By Donovan Doust
Becoming proficient at poker, or most any skill game, is a long and gradual process. Beginners often improve very rapidly at first but eventually the learning curve slows down. In fact many players actually seem to plateau at some point; often after they become consistent winners and feel like they have a grip on the game. At that point progress can slow to a near halt. However, I think most players can remember certain times in there poker careers that something just sort of clicks. Sometimes it’s a new insight about playing position, or an extremely reliable physical tell that had previously gone unnoticed, maybe a new method to playing drawing hands, it could be anything at all. Well, after reading about the concepts of “big bet and small ball” poker strategies numerous times, it finally hit me. I have had a poker epiphany, one that will forever change the way I play the game, and one that I’d like to share with you.
First of all I’ll explain the concept, then I’ll tell you why I never appreciated it, and finally I let you know why I was wrong. Ready or not; Big bet and small ball. Many poker players like to change the size of there pre-flop bets based on there perception of the skill level of there opponents. The theory says that you should use larger bets against better players; maybe four or five times the big blind and smaller bets against weaker players, as little as twice the blind. The idea is that you want to put maximum pressure on good players before the flop and limit the amount of flops you have to play against them. By playing aggressively before the flop you stifle your opponents’ ability to out maneuver you on the flop and beyond. Building bigger pots also adds volatility to the game, essentially adding to the amount of luck involved. By playing “big bet poker” you reduce the better player’s chances of slowly whittling your stack away. Next time you download full tilt poker software, keep this strategy in mind. When you are up against an opponent you are much stronger than, the theory says, you should be more inclined to make smallish bets to lure them into playing flops with you. Making smaller bets before the flop helps to reduce volatility by not creating large pots that your opponent could get lucky and win.
Although I’ve never disagreed with big bet poker against a savvy player, I’ve never been particularly fond of the “small ball” strategy against a “fish”. Bad players usually play too many hands. It always seemed to me that most of your edge against poor players comes from charging them an unfair price to draw against your superior hand, and from them being nice enough to pay it. For instance; if I have AK and my inexperienced opponent has A9, he is about a 4 to 1 dog to beat my AK. He should only call if the pot is laying him 4 to 1 odds, and the more I bet the worse the pot odds become. If I raise four times the big blind (say I make it $8 to go at $1-$2 blinds) the pot will have $11 in it and it will cost him $8 to play for it. That means the pot is only offering about 1.5 to 1. If he plays he’ll be making a very bad call mathematically, which is what I want. Additionally, I’ll have built a large pot making it easier to bust him if we both hit our ace. The apparent problem then, with playing small ball against a weak player is that we aren’t allowing him to make as big a mistake as he might be willing to make.
Then it hit me. I was playing a friendly game with a few friends of mine and my wife at my house about six months ago. We were playing a very small stakes tournament format, and we were playing short handed. There were only five of us. All of my casual playing, inexperienced friends where playing almost every hand they were dealt. They were calling raises with any two suited cards, any hand that contained a face card or an ace, and any pair. Originally, I was raising very large every time I picked up a good hand. One of my friends would check whenever she missed the flop and bet whenever she connected. If she missed the flop and checked, any bet at all would get rid of her. One of my friends would bluff at almost every single flop. I noticed that his bet sizes did not relate to the size of the pot; he usually over bet his bluffs and bet very small when he had made a hand. They would all call bets and raises on the flop if they hit anything at all. They would call bets with any kind of draw or any pair with absolutely no regard for the size of the pot compared to the bet size. This is just how most new players play. Everyone starts out playing poorly. So, I’d noticed that all these players were very predictable and extremely easy to out play after the flop. They also had no clue about correct bet sizes, pot odds, or race odds. All of that combined with the fact that my pre-flop raises had almost no fold equity at all caused me to do something I’d never really done before, I started making small raises (twice the blind) before the flop and I even began to limp into a lot of pots while the blinds where small. I was playing a lot more flops with speculative hands and I was keeping the pots very small, especially when I was playing them out of position. You see, these players would sometimes bet two or three times the size of the pot and would call pot sized bets chasing small flushes. I started seeing a lot of flops, I was winning a mixture of small and large pots but I was losing only small pots.
The next morning my wife, who I’d been coaching for an up coming tournament, asked me why I was playing so unusually. Of course she also wanted to know why I’d taught her to play a “raise or fold” tight- aggressive style, and I myself, played in nearly an opposite style. She was a little upset too, because she had re-raised before the flop with AK, like I taught her to, only to go broke playing a big pot when one of the players filled an inside straight draw on the river. Just to add insult to injury, the style of play I adopted won me the game. I could only imagine the way that must have seemed to her, had I purposely sabotaged her? I wasn’t able to simply imagine how it looked to her for long before she actually asked me, “What are you trying to do, sabotage me?” For a moment I contemplated explaining to her that she should just “do as I say, not as I do.” Then I contemplated what it would be like to sleep on the couch for a week, and I came up with a different approach. I thought I’d better give her an explanation. As I began to describe to her why I was playing the way I was playing, it slowly started to dawn on me. I realized, only as I was in the process of explaining it, that I had been playing small ball. One short poker session caused a significant change in the way I play against bad players. That one session had triggered a paradigm shift of sorts. I learned two things that day; I learned that the professional players who advocate that style know what they are talking about (go figure.lol.) I also learned that sleeping on a coach is not good on the neck and back (go figure.lol).
My hope in sharing this with you is that you were able to learn something from it. Really my hope is that you didn’t just learn what big bet/ small ball poker is, hopefully you learned that you should never close your mind to the ideas of other players, especially the professional players. Ideally this will serve as a reminder that every one of us has a great deal to learn about the game we love. We’ll never run out of things to learn and improve on. Even more importantly, though, I hope you learned not to coach your wife at No Limit Hold ‘em.