Playing Small Ball Poker Like A Champ

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One of the great thing about using overbets as part of your game is that the situations where it comes up are often obvious to recognize, and the play is usually the "correct" one.  They're a powerful weapon because far more often than they should, your opponent will fold when it's not the correct play.

But....what about small bets?  Most people don't give much thought to making smaller bets, for fear that it will let a person draw out on them by giving them too good a price to fold.

Today, we're going to have a look at smaller bet sizes, and why you should consider adding them to your playbook.

One of the first things to remember about small bet sizes, is that their effectiveness changes dramatically when you're in position, or out of position.  This is counterintuitive to overbets, which tend to play well regardless of position.  This makes small bets a little harder to use, so we're going to look at some examples both in, and out, of position.

Out Of Position

Now, just so you don't get too focused on the actual hand itself, I want you to go through this example thinking of your range, and your opponents range instead of any specific hands.

$1-2 NLH.  100 big blind stacks.

You have Xx Xx in the small blind.  The button raises to $5, you three bet to $15.  Button calls.

Flop comes [As][9c][7s]

You bet $20.  Button calls.

Turn is the [Jx]

Let's take a moment, and look at what's happened so far in the hand.

We're out of position in a three bet hand, with $70 in the pot, and $165 left in our stack.

This is a turn card our range is going to be checking a decent percentage of the time.  Consider for a moment the difference between checking, and betting the minimum of $2.  What effect would that have on the hand?

If you said "none", you're right.  Because we're out of position, we don't reopen the betting.  So if the button still wants to put in a big bet, he will still have the opportunity regardless of whether or not we check or make a small bet.

A good way to think about this, is to think of a check as the same as betting $0.  This helps drive home the point that in this spot, there is no difference between checking and betting $2.  I swear, this will all make sense in a little bit...

Now, let's get back to the board.  It's [As][9c][7s][Jx].  We three bet preflop, and continued on the flop.  What hands do we have in our range where we've got a decision between checking and betting?

Seriously.  Take a moment and think of what your hand is likely to be when you're faced with that decision.

Most of the time, we're going to have hands like [Ad][Kd]and [Ac][Qs].These are all reasonable hand to three bet a button open, and would all continue on the flop.

Most players, on this turn card, go through the decision tree quickly, because they're considering betting about half pot ($35), or checking (the same as betting $0, remember?).  So if these are going to often be your default two options, why not mix it up, and find a bet size in the middle somewhere.  By making a smaller bet, you'll keep your opponents calling range wide, and that's a good thing for our hand which is good, but not great on this board texture.

Betting 5% or 10% of the pot in these spots isn't really much different than checking (betting $0), but there are times where betting 25% of the pot is the right play.  Small bets out of position are not only correct on a theoretical level, but they can be very exploitative as well.

Additionally, small betting ranges are very balanced since they'll have lots of variety in them, so they can't be easily exploited by our opponent.

In Position

$1-2 NLH.  100 big blind stacks.

You have Xx Xx on the button.  The cutoff raises to $5, you three bet to $15.  Cutoff calls.

Flop comes [Ts][6c][4s]

Cutoff checks.  You bet $20.  Cutoff calls.

Turn is the [9c]

Cutoff checks.

OK, similar to our previous example, let's pause for a second and consider our options.  Does making a small bet here make sense?  Take a moment...

The huge difference here, is that if we make a small bet now, it opens the betting again for our opponent.  This is a massive difference, and because of this, we can't view a check and a small bet as the same thing.  Unlike before, where making a $2 bet didn't change how much money our opponent can put in the pot, a $2 bet in this position lets our opponent bet more if he wants to.

Our decision to check or bet will have a large impact on our opponents range on the river.  Let's say that we have [As][Qh]and decide to check.  What do we do when the river comes the [2d]?

Well, since we checked back on the turn, our opponent is going to assume we're not strong after we check behind on such a wet board.  We've made our range weak, and capped, and that allows a smart opponent to make large bets on most river cards knowing that we will rarely be calling down.

Now, that's poker.  There are times we're going to have to check behind on the turn because of the board texture and we miss the river.  I'm not advocating for simply barrelling every turn card in position.

But, let's say we still have [As][Qh]and instead of checking behind on the turn, we bet about 20-25% of the pot.  Our opponent calls, and that annoying [2d]still cones on the river.  Think about how different our ranges are now, than if we had checked behind.

The end result of our turn bet, is our range is no longer capped, and we have some very strong hands in our range.

More importantly, how strong can our opponent be on this river?  He had two opportunities to check raise with his stronger hands, and instead he chose to only call a small bet on a really wet board.  Add to that the fact that the safe river card is unlikely to have improved much of his range, we have a fairly safe conclusion that our opponent does not have a strong hand.

So now our small turn bet, has yielded lots of information that checking behind would not have.  At this point, we know it's going to be far less likely that our opponent can call a large river bet.  That's literally the opposite net effect of checking!!!


If you're the type of poker player who usually bets about half pot, or checks, and sometimes overbets (this sentence describes like 85% of poker players) then I hope reading this has helped you understand that small bets can have a huge impact on a hand.

Go ahead, give it a try.  You'll thank me.