In 1988, I wrote a column for a newspaper called Poker Player. It offered some of my thoughts about how to play the small blind. I thought this would be a good day to revisit those decade-old thoughts and add some new comments. (Note added in 2011: Poker Player newspaper resumed publication in the early 2000s. I write a column for it.)
The title of that column was Today’s Word is “Small Blind.”
While the column addressed only hold ’em and lowball, the concepts can be applied to any poker form that includes a small and a big blind. Here is the column:
Ever play lowball? Hold ’em? Of course you have. You’re a poker player, right? And as a poker player, you’ve found yourself facing, over and over, a situation that you don’t understand. It’s the small blind dilemma.
Limit poker and the small blind. How should a human cope with the small blind? It depends. First, let’s define our terms. We’re talking about limit poker. There are two blind bets. One (the small blind) is immediately to the left of the dealer position. The other (the big blind) is twice as big and is two positions left of the dealer position. In lowball, there may even be a third and smaller blind at the dealer position, but that blind isn’t under discussion today.
Wait! If you really want to know, I think that it’s disgraceful to put a third blind in the dealer position. That seat has a built-in strategic advantage over all other players, and it’s a crime to give it an additional incentive. If you insist on having three blinds, put them all to the dealer’s left.
Where were we? Oh, yeah. What we’re talking about today is the small blind between the dealer and the big blind. When do you pass? When do you call? When do you raise?
There are no absolute answers to those questions. You’d have to specify exactly the type of games, exactly the hands held, and exactly the opponents you’re facing. But here are some general things that you always should keep in mind.
1. It’s usually wrong to surrender and let the big blind win for free in lowball or in hold ’em. If everyone passes and it’s up to you in the small blind, you almost always should at least call.
New note: The reason that a call is correct has a lot to do with the value of that small blind, which already weighs in your favor. Let’s say that you’re playing $50-$100 hold ’em with a $50 big blind and you’re in the small blind position, having already been forced to wager $25. Everyone passes. It’s just you and the big blind. If you had to call for the full $50, there would be lots of hands that you would fold.
But, it turns out that almost all of the hands that you would fold lose much less than $25, on average, if played over and over. So, to state it simply, you now can call for just $25, because although calling for $50 often may be a bad investment, calling for just $25 is usually a good one. Fine. But what if your opponent raises? Well, you’re still getting a 25 percent discount, assuming that you call. You will have to put in a total of $75 to call the big blind and then call the raise, but it should cost you $100. The $25 that you’ve already entered makes a big difference. In fact, most hands that you normally would fold if you had to put in $100 are worth playing at a 25 percent discount. Now, back to the original column.
2. Whether you should raise depends a lot on how often your opponent will pass. Unless you hold an overwhelming favorite (at least a pat seven in lowball or a pair of kings in hold ’em), the best thing that can happen is that you raise and your opponent passes. If it’s a $10 blind game, under Southern California structures, you’d win the big blind’s $10 plus your $5 (or a theoretical portion thereof, but that’s another topic) outright.
That $15 instant return is almost always more than your average earnings for playing many similar hands to their conclusion. But the real question is: How often will the big blind surrender if you raise? If it’s 20 percent of the time or more, you’re almost always better off raising with anything from a fairly weak to a moderately strong hand. However, if your opponent is very aggressive and is likely to reraise with medium hands, you should be less willing to raise (and, in fact, be more willing to pass) with your weak hands.
3. If your opponent almost never surrenders the big blind, your main incentive for raising (that is, taking the pot right now) is gone, and you should consider just calling with weak to moderate hands. You should pass with more weak hands than you normally would.
4. Your dollar-for-dollar reward is more if you just call than if you raise a big blind who subsequently calls your bet. Let’s say that there are two blinds, your $5 blind and the big $10 blind. If you call, the pot affords you $15 to $5 or 3-to-1. If you raise to $20 (investing $15 more) and your opponent calls, you’ve invested $15 in pursuit of $25 (your opponent’s $20 plus your original $5). That’s 1.67-to-1. Clearly, if all goes as planned, you’ll get better pot odds by calling than by raising.
5. Don’t forget that you’re going to be in the worst position on all future rounds of betting when you’re in the small blind to the dealer’s left.
6. If other players already have entered the pot, you usually should come in as cheaply as possible in the small blind. This means that you seldom should raise or reraise. Against active opponents, it almost always is incorrect to raise or reraise with a drawing hand in lowball. Similarly, it usually is incorrect to raise or reraise with anything other than a top-quality pair in hold ’em. An exception frequently arises if the raiser (or caller) is in a very late position. This often indicates that the raise came with something less than an astonishing hand. Here, you have the opportunity to assert yourself by reraising and freezing the big blind out of the pot. Anytime that you can add forfeited money to the pot and end up head-to-head with prospects that are about as good as your opponent, you should consider doing it.
The problem with reraising as the small blind is that you’ll always have to act first. This positional disadvantage usually overwhelms any incentive to take the initiative by aggressively reraising. In hold ’em, save those reraises for your very biggest pairs. Even hands such as A-K and A-Q tend to make more money overall if you just call a raise when you’re in the small blind. In order to be less predictable, though, you occasionally should reraise — but only occasionally.
Gotta leave now. Goodbye. — MC
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