a real risk to flat K-Qo. You can make one pair, sure, but versus four other players who also get another five cards it is unlikely your one pair will hold up. Due to the lack of ‘suitedness’ and straight possibilities the K-Qo doesn’t do as well in deeper stack pots.

What should you do with these bigger cards with bigger stacks? You should three-bet them with a willingness to fold.

‘But wait, turn your hand into a bluff?’ Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying to do.

People are starting to come around to this kind of thinking, but for a long time what I just said was heresy.

If someone opens under the gun, and you know for a fact they do not four-bet as a bluff often and that they open any suited Ace from any position, why wouldn’t you three- bet/fold with say A-Qo? He’s not going to four-bet A-J. He’s not likely to fold a hand that you were beating. Remember, recreational players do not like folding to three-bets now.

So, to sum up, flat more with your suited cards and three-bet more with your big cards.

Big cards in the big blind

The one exception to this rule is when you’re in the big blind. When you flat there you frequently end the action, so you don’t have to worry much about squeezes or multiway pots. While you might not usually want to go to play a multiway pot with big cards in the big blind, you’ll often be getting an incredible price to get in.

In these cases, the stack size and the person’s turn continuation betting percentage can help you. The stack size is helpful because, for example, if you peel with K-2s and flop a King it is less likely you’ll be double-barrelled off your hand.

Why? For one, your King is likely to make a top pair. Two, with shorter stacks in tournaments the person’s double barrel will often ‘commit’ them to a pot. That is to say, they will have put so many chips in the middle that they feel with any decent amount of equity they need to call off the very small portion of their stack that has yet to go in. Due to this, many poker players do not choose to double-barrel bluff; if they are betting in this spot they have it.

If the person’s turn continuation bet percentage is less than 40% this is a great way to know they’re usually not bluffing. You have a good hand on a hold’em board from 25% to 33% of the time, and this person is not betting more than that.

What if you’re playing live? This is where you actually have to put in some work. Maybe your opponent has never shown down a hand but if he raps the table on the turn as if it were an obligatory decision then it’s likely he doesn’t double-barrel much. If, however, he takes his sweet time there and fires a bet in, then you know he’s a little more aggressive.

Alexander Fitzgerald’s book The Myth of Poker Talent is available in book and ebook format through all good retailers, and direct from

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