big blind bb defense strategy

Optimal Big Blind Defense: Tournaments Vs Cash Games

It’s 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 post-flop.

It’s also an unforgiving position with many opportunities for mistakes. When facing an open, for instance:

  • Under-defending will result in a slow leaking of chips, and may encourage your opponents to steal your blinds more often
  • Over-defending will lead to weak ranges post-flop, which will be difficult to play out of position

I’m going to share 6 tips for defending the big blind in this article — 3 for tournaments and 3 for cash games — that will help you limit your losses and boost your win-rate in the process.

But first, we’ll take a look at one example for each format to demonstrate the differences between big blind play in tournaments and cash games.

Big Blind Vs Button Open — Tournament Example

9-Handed. Blinds 100/200/20

BTN: 13,000 (65bb)
BB: 7,000 (35bb)

Hero is in the BB with Xx Xx
BTN opens to 420. sb folds. Hero…

Q: What range does Hero defend?

We need to start by defining the button’s opening range. We’ll use the ranges from The Upswing Lab to estimate:

big blind vs open from button

BTN open range for MTTs from The Upswing Lab

Before constructing Hero’s BB defend range, let’s discuss some tournament-specific factors.

  • Antes + Small Opening Size = Better Price to Call

The presence of antes and the small average open sizes used means that the BB gets a very good price to defend.

At a full-ring table, the antes juice the pot by about one big blind. Combine this with the relatively small open sizes of 2x-2.5x in tournaments, and it’s clear why the big blind can profitably defend a wide range.

In the example given, we must call 220 to win 900, meaning that we need to have approximately 19.6% equity versus our opponent’s range to profitably call (220/1120). The BTN’s RFI range is a wide 68% of hands, so we can justifiably continue… let’s just say a lot for now.

  • Varied 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 open 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 jam a wide range of hands versus opponents that have a high RFI percentage.

  • Raw Equity Versus Realised Equity

When a hand has some amount–say 30%–of raw equity, it won’t necessarily win the pot 30% of the time. This is because some hands fare worse than others post-flop and thus ‘realise’ less raw equity.

Hands that are well-connected and/or suited realise equity most effectively. Some hands have such high playability that they will actually over-realise equity in some spots–think JT vs a loose opponent, or A♠A in any situation.

With the above in mind, let’s construct a range for ourselves in the BB vs this BTN open:

big blind bb defend range

That’s a lot of green.

You may think this is too loose, but take a look at the worst hand’s equity versus this 68% button range:

big blind defend equity

Even if 32o realises just two thirds of its equity, it is above the 19.6% needed to profitably call. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a marginal defend–we are not fist-pumping as we do it. But a fold sacrifices some small amount of EV to your opponent’s stack.

If you aren’t confident enough to play post-flop with the weakest hands in this range, feel free to fold them. But this range construction should make clear how loose the big blind can play against a small open from a wide range. After all, if strong players are profitably defending 72o, I think you guys can handle J3s.

(Note: Master big blind play pre- and post-flop with the newest module in The Upswing Lab training course. Click here or below to learn more.)

Big Blind Vs Button Open — Cash Game Example

Blinds: $1/$2 – 6-handed

BTN: $200 (100bb)
Hero (BB): $200 (100bb)

BTN opens to $6. sb folds. Hero…

Starting with an estimate of the button’s RFI Range:

button open range vs big blind

BTN open range for cash games from The Upswing Lab

And a reasonable defend range vs this button 3x–calling $4 to win $9– is:

big blind poker strategy

There are two particularly notable differences between this spot and the tournament spot from earlier.

  • Our Price is Worse with No Antes and a Standard Opening Size

There’s about one less big blind in the pot due to the absence of antes in cash games. This makes our price worse.

The 3x open from the button is 0.9BB larger than the 2.1x open from the tournament example. This makes our price worse.  

In this example, we must call $4 to play for a pot of $13, meaning that we must have approximately 30.8% equity against the BTN’s RFI range to make a profitable call. Here’s how arguably the worst hand in our calling range stacks up against the button:

small blind poker big blind

37% is well above the 30.8% we need to call, and 76o is a connected hand that will realize it’s equity fairly well vs a wide range. If you are confident in your post-flop game, you can defend an even wider range of hands than the range outlined above and still be getting the odds to do so.

Unlike in tournaments, rake is paid per hand whenever the players reach the flop, or even pre-flop in some live games. In high rake environments, you need to be ready to make some serious adjustments to the way that you defend from the big blind.

Since you will be playing for a smaller total pot post-flop, you should narrow your calling range to account for the depressed pot odds. Additionally, you are incentivised to 3-bet an increased proportion of your continue range because no rake is paid when a pot ends pre-flop.

In summary, STOP GIVING UP YOUR BIG BLIND SO EASILY. Now, let’s dive into some quick tips for each game type.

3 Tips for a Solid Tournament BB Strategy

1. Fight for those antes

It’s tough to overstate the impact that the presence of antes has on opening and defending ranges.

Players tend to overlook their significance because they seem small when paid on an individual basis, but they greatly impact your pot odds when pooled together.

2. Get aggressive with 3-bet jamming

When you’re sitting on a short-stack in the big blind (under 20bb), don’t be afraid to 3-bet shove with a relatively wide range versus opens from later oppositions.

Providing that you select hands that will have a good amount of raw equity when called, you can pick up a ton of easy chips and turn your short-stack into a big one with some well-timed aggression (and a dash of luck, of course).

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 an open. This is outdated advice and something that isn’t really true when you consider the odds that you are getting on a call from the big blind. In fact, a new open-raising trend has popped up in MTTs to counter loose BB defenders.

If you’re facing a small open and hold a hand that’s slightly too weak to shove, but too strong to fold given the price, don’t hesitate to toss in the call.

For more tournament-specific advice on big blind play, take a look at The Ultimate Guide to Big Blind Defense.

3 Tips for a Solid Cash Game BB Strategy

1. Pay close attention to the RFI size

Cash games usually feature a wide variety of opening sizes–ranging from 2x to as large as 5x or 6x in live cash games. Because of this, you need to be ready to make more fluid adjustments to your BB defending range as your pot odds change from spot to spot.

2. Take advantage of your position vs the small blind

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

As the big blind, we are incentivized to defend at a high frequency to counter. We’re in position, we’re facing a wide range and we already have a blind invested, which sounds like a recipe for a wide defend range.

3. Adjust based on the tendencies of your opponent

One of the nice things about cash games is that you are more likely to develop reliable reads when you play in the same player pool for a while. This means that you can make more exploitative adjustments to your BB defending strategy.

If you’re facing an open from an extremely tight player, for example, you should narrow your defending range accordingly. Conversely, when you’ve got a maniac that is opening 80% of hands from the small blind in your home poker tournament, you shouldn’t give up your big blind without a fight.

If you want to more tips on how to play from the big blind, check out this article that Ryan Fee put together.

(Note: Take your poker game from the next level in The Upswing Lab — a comprehensive poker training course that covers a huge range of topics. Click here or below to learn more.)

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About the Author

George Mathias

Zoom reg turned live poker reg post-death of PokerStars


Upswing Poker


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