More money from small vs. big blind

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

It’s a really powerful concept for those of you who play shorthanded or heads-up hold ’em. And for players in full-handed games, it will help explain how to play a recurring situation, too. I’m talking about the small blind, my friends. About two weeks ago, I sent an E-mail tip to my Preferred On-line Mailing List. I’ve enhanced that tip especially for you. Get ready, because this advice is hot and it’s coming right at you …

My advice about playing blind against blind, after everyone else has folded, won’t apply if you chop. What’s chop? That’s an increasingly common agreement between adjacent players stipulating that if no one else enters the pot, you and the other blind player simply takes those involuntary wagers back. Then the game continues to the next deal. I don’t like to chop, because I enjoy heads-up action. The main argument in favor of chopping is that you won’t have to face the rake two-handed. Fine. But, for me, that’s not enough of a reason to make a chop agreement — even if it’s allowed — so I don’t.

Anyway, blind-versus-blind is one of the areas of poker where I believe even strong players falter. Let’s say that you’re playing limit hold ’em, just you and one opponent. Picture that. Now, erase that picture. We’ll get back to it in a minute. Picture that same opponent, but this time you’re in a regular ring game. Well, when you’re in a full-handed game, you realize that if everyone folds and you’re in the small blind, you don’t really need a lot of strength to call or raise the big blind.

Should you usually stay in with 10-8 offsuit? You bet – either raise or just call. But you shouldn’t fold often. Repeating: Raise or call most of the time. What about 9-5 offsuit? Well, that’s a little trickier. Against many aggressive and sensible opponents, you’ll probably lose money playing that hand, but it’s close.

Why is it close? Because, let’s say that it’s a $100-$200 game. The blinds then are $50 small, $100 large. This means that you can just call for $50 and get 3-to-1 money odds at this point (subject to adjustment), provided that your opponent doesn’t raise. In a sense, you’re getting a 50 percent discount over what it would cost if you had to call that $100 cold. Without being too picky about how we analyze it, that means that if this play wouldn’t lose $50 if you called cold, you probably should call for $50. And guess what? That 9-5 doesn’t lose $50 if you call cold against many opponents with random hands. So, what’s the problem with calling? A couple of big ones:

1. You might get raised because the big blind is live.

2. Your opponent in the big blind has position over you and will be acting last on every future betting round. This turns out to be a pretty big issue, and people who think position doesn’t much matter heads up are quite wrong. But, despite this positional disadvantage on all future rounds of betting, it’s often worth calling. And you might even raise, hoping that your opponent will fold his big blind. In fact, you should raise frequently against too conservative foes. Opponents who don’t defend their big blinds are good targets to put on your left. Generally, players on your left have a positional advantage and you’ll lose money to them forever. Unless there is a great difference, favoring you, between your skill and theirs, you probably will lose money against players on your left for your lifetime. There’s nothing much you can do about it, except to minimize the advantage with prudent decisions. But don’t despair. If you’re a skillful player, you’ll make much more than enough money from players to your right to cover this misfortune.

Neutralizing the Disadvantage But when you have a player to your left who inadequately defends the big blind, you can go a long way toward neutralizing this overall positional disadvantage. So, in addition to other seating factors that we’ve talked about in the past, consider changing to a seat where a player who doesn’t defend the blind often enough sits to your left. This will allow you to make money with weak hands that you otherwise would have thrown away. And many of the hands that you normally would play will be more profitable, because you sometimes will win the blind without a contest – and the amount of the blind usually surpasses the profit that you could expect against an active opponent.

But where was I? Oh – what can we play in the small blind against the big blind after everyone else has folded? Our conclusion is that – depending on the opponent, our image, and other factors – 10-8 offsuit is very likely playable in the small blind, and 9-5 offsuit might be. Hands such as 7-3 offsuit, 9-4 offsuit, and 7-2 offsuit, or even suited, often shouldn’t be played.

Now, here’s the deal. All that was about what you should do in a full-handed hold ’em game when you’re the small blind vs. a big blind. But, suppose instead that the game is two-handed from the get-go. Now what?

I’ll tell you now what! Now, by convention, the blinds are reversed. Except on the first round of betting, the small blind is in the dealing position and will act last. The big blind, except for the first betting round, will act first. How does this change things? Monumentally! I’ve been able to consistently route opponents who don’t adjust correctly. You don’t need anywhere near as powerful hands now to raise or call the big blind as you did in the full-handed game after everyone else folded.

Huh? But, Mad Genius of Poker, you just said that you didn’t even need very much to call or raise previously. That’s right. And now you often don’t need anything at all. In some games against overly cautious opponents, you don’t need anything specific to play. Absolutely everything will do!

The Reasons Why

Why is that? Two reasons:

1. There’s something I call the “bunching factor.” This means that when players voluntarily fold, it tends to imply that better-than-average cards remain among the players yet to act. This is logical when you think about it, because opponents are more likely to fold bad cards than good cards. And this means that when everyone folds before you raise that big blind, well … that big blind is more likely to hold a strong hand than he would if he were starting with a random deal. So, raising the big blind from the small-blind position in a full-handed game after everyone folds is not quite as good a deal as you might think (but usually it’s good enough). Raising the big blind from the small-blind position in a heads-up game is better than you might think.

2. Heads up, you’re going to be able to act last on the second, third, and fourth (final) hold ’em betting rounds. This positional advantage can make up a lot of ground. This reversal of position when heads up also means that you usually should be defensive with medium-strong hands from the big-blind position and aggressive with them from the small-blind position. In other words, in a heads-up game in the big-blind position, you shouldn’t three-bet against a raise as often as you would in a full-handed game if everyone folded and then the small blind raised. You also should fold more hands in the big blind than you would in a ring game when the small blind raises.

Think about what I’ve said, and if you ever get the opportunity to destroy an unsuspecting heads-up hold ’em foe –

well, who am I to hold you back? — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

4 thoughts on “More money from small vs. big blind”

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  1. I think in the other article John may have been referring to Mike was saying if others have entered the pot usually don’t (unless you are a world class player) raise the small blind without AA or KK as with anything less significant you are destroying your pot odds while pushing a less than significant edge uphill which of course can be costly, especially when out of position. I could definately see QQ getting real ugly in this kind of situation a considerable chunk of the time as a king or ace will fall around a quarter of the time, not to mention any number of scary co-ordinated flops that could threaten us. He was not saying don’t raise the small blind without AA or KK if everone folds around to you, just that if if you chose not to make that often profitable play and also stopped raising the big blind when other players are in the pot you would often be better off than if you do both. Mad Genius?

    1. I raise the vast majority of times when I’m in the small blind and everyone else folds. In a strictly heads-up game, I will play a bit over 70 percent of my hands and very rarely just call initially from the small blind position.

      The point I’m making is that there’s seldom a large penalty for just calling, but there can be for raising. The vastly increased pot odds you get by just calling constitute a key advantage that is sacrificed by raising. I never said that you shouldn’t raise, only that if you stubbornly decided to never do it, you wouldn’t be losing much ground overall.

      Also, remember that by just calling, even with strong hands, the big blind might still raise (using that strange, but standard, hold ’em rule) and you can sometimes earn more than you would have by making the raise yourself.

  2. I’ve been trying to develop a system in which I fold almost every small blind, and add the saved money to the button and play almost every button.It’s kind of worked well for the past 2 or 3 years.I hate playing out of position in the small blind like that, so I never considered ways of compensating for it, thanx Mr.Caro!

  3. I recall reading one of your articles a few years ago about playing the small blind. You advised one to rarely ever raise from the small blind unless on has pocket aces and maybe pocket kings. how does this article square with your previous advice?

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