Small Blind Strategy Before the Flop | Upswing Poker Level Up #16



This article is based on an episode of the Level-Up Podcast, hosted by poker pro and coach Gary “GazzyB” Blackwood and Upswing VP Mike Brady. You can watch or listen to the entire episode via the links above or read on if you prefer a written version.

Mike: Hello there my poker playing friends, let’s take some time to level-up. My name is Mike Brady and I’m joined by the man who still holds down the #1 spot on my MySpace top 8, poker pro Gary Blackwood.

Gary: What’s up guys and girls? We’re going to be discussing playing from the small blind today.

Mike: In this final episode of season 2, we’re going help you play better from the small blind before the flop. This is a unique position because you have half a blind already invested, which improves your pot odds, but you’re also out of position against every other player at the table. What’s more, you’ve still got the big blind to worry about behind you.

We’re going to start by talking about how to play from the small blind against a raise. Then we’ll move on to playing against a limp or two. We’ll wrap it up by talking about playing from the small blind when the action has folded to you.

The focus will be on 100bb deep cash-game play with no ante, but we’ll talk about tournament-specific strategy as we go as well.

Note that the word “flat” is used throughout this episode. It just means call.

Playing a 3-bet-or-Fold Strategy From the Small Blind

Mike: So, Gary, there’s an ultra-common strategy that many good players use from the SB when facing a raise, and that strategy is to play 3-bet or fold. In other words, you never call. If you’re going play a hand from the SB against a raise, you do so by 3-betting. Can you explain why this is such a common strategy among studied players?

Playing Preflop From The Small Blind | Upswing Poker Level Up #16

Gary: There are several reasons why we shouldn’t play flats from the SB, each as important as the next.

Firstly, when we flat the SB we cap ourselves to a very defined range of middling pairs, maybe some offsuit broadways, some suited wheel aces. Hands like AJo, 77, A3s, 65s. It’s a really defined range and it’s easy to play against.

That leads me to my second point, when we’re as capped as this the BB can make our lives a misery by squeezing relentlessly. All of those hands I mentioned play horribly postflop if you call twice (calling a preflop raise and then calling the squeeze). We’re basically dead money here and the big blind can put tons of pressure on us.

Lastly, it’s such a boring answer but it’s really important, rake dictates what we can and can’t do in terms of preflop flatting, and beating the rake with a wide flatting strategy is impossible, so we should almost always play 3-bet-or-fold (ALMOST always)!

3-Bet Sizing from The Small Blind

Mike: What 3-bet size do you like from the SB with 100bb stacks?

Gary: So our range is merged here, it’s not polarized, which means I typically use a 4x 3-bet size. If someone opens to 2BB I’ll go 8BB, if they open to 2.5BB I’ll go 10BB, and so on. 

There are two spots where I don’t really follow that golden rule.

One, if the open raise is already very large, we don’t really want to use the 4x size. So if someone opens to 3.5BB, we don’t really want to 3-bet to 14BB. You can go something like 12.5BB and it still does the same job.

Secondly, if you’re playing against a fun player that has like a 60BB stack, and they open to 3BB, you don’t want to go to 12BB. You want to allow for a slightly bigger stack-to-pot ratio (SPR).

We can’t go smaller than 4x (in most cases) because then we’re giving the in-position player a great price to see a flop. I’d only go smaller than 4x if someone opens to 3.5bb or something.

Mike: To that point you made, against the short stacks you want to go a little bit smaller. One quick note for tournaments – in tournaments you’re going to be dealing with all kinds of different stack sizes. If your opponent opens to 2BB off of a 30bb stack, you’re certainly not going with a 4x 3-bet. You can go more like 3x and that’s fine.

But don’t go 3x when you’re deep. Let’s say you opponent makes it $15 in a $2/$5 game, you make it $45 in the SB. It gets back to them, and they only have to call $30, in position, with a ton of money behind. They’re getting an insanely good price. You don’t want to offer them that very profitable scenario.

Do You Ever Call From the Small Blind in Cash Games?

Mike: Do you ever have a calling range from the small blind in cash games? And if so, what are the conditions that would make you want to do so?

Gary: So our ranges are never static, we are always looking for spots to slightly deviate, and this spot is no different. The players that stick relentlessly to their ranges are costing themselves EV.

We can have SOME flats in the small blind, when we’ve got really big fun players who have opened OR if they’re in the BB. If UTG opens and I have 66 in the SB with a megafish in the BB, I’m never folding. We don’t adjust and have flats with average recs in the big blind, only the very loose splashy juicy ones.

Our range is easy to work out; it’s those middling pairs, KQo, A3s type hands, really not that wide at all. Hands that can flop really well and do tons of damage. A hand like 65s not so much, because the very active fun player is going to be in there with their J2s, and you’re going to be dominated from time to time.

Mike: I’m curious to ask you about one other player type. If I was in the SB, facing a UTG raise at a 9-handed table from a fairly tight player, and I had 99. Under normal conditions I’m 3-betting.

That said, if the BB was a very passive, tight, weak player, I would consider just flatting the 99. It’s like I’m becoming the BB, because of how tight the guy who’s actually in the BB is going to play, and how infrequently they’re going to squeeze. I’m talking about guys that may not even squeeze QQ or AK.

Gary: Remember that the guy in the BB who’s not going to squeeze a lot is still going to believe himself to be priced in with hands that can now flat. So if UTG opens and you fold in the SB, he’s going to fold a hand like 87o. But if you call in the SB, he’s going to be priced in to call, so you’re going multiway to a flop a lot more often, and your equity comes down.

When you factor in the high rake, it becomes somewhat of a double-edged sword. Yes you are much more likely to see a flop, but the rake is high, you’re seeing the flop multiway, and you have a lot less equity. So I’ll continue to play a 3-bet-or-fold type of strategy when that type of player is in the BB.

Mike: I can ascertain from that if you’re playing in a game with no table rake, like a timed seat fee game at the Lodge, then you can probably play that flat range even more often.

So there are a lot of puzzle pieces. We could go over dozens or hundreds of permutations here. But just think about the unique factors of the situation, the rake, the player in the BB, the player who opened, and then you can make a good decision.

Gary: We can see that the strategy we play in a raked game versus an unraked game, for example playing live poker $5/$10 at the Bellagio where you pay time, or at the Lodge Card Club, you have a really wide flatting range. Which sort of proves the point about how much the rake affects the situation. Because if you’re playing in a raked game there’s no flatting range. But if you’re playing in an unraked game your flatting range is unbelievably wide in a lot of scenarios.

Mike: Let’s go ahead a drop two ranges from the Smash Live Cash course that Nick Petrangelo made, comparing the same spot in a raked game versus a no-rake game:

Mike: The rake really does make a difference. You don’t want that chunk taken out of the pot, that’s for sure.

Differences in Tournament Strategy

Mike: In tournaments, where you have no rake, you want to play more hands and have a flatting range in the SB.

Tournaments not only have no rake, they also have an ante, adding an extra BB in the pot. If you watch good players on tournament streams, you’ve noticed that they absolutely have a flatting range in the SB, even if there’s an absolute savage in the BB.

Gary: You get to flat unbelievably wide. Coming back and speaking about cash games, this further proves the point of why we don’t want to have a flatting range in the SB. There’s no ante, and the rake is playing a massive part. 

When you’re playing tournaments, there’s no rake, and somebody is making a really small open like 2.2x, your odds are insane, so you get to flat really wide. So if we’re not having a flatting range, or our flatting range is really tight, we’re costing ourselves a ton of EV.

Mike: I want to make one more note about tournaments. There’s this one specific SB flatting spot that I’ve found particularly juicy.

It’s when I’m sitting on a 15-25BB stack, the kind of stack where to pair is just the pure nuts. And it goes open, call, and I’m in the SB with KJo. Hands like KJo, QJo, those are slam dunk calls. If you flop top pair, there’s probably going to be a c-bet, you get to raise, and you get to pick up a bunch of dead money, or double up against worse top pairs.

Playing vs Limpers from the Small Blind

Mike: Let’s move on to playing the SB when players have limped in. Suppose one player has limped from middle position. Gary, how do you approach building your range in this spot? Which hands do you flick in that extra half a BB and which hands do you prefer to raise?

Gary: Very wide indeed. I’m probably a little too wide in that spot but the limper will basically always be a fun player and I build my entire life around trying to play pots with fun players. Literally anything suited, or semi-connected. 86o is connected enough, 74o just about connected enough, anything with a T or above.

The only hands I won’t call are the super trashy 83o, 72o, 94o type hands that are just too disconnected. Remember playing pots with fun players is where we make most of our money in this game, so flicking in HALF A BIG BLIND with a pretty trash hand is okay by me.

In terms of the hands that want to isolate, you can raise very similarly to an HJ opening range. All your suited Ax, 6s and above, unsuited broadways, those types of hands that you’d open in the HJ.

One slight error that people make is instead of just completing with a hand like 54s, people will isolate. Let’s not raise to 4BB out of position with five-high against a player that’s never going to fold. You want to be raising wide, just don’t overdo it with hands like 75s, 65s, A4o, etc.

Mike: I like the point you make about 54s. Those suited connectors, when they’re played as raises, a lot of their value comes from the possibility of just winning the pot preflop, or the possibility of just the BB calling and you get to play in position.

In that specific situation you just said, it’s just not going to happen. You’re going to raise and you’re going to get called. You’re just building the pot with a hand that’s certainly behind. Out of position no less.

In general, if you’re in a situation where you don’t think your raises have a lot of fold equity, a lot of those low suited connectors go from raises to folds or calls.

Playing Against Multiple Limpers in the Small Blind

Mike: How do things change against multiple limpers?

Gary: For me nothing really changes, the range that calls is still the same. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword; on the one hand your immediate odds improve versus multiple limpers, but on the other hand your reverse implied odds can hurt you as well. For example, if you call with 64o and the flop comes down 6-4-2 and someone’s got pocket deuces or something like that.

But for me the range doesn’t change, I’m still in there extremely wide! I guess if I was to really think about it and make some adjustments, versus one limper K2o is nice to complete,  but versus multiple limpers we should fold this hand because our top pairs are more likely to be dominated. I’m still in there with anything suited, any Ax, I think any Kx is just about ok. But your Q4o-type hands probably become folds.

Playing from the Small Blind When Action Folds to You

Mike: Alright let’s wrap this episode up with a brief discussion on playing from the SB when the action has folded to you. Strategies can get pretty complex when you’re out of position against the one remaining player. What’s the theoretically correct way to approach this spot?

Gary: There are so many good players I play against that have different open sizes; 2.5x, 3x and 3.5x opens, and some players play a limping strategy. My advice is to open to 3x with around 45% of your range, and to never limp.

Limping the small blind is a very complex strategy that needs to be mastered and implemented correctly to be profitable, and on top of that the rake is insanely high and too high in order to make it profitable, so completing in the small blind versus a couple of limps is fine, but limping when it’s folded to you is a big no-no.

One last adjustment that we can make at lower stakes is to include a stat in our HUD, it’s called something like “BB fold to SB steal” and if that number is quite high we can widen our opening range even more. If we steal one BB per 100 hands, our win rate goes up 1BB/100.

Also note that at lower stakes games with weaker regs they won’t 3-bet from the BB as much as they should. The Upswing Lab preflop ranges give you a really good insight on this, you’re supposed to be 3-betting with hands like T4s, K6o, A3o, J4s.

So they’ll see a flop with a wider and somewhat weaker range than they should, so we want to exploitatively c-bet a little wider than the solver suggests in this spot at the micros.

Mike: The big takeaway here is to generally just play a raise strategy from the SB. Technically, even with rake, limping is a theoretically correct strategy. That’s what the computer would do against the computer. However, we’re not computers, not even close.

Gary used the right word, mastering a limping strategy in the SB. It is incredibly complex. Not only do you have to memorize these outrageously complex preflop ranges, then you have to learn how to play this strategy postflop. We’re talking hundreds of hours of study to properly implement a limping strategy in the SB, and it only adds a little bit of EV.

Mike: That’s all we’ve got prepared for you today. If you enjoyed the show, hit that like button on YouTube or rate the show on the podcast app of your choice. If you have any questions, drop them below the YouTube video or tweet them out with the hashtag #uplevelup.

For those of you who want to keep getting better at poker on your own time, go join the Upswing Lab training course.

It’s an incredibly extensive course that includes everything you need to boost your win rate. There are over 100 modules covering crucial strategic topics, preflop charts for almost every situation under the sun, and an amazing community of members who are always down to talk poker. 

As a listener (or reader) of this podcast you can get $50 off the Lab with coupon code LEVELUP.

Gary’s actually got 7 great modules in the Lab, so if you like learning from him, you know where to go. Learn more about the Lab here!

Take care and we’ll see you in season 3.