Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Bluff magazine.
Addendum at bottom written in 2014.
What I’m about to say is both controversial and correct. On the first betting round in hold ’em, you can go forever without raising as the small blind and not sacrifice much profit. In fact, most players will increase their earnings by resolving never again to raise before the flop from the small blind position.
I hear you thinking: You’d obviously need to make an exception for the times when everyone folds and you routinely raise against the big blind, right? No, not right. It’s true that a few players fold so routinely in the big blind that you’ll make more money by raising at every opportunity when you’re the small blind and everyone else has folded. Even against that type of opponent, you can often make more money by just calling in the half-price small blind position. When you do that, you get the very best pot odds possible.
For instance, let’s say it’s a no-limit hold ’em game with your $100 small blind and a $200 big blind. If all other players fold, leaving only you and the big blind, you can just call for $100. Assuming you’re not raised by the big blind (who enjoys the “live” raise option if called), you’re getting 3-to-1 pot odds. Often accepting those odds is better than the advantage you gain by raising and hoping your timid opponent folds or calls and loses. You get an advantage either way. Big-blind opponents who make the mistake of folding too frequently also fail to raise frequently enough when you just call. So, you can take advantage of their mistakes either by calling or raising. And just calling is often better.
Of course, if an imaginary big-blind opponent always folded heads-up or nearly always folded heads-up, raising as the small blind would be more profitable than calling. I added that clarification, even though it just repeats what I’ve already said, so some poker experts aren’t mislead about my meaning. But, what hold ’em opponent meets that description — always folding as the big blind against the small blind, or nearly so?
The concept holds whether the game is limit or no-limit. Add to that the value of deception when the big blind gets confused and decides unwisely to raise against your superior hand. On those occasions, you can capitalize by just checking and calling until the river — when you finally raise.
I once played for a whole month experimentally, resolving to never raise in the small blind. I wanted to see how often I’d really regret being strategically handicapped. It turned out to be an insignificant sacrifice. Sure, there were many times I would have chosen to raise, but in almost all of those situations, calling — instead — was not a bad alternative. In fact, for that month, I sacrificed almost nothing.
Contrast this to the familiar tactic of routine small-blind raises employed by many. While small-blind mistakes involving just calling are few and inconsequential, mistakes involving raising at the wrong times can cost considerably.
And what about tournaments? Well, as we’ve previously discussed, in proportional-payoff tournaments, where first place wins all the chips but only is paid a portion of the prize pool, it’s more important to survive into the money than to target every extra edge at increased risk. Since raising as the small blind is often a serious mistake in an everyday game, it’s even more egregious and costly in most tournaments.
What about that familiar power play where you reraise a late raiser in hopes of chasing away the blinds? Well, that’s a potent poker tactic, but it doesn’t compute when you’re the small blind. You should frequently use this daring reraise when you’re on the button (dealer position) and the player immediately to your right is the first raiser. Then you’re threatening to chase away both blinds and fight for the pot, including the dead-money from forfeited blinds, against only the original raiser. Since you’ll act last throughout the betting, you sometimes don’t even need the expectation of the best hand to make this play profitable.
Fine. That power reraise works. But it doesn’t work when the button raises and you’re the small blind — a situation where the tactic is used about equally often. You’re only trying to chase away the big blind, not the big and small blinds. So that’s less free money to fight over if you do succeed in getting heads-up against the raiser. But, more importantly, you’ll have the poorer position throughout all future rounds of betting, always acting first. This is just another example of when calling in the small blind is usually superior to raising.
My point isn’t that you should make it a strict rule never to raise as the small blind. My point is that if you did make it a strict rule, you’d probably earn more money at hold ’em than typical players who blunder often by raising as the small blind. If you stubbornly decide never to raise, you’ll very seldom be making a big error. The rare times you might regret not having raised are (1) when the opponent in the big blind folds ridiculously too often and (2) when you hold aces or kings and several opponents are already in the pot. When the latter is the case, you should raise two or more players who have just called the big blind. And, with those one-chance-in-110.5 pair of aces or kings, you should reraise whenever the first player to voluntarily enter the pot has raised and been called by one or more players. Note that it isn’t necessary to raise if the first voluntary player just called and someone else raises. If you reraise then, you’ll risk chasing away the original caller, in addition to the big blind. And you’ll lose the element of deception. In all cases excluding situations (1) and (2), raising as the small blind is either unprofitable or about break-even. That even includes anytime you hold a pair of queens or ace-king suited. In fact, it isn’t always better to raise with kings. You simply don’t need to raise with most hands, even big ones. Just calling and seeing what develops on the flop will often add extra deceptive value to your hand on future betting rounds. And, except when you hold aces, it makes it easier to escape when you hate the flop.
Whether it’s limit or no-limit hold ’em, if you could monitor every small blind call ever made and every small blind raise ever made with identical hands, you could prove that the average call is more profitable. Of course, you don’t have the ability to monitor all such hold ’em hands, so you have no proof. But you have my word on it, which is almost the same as proof, anyway.
In closing, let me send sentiments of sorrow to all the players who were eliminated from the World Series of Poker after going all-in with the best hand. From what I’ve been hearing, that’s apparently everyone. — MC
Addendum, added 2014-10-06. This entry seems to be among the most misunderstood at Poker1. People have seen me raising often in the small blind and assume that my own actions contradict the advice above. Au contraire!
I do this to establish a dominant image and to leverage tiny advantages. What I’m saying is that, for typical players, ignoring small edges by seldom or even never raising in the small blind position would be — at worst — a tiny sacrifice. For most, there could be a small overall gain from eliminating raising mistakes.
The concept is that there’s a built-in pot-odds advantage to just calling. And you should decide to override that advantage by raising only when you have a strong reason — such as the big blind folding too often or many players already in the pot when you hold powerful hands. Again: Stubbornly deciding never to raise from the vulnerable small blind, first-to-act-on-all-future-betting-rounds position won’t diminish your profit by much. And for average players, it may increase overall profit.
In short, the above entry is intended to underscore a powerful concept and isn’t meant as gospel for world-class players. Of course, everything I just said in this addendum is already stated in the entry above. Unfortunately, many misunderstood it. So, I added this.