big blind defense strategy cash vs tournaments

Big Blind Defense Strategy 101: Tournaments vs Cash Games

Did you know that it is basically impossible to win money from the big blind in the long run?

The big blind has to pay a full blind without looking at their cards (a massive disadvantage) and will be out of position against most opponents postflop.

It’s an unforgiving position with many opportunities for mistakes. For example, when facing a raise, under-defending will result in you slowly leaking chips and may encourage your opponents to steal your blinds more often. On the other hand, over-defending will lead to tough spots postflop as you will be out of position with a weak range.

To help you avoid these mistakes, we’re sharing advice that will help you limit your losses from the big blind and boost your win-rate overall. Here’s what today’s journey looks like:

Ready, set, *gunshot*!

This article has been updated.

Big Blind Defense 101

If the optimal big blind defense range were a recipe, it would have three main ingredients:

  1. Your Pot Odds to Call.
  2. The Range of Your Opponent.
  3. How Well Your Hand Realizes Equity.

Your Pot Odds to Call

Your pot odds tell you how often you need to win the pot in order to profit in the long run by calling. If you have to call $5 to win a pot of $10, for example, you need to win more than 33.3% of the time to profit. Learn how to calculate pot odds here.

Your Opponent’s Raising Range

Winning the pot will be tougher against a strong range than a weak range. If your opponent raises from early position, for example, he likely has a strong range of hands and you should tighten your defense range as a result. If he raises from late position, you can defend with a wider range.

Note: Want to upgrade your poker skills? Get free preflop charts here and start playing like a pro before the flop. Download now!

How Well Your Hand Realizes Equity

Some hands fare worse than others postflop and thus ‘realize’ less than their raw equity. For example, 7♣ 5 has 17.4% raw equity versus K♠ K, but that doesn’t mean it will win the pot 17.4% of the time. Because it will often miss, face a bet, and fold, 7♣ 5 will actually win the pot much less than 17.4% against K♠ K.

Hands that are strong, well-connected, and/or suited realize equity most effectively. Some hands are so strong and play so well postflop that they will actually over-realize their equity, such as J T vs a loose opponent or A♠ A in any situation. In other words, these hands will win more often than their raw equity dictates.

Keep in mind that calculating the exact amount of equity a hand will realize is near-impossible. The best we can do is estimate, especially in-game. Learn more about equity realization here.

Tournament Big Blind Defense

Let’s discuss some tournament-specific factors that significantly impact the optimal big blind defense ranges.

Antes + Small Raise Sizes = Better Pot Odds

At a full-ring table, the antes juice the pot by about one big blind. Combine this with the relatively small raise sizes (2x-2.5x) used by tournament players and it becomes clear why the big blind can profitably defend with a wide range.

Varying Stack Depths

Because of the variety of stack depths at play in tournaments, ranges are far more dynamic than in cash games.

For example, deep-stacked players will often raise with a much wider range of hands than short-stacked players. The former is able to exert a lot of pressure on the latter by doing so. Conversely, shorter-stacked players will be able to profitably 3-bet shove a wide range of hands versus opponents that raise frequently.

Big Blind versus Button Open (Tournament Example)

9-Handed Tournament. Blinds 100/200/20. 8,000 Chip Effective Stacks.

Hero is dealt two cards in the big blind
Button raises to 420. sb folds. Hero…

Hero needs to call 220 to win 900, which means he’ll need to realize more than 19.6% equity to call profitably (200/1120 = .196).

We’ll use the 40BB button raising chart from Nick Petrangelo’s Winning Poker Tournaments course as our estimate for the button’s range:

button raise 40bb nick petrangelo

Button Raise Range (40-50BB) from Nick Petrangelo’s course

Calculating a defending range by hand is a challenging task. You could use an equity calculator to check each hands’ equity versus the button’s range, then use your intuition to decide which hands will realize enough equity to call. This messy process requires a lot of guesswork, but it should give you a rough idea of which hands are profitable defends.

Top pros have a far more accurate and reliable process. They use preflop solver software, sometimes combined with database analysis, to formulate their preflop ranges.

NOTE: Accessing battle-tested preflop ranges is one of the most valuable parts of joining a course like Nick Petrangelo’s. You get Nick’s personal 260+ preflop charts for 6 stack depths so you know you’re playing rock solid ranges that win. Join for access now!

With the above in mind, take a look at the big blind defend vs button raise chart from Nick’s course:

big blind defend vs button 40bb nick petrangelo

Big Blind Defend vs Button Raise (40-50BB) from Nick Petrangelo’s course

That’s a lot of calls. If this seems too loose to you, take a look at the worst hand’s equity versus the button’s estimated range:

53o in big blind vs button

53o has 33.66% equity versus the button’s estimated range. If Hero is able to realize at least 58.2% of this equity, which shouldn’t be too difficult with a connected hand against a wide range, he can call profitably.

If you aren’t confident enough to play postflop with the weakest hands in this range, feel free to fold them. But this range construction should make clear that the big blind can play very loose against a small raise from a player with a wide range.

If strong players are profitably defending 53o, I think you guys can handle J4s.

Cash Game Big Blind Defense

There are two notable factors that differentiate cash game big blind defense, and they both incentivize you to play tighter.

No Antes + Standard Raise Size = Worse Pot Odds

The lack of antes means there’s only 1.5BB in the pot before the cards are deal, which forces you to play much tighter in all positions. Moreover, preflop raises tend to be larger in cash games (2x-3x online, 4x-5x live), further worsening your pot odds.


Unlike in tournaments, rake is paid per hand whenever you reach the flop (or even preflop in the more savage card rooms). Since you will be playing for a smaller total pot postflop, you should tighten your calling range slightly to account for the depressed pot odds.

Additionally, you are incentivized to 3-bet a larger proportion of your continuing range because no rake is paid when a pot ends preflop.

Big Blind versus Button Open (Cash Game Example)

$1/$2 Cash Game. $200 Effective Stacks.

Hero is dealt two cards in the big blind
Button raises to $5. sb folds. Hero…

Hero needs to call $3 to win $8, but let’s say that’s more like $7.50 after rake. That means he will need more than 28.6% equity to call profitably (3/10.50 = 0.286).

To estimate the button’s range, we’ll use the button raising chart from Educa-p0ker’s Elite Cash Game Mastery course:

educa-p0ker button open range

Button Raising Range from Educa-p0ker’s course

You could try to calculate a defending range by hand using equity calculators, intuition, and guesswork. As mentioned in the tournament example, however, the results of this process would be far from reliable (though it would improve your knowledge of hand vs range equities).

Instead, let’s leverage Educa-p0ker’s work by taking a look at the big blind defend vs button raise chart from his course:

educa-p0ker big blind defense

Big Blind Defend vs Button 2.5x Raise from Educa-p0ker’s course

This is a way tighter defending range than the tournament example. Hero went from defending as wide as 53o, Q3o, and every suited hand to folding hands as strong as K7o, Q8o, and 84s.

You still get to defend quite a bit in cash games (51.7% of hands, in this example), but the lack of antes and slightly larger raise size reduces the number of hands you can play.

3 Tips for Tournament Big Blind Defense

1. Fight for those antes.

It’s tough to overstate the impact that antes should have on your preflop ranges, especially when defending from the big blind. Players tend to overlook their significance because they seem small when paid on an individual basis, but they greatly impact your pot odds and drastically change the preflop dynamic when pooled together.

2. Prepare to 3-bet shove.

When you’re sitting on a short-stack in the big blind (under 30BB), prepare to 3-bet shove with hands that perform well as shoves. This play will often times give you a much needed boost to your short stack, plus it gives you a chance to get maximum value when you have a strong hand.

Versus a button raise with 20BB stacks, for example, Nick recommends shoving KK-22, AK-AJ, ATo-A9o, A4o-A2o, T9s-T7s, and some other hands at a mixed frequency (A8o-A5o, A5s-A2s, K7s-K6s, KQs-KJs, QJs-QTs).

3. Don’t be afraid to call with a short-stack.

A huge misconception of 6 to 15 big blind play is that you can only shove or fold versus a raise. This outdated advice is obviously untrue when you consider the odds that you are getting to call and how well you will realize equity with a short stack.

If you’re facing a small raise and hold a hand that’s too weak to shove, but too strong to fold given the price, don’t hesitate to toss in the call. This play is so effective that an open-raise sizing trend has popped up to counter loose big blind defenders.

To learn about playing postflop in these short-stack spots, read this article.

3 Tips for Cash Game Big Blind Defense

1. Pay close attention to the raise size.

Cash games usually feature a wide variety of opening sizes, ranging from 2x to 5x or more. Because of this, you need to be ready to make drastic adjustments to your big blind defending range as your pot odds change from spot to spot.

You need to defend a lot tighter and 3-bet a larger proportion of your continuing range against the larger raise sizes, and vice versa.

2. Take advantage of your position vs the small blind.

When the action folds around to the small blind, they only need to get through one player to win the pot. This incentivizes them to raise at a high frequency.

As the big blind, you are incentivized to defend at a high frequency to counter. You’re in position, you’re facing a wide range, and you already have a blind invested, which adds up to a wide defend range.

3. Adjust based on the tendencies of your opponent.

One of the best parts of playing cash games is developing reads when you play in the same player pool for a while. These reads allow you to make profitable adjustments to your big blind defending strategy.

If you’re facing a raise from an extremely tight player, for example, you should tighten your defending range accordingly. Conversely, when a maniac who plays 80% of hands raises from the small blind, you shouldn’t give up your big blind without a serious fight (unless you have a very bad hand).

A Quick Word on Multiway Defense

When one or more players in front of you have already called the preflop raise, your defense strategy should change in two ways.

First, you should defend with fewer hands, despite your improved pot odds, because it’s tough to realize equity against multiple players. So, if your hand has well above the raw equity needed to call, you may still be better off folding unless the hand plays well in multiway pots.

The second adjustment is to reconstruct your range to be better suited to multiway pots. This means playing fewer hands that perform poorly in multiway pots, such as hands with big gaps or hands that will often get into cooler situations (A3o, K7o, 83s, etc).

Final Thoughts

To recap:

  • Your big blind defense strategy is primarily based on your pot odds to call, your opponent’s raising range, and how well your hand realizes equity.
  • In tournaments, you get to defend a lot more frequently because of antes and smaller average raise sizes, but make sure you adjust for varying stack depths.
  • In cash games, you’re forced to defend less frequently because of the lack of antes, rake, and larger average raise sizes.
  • Defend a lot tighter in multiway pots.

Ready to bolster your small blind skills next? Read 6 Steps to Stop Bleeding Chips from the Small Blind.

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About the Author
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

I used to play a ton of poker. Now, I'm the Vice President of Upswing Poker and only play a decent amount of poker. Read my full bio here.

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