When facing open-raises in tournaments, you should rarely cold-call from the small blind.
A cold-call is a call of one or more raises by a player who has not yet voluntarily put money in the pot.
The conventional wisdom used to advocate never cold calling from the small blind. And I’m pretty convinced that you could have a long and successful tournament career by sticking to a 3-bet or fold strategy in this position.
However, there are situations where calling is clearly superior to folding or 3-betting—the trick is knowing how to identify them. In this article, I’m going to break down four such situations.
What are the downsides to cold-calling from the small blind?
There are two main reasons you should be hesitant to cold call from the small blind:
- You’ll be out of position for the rest of the hand.
- When you call, you offer the big blind tremendous pot odds to call (the big blind often needs less than 15% raw equity to call with antes in play). So, by flatting you set yourself up to play a multi-way pot out of position.
These are good reasons to avoid cold-calling, and they should be kept in mind. You don’t want to be the player who cold calls from the small blind too often and in bad spots.
With all that said, let’s dive into four common scenarios where cold calling from the small blind is actually the right play.
1. Cold-call when all of the other options seem bad
The situation: You have too many chips to 3-bet shove. Your hand is too weak to 3-bet/call a shove with, while also being too strong to 3-bet/fold to a shove.
These types of spots often come up late in tournaments, especially when you have to be risk-averse because of ICM.
Example: 30BB average stacks on the final table bubble of a tournament (10 players remaining). Hero has the 3rd biggest stack with 32 BBs and Villain covers. Villain is a spazzy regular who hates folding.
Villain (40BB) raises to 2.2BB from the hijack. Action folds around to Hero in the small blind with:
This is a textbook example of a good spot to call. Let’s consider each of our other options:
- Folding to the raise would be too tight. KQs is definitely worth playing against a small raise from the hijack.
- 3-bet/calling a shove would be far too loose. With a third place chip stack we are well positioned to move up the pay ladder. Getting all the money in and busting in 10th would be an absolute ICM disaster.
- 3-bet/folding to a shove would be a waste of chips and equity with such a strong hand.
Cold calling works well for a few reasons:
- Our positional disadvantage is less severe with short 30BB stacks and a hand that can easily flop well.
If we flop something, we’ll either have a very strong draw or a strong top pair most of the time, which we can basically treat as the nuts. This mitigates our positional disadvantage, as it’s going to be very hard for us to get blown off our hand if we hit something.
- The big blind coming along is not a huge concern.
It’s not an issue if the big blind calls, as any top pair that we flop will still be very strong in a 3-way pot, and the big blind will basically never call with a hand that dominates us.
Additionally, we may actually realize more equity in a 3-way pot. The flop will generally be checked to the opener, and since it’s 3-way, he’s less likely to c-bet. So, we’ll get to see the turn more often.
- Calling is low risk, high reward.
We’ll either end up playing a big pot with a strong holding or a small pot with a weak holding post-flop, which is exactly how we want it.
2. Cold-call more often when the big blind is a weak player
The situation: The big blind is a weak player.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself at a tough table with a player who is obviously inexperienced. And that player will sometimes be seated to your immediate left. You want to be involved in pots versus these guys so you can take their chips before someone else does.
These weak players are unlikely to squeeze pre-flop or give you trouble post-flop, which makes calling from the small blind a more viable option. You may even want to cold-call with some hands that you would usually 3-bet for value in order to draw the fish into the pot.
Example: CO (40BB stack) opens to 2.2BB. BTN folds. Hero (40BB stack) is in the SB with:
The BB is a weak player with a 40BB stack.
We could 3-bet with the intention of getting it all-in against the cutoff. This might be a profitable play, but probably only marginally profitable (at best). By calling, however, we invite the weak player into the pot, which gives us a chance to win some of his (or the cutoff’s) chips with a hand that can easily flop strong made hands.
On a separate note, this is actually a good 3-bet bluffing spot because, if the cutoff is competent, she will open wider on the weak player’s big blind in order to play more pots against him. We can exploit the cutoff’s widened range by mixing in some extra 3-bet bluffs with hands slightly below the bottom end of our calling range–think J9s, KTo, A2s, etc.
But, at the same time, we don’t want to waste opportunities to play against the weak player with hands that flop a little bit better than our 3-bet bluffing hands. We can usually get away with using a very exploitative strategy, where we call with hands that flop good top pairs (KJs, KQs, AJs, AQ, etc.) and hands that flop great multi-way (QJs, QTs, JTs, T9s), and 3-bet bluffing with hands that are slightly worse than that.
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3. Cold-call with small pocket pairs when your implied odds are great
The situation: A tight player raises and you have a small pocket pair. Both you and the tight player have deep stacks.
This is something that I see a lot of players get wrong, so let’s start with a quick quiz. In which case would you rather call from the small blind?
Case 1: 80BB stacks. UTG (nitty regular) opens to 2.2BB. 5 folds. Hero (SB) has 55, and…?
Case 2: 40BB stacks. CO (aggressive regular) opens to 2.2BB. 5 folds. Hero (SB) has 55, and…?
This is one of the most common and consistent leaks I see when reviewing other players’ hands. Many players tend to set-mine against loose ranges instead of tight ones because low pocket pairs have better equity against a wide range. That is the wrong approach.
In case one, UTG is probably opening something like 66+, AJ+. 55 has terrible equity against that range, but the fact that UTG’s range is tight is what makes this a decent spot to call. You’ll only hit your set 12% of the time, but when you do hit, you’ll make more than enough to cover all the times you don’t hit.
In case two, the CO’s loose range will usually miss the flop, which makes it tougher to extract value when you hit your set. Plus, there are fewer chips to potentially win with relatively short 40BB stacks, which worsens your implied odds.
When it’s going to be tough to win the pot without flopping a set, you need good implied odds to justify calling. Against someone who’s likely to give you a lot of action because their range is so strong, you’re effectively getting a discount in the small blind, and your flat will often invite the big blind in giving you even better odds. These are the spots you don’t want to miss deep-stacked.
This last cold-call-friendly situation is geared more towards advanced players.
4. Cold-call when you want to use a mixed strategy
The situation: You want to play a mixed strategy–taking different actions with the same hand at differing frequencies–from the small blind.
A mixed strategy is fairly tricky to pull off, and so I wouldn’t recommend it to inexperienced players.
Example: 25BB stacks. CO (regular) minraises. Action folds to Hero in the small blind with:
At first glance, we have a myriad of options here. Whenever I analyze a potential all-in situation, I like to begin by finding out if I can make a profit by shoving.
Against the estimated 31% opening range, T9s makes a 0.36BB profit by shoving. This isn’t an option to be overlooked, and we now know that shoving is better than folding.
By contrast, 3-bet/folding with this hand doesn’t make much sense—it doesn’t have good blockers, and we might even be priced in to call a 4-bet shove at this 25BB stack depth. 3-betting with the intention of calling a shove is pretty clearly spewy with ten-high. Consequently, our only good options are to shove or call.
If we call, we need 28% equity against a min-raise. If the BB joins, we need even less (and our hand still plays great multi-way). That said, we probably won’t actually realize all of our equity considering our positional disadvantage.
It’s tough to say where exactly to draw the line. The question is: can win more than 0.36BB by calling? Remember: there’s already 4.5BB out there, so you don’t have to win the pot very often to return a profit.
Since we are torn between two options, this would be a reasonable spot to use a mixed strategy with T9s. We can shove 50% of the time and call 50% of the time, for instance. Or, if we decide calling is slightly better than shoving, we can shove 25% of the time and call 75% of the time. Once we choose the frequencies, we have to use some sort of randomizer to decide which move to make.
For example, suppose we decide to shove 25% of the time and call 75% of the time. You can then look at a clock and decide which move to make based on the location of the seconds hand:
It’s noteworthy that many tournament players use a 3-bet or fold only strategy from the small blind with shallow stacks, and this is what I recommend for up-and-coming players. With more experience you can try playing a mixed strategy, which will make you much tougher to play against.
Check out Why the Best Poker Players Make Decisions at Random for more on how to use mixed strategies.
Cold calling checklist
Finally, I’ll send you to the post-flop streets with the following checklist. Mentally ask yourself each of these questions before cold calling in the small blind:
- How deep are the stacks? The shallower you are, the more hands you can 3-bet shove and make a profit. (Use a program like HoldemResources Calculator, or ICMizer to learn what hands you can 3-bet shove with certain stack sizes.)
- What kind of opening range am I facing? This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point.
- What kind of player is the big blind? If the big blind is a 3-betting machine, then flatting becomes less enticing since you’ll regularly get squeezed out of the pot. The big blind’s tendencies also matter when it comes to hand selection. If they tend to flat, then make sure your hand plays well multi-way. If they’re a nit who’s practically sitting out, you can call wider.
- How will my call be perceived? This is important with shallow stacks. Many tournament regs have a very low flatting percentage from the small blind, and when they finally do flat they almost always have a hand like ATs or KQs—a hand that doesn’t play well as a shove or 3-bet/fold. These are some of the best hands to flat, but if your flatting range is too transparent, you become easy to outplay.
That’s all for today! As always, I’m be happy to answer questions in the comments box below, or on Twitter @chuckbasspoker.
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