Small Ball Poker: A Strategy Guide

A style of poker suited to cash games and early tournament levels, small ball poker is designed to increase stack size while minimising risk, as the Tip Top Fox explains

Small ball poker is a style that involves playing a lot of hands but controlling the action and keeping pots small. Essentially you are risking a little to win a lot by playing a wide range of hands aggressively, opening the action with a series of small bets and raises. 

“In small ball it is the skill level of your opponents or number of pre-flop limpers that should influence bet size, not the strength of your hand.”

Pre-Flop Play

The key is pre-flop raise size. With small ball an average opening raise should be 2.5 times the big blind (2.5x). You are risking less to win more, meaning you can play more hands without bleeding chips. The one drawback is the fact you are playing a lot of pots with marginal hands so will have tougher post-flop decisions and find yourself playing a high number of multi-way pots, which can be tricky.

This means position is key. While opening in early position with suited connectors can add deception to your game you should not be calling re-raises with them out of position (OOP).

Calling raises in position becomes a viable option with many hands including big pairs (QQ+) as this disguises your hand strength; mix this up with liberal calls in position with suited connectors and your game becomes very hard to read.

Starting Hands

You should be raising the same amount with all your starting hands. In small ball it is the skill level of your opponents or number of pre-flop limpers that should influence bet size, not the strength of your hand. Small ball is more about playing lots of hands in position and working out what your opponents have or don’t have.

Big pairs QQ+ can be played from any position with a raise, though calling raises in position is an option if you are able to fold post-flop if you think you are behind. As you are playing so many hands opponents will play back at you with more marginal holdings, meaning you are more likely to get paid off. 

You should be raising from most positions with all pocket pairs, though 22-66 can be tricky to play in early position and you should be looking to spike a set to continue post-flop in multi-way pots. Suited connectors and gap connectors suit small ball as you can win big pots with deceptive hands like straights and two pair.

Avoid suited kings and queens unless they are Broadway hands as you will find yourself in too many tough spots with the second-best hand. Small suited aces are good but you should be looking for two pair, trips or a pair and a draw before playing a big pot. 

Post-Flop Play

You should not be calling big raises or re-raises OOP unless you have a big hand post-flop. Of course, calling in position is a different matter, especially if you have a well-disguised draw or are planning to bluff a later street.

However, when deciding whether or not to continue in a hand it is important to remember the other key factor of the small ball style – stack size. You should not be risking more than 10% of your stack on speculative calls. The key to success is winning small pots, not losing big ones as an underdog. This also means that if you become short in the later stages of a tournament and a 2.5x raise is more than 15% of your stack it is probably better to look for a spot to shove or squeeze over the top of an opening raise rather than bet/folding as you can’t afford to bleed chips. If you get to 10BBs or less then you should be moving all-in pre-flop with any hand you choose to play.

In Summary

Small ball suits the early to middle levels of tournaments, especially when there are antes in play as risking a little to steal more than your fair share of blinds and antes is key to survival. Your edge comes in playing flops in position and not taking coin flops for your tournament life.

Small ball is also ideal for cash games as you can play more flops and you should be looking to play your position aggressively and bust players when you hit two pair or better and they can’t fold over pairs.

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