The small blind is arguably the most difficult position to master in No Limit Hold’em.
This position is particularly challenging for two main reasons:
- You are forced to pay half of a big blind without looking at your cards
- You play every single postflop situation with a positional disadvantage
If you take this 5-step professional approach, you can elevate your small blind win-rate and find more overall success at the tables.
This article has been updated to help you crush your competition from the small blind. Originally published September 28th, 2015.
1. Steal Steal Steal
When the action folds around to you in the small blind, you only have to beat one player to win the dead money in the pot. This is an opportunity worth taking advantage of as often as profitably possible.
Many players, especially less experienced ones, have a tendency to over-fold from the big blind against steal attempts. Open-raising with a relatively wide range from the small blind is an effective way to exploit that.
But exactly how wide should your small blind stealing range be?
Well, in the Upswing Lab training course we recommend open-raising with a slightly wider range from the small blind than the button — anywhere between 40% and 50% of hands is a good starting point. This may seem high, but with just one player to get through and 1.5 blinds of dead money in the pot, a relatively wide opening range is justified.
For example, here is the SB opening range from the Advanced Solver Ranges in the Upswing Lab:
This range is a reasonable baseline strategy when open-raising from the small blind, but you can adjust it as you learn more about your opponent. For example:
- If the big blind is an aggressive player with a high 3-bet frequency, tighten your range.
- When a super-tight player is in the big blind, open-raise with an even wider range.
You should lean towards using a larger open-raise size (around 3x) in blind vs blind situations. Using a smaller size gives the player in the big blind very good pot odds to call, which is far from ideal for you as the out of position player. By using a larger size, the big blind player is expected to defend fewer hands, which will in turn make your steal attempts more successful.
Just as you adjust your raise range from the small blind, you can also adjust your raise size if you’ve been given a reason to do so. For example, If the player to your left has an alarmingly high fold to steal frequency, you can try a smaller open-raise size.
A limping strategy from the small blind has merits, but it is a lot tougher to implement effectively. Moreover, if you play mid-stakes or below, the rake impact will eat away at your win-rate. For these reasons, we do not recommend open-limping from the small blind in cash games.
1b. Tailor Your Strategy For Tournament Play
In tournaments, the presence of antes makes limping a viable strategy due to the excellent price you are getting on a call. (The small blind’s equity needed to limp in tournaments is usually around 20%. It’s 33% in ante-less cash games.)
With a deep stack and a somewhat balanced limping range, you can afford to defend your limps at a correct frequency whilst still having options postflop. Be careful limping with a short stack, however, as it’s oftentimes better to just shove or fold (see: How to Master Short-Stacked Small Blind Play in Blind vs Blind Battles).
2. Don’t Defend Your Small Blind Like It’s Your Big Blind
Your pot odds are slightly better than usual with 0.5 blind already invested, but that doesn’t mean you should call raises with all sorts of marginal hands.
(In fact, you should almost always avoid calling from the small blind versus a raise. More on that in tip #3.)
Let’s run through a preflop example to illustrate why you shouldn’t go out of your way to defend your 0.5 BB.
6-Max Cash Game. 100BB Effective Stacks
Hero is in the SB with J♥ 7♥
UTG raises to 3BB. MP calls. CO calls. btn folds. Hero…?
Hero must call 2.5BB more to win the 10.5BB in the pot, which comes out to 19.23% equity needed to profitably call (see: how to calculate pot odds). 19.23% equity may not seem like much, but in order for a hand to realize its equity, it must reach showdown (see: equity realization explained).
There are a few reasons why J♥ 7♥ will be unlikely to realize even that small amount of equity from the small blind:
- We won’t reach the river often in a 4-way pot
We are forced to play very tight when out of position in multi-way pots. Even if we catch a decent flop, like K♠ 7♦ 2♥, we will often have to fold when facing aggression and players behind.
- J♥ 7♥ is easily dominated and has marginal playability
Our hand is dominated by the many stronger Jx combos in the range of the UTG raiser and subsequent callers. The straight possibilities of our hand are limited, not-nutted and unlikely to be a factor.
- The threat of a big blind squeeze looms
When we choose to flat rather than 3-bet from the small blind, our range is capped — it cannot contain the strongest hands. A good player in the big blind may realize this and squeeze a wide range, forcing us to fold our equity without seeing a flop. Or, the big blind may simply wake up with a very strong hand.
The threat of a big blind squeeze is also a driving factor for the next tip.
3. 3-Bet With Your Entire Continue Range
The inherent positional disadvantage of the player in the small blind is a catalyst for difficult postflop spots. However, we can mitigate this disadvantage by using a 3-bet or fold strategy from the small blind when facing a raise.
3-betting provides the small blind a chance to win the pot without seeing a flop, and reduces the average number of players in the hand. Plus, it takes the same play away from the player in the big blind.
Our 3-betting range from the small blind needs to be tight, as continuing with only strong hands drastically minimizes the difficulty of playing out of position. Trying to play a wide range of hands with a positional disadvantage is a recipe for losing sessions.
Despite our disadvantageous position, it is still important to balance our small blind 3-betting range with bluffs — albeit relatively strong bluffs. If we 3-bet strictly premium hands, our opponents can actually exploit us by over-folding against our 3-bets.
The optimal 3-bet range depends on the position of the original raiser. You should 3-bet a wider range versus the later positions than you would against the earlier positions.
For example, here is a 3-betting range to use from the small blind when facing a cutoff raise (from the Advanced Solver Ranges in the Upswing Lab):
Notice that we use a mixed strategy with some hands (AJo, KQo, K9s, J9s, 77, A4s), 3-betting only some of the time. Learn more about mixed strategies here.
3b. You Can Call Some Hands in Tournaments
Calling ranges from the small blind are more viable in tournaments for two reasons: the introduction of antes and the smaller average open-raise sizes.
Consider the difference in pot odds when facing a standard raise in cash games and tournaments:
In a 9-handed cash game, the standard open-raise size is usually around 3 blinds. When facing a 3 blind raise (with no callers), the player in the small blind needs ~36% equity to profitably call.
In tournaments, the standard open-raise size is usually 2.5 blinds or less. When facing a 2.5 blind raise with antes in the pot (and no callers), the player in the small blind needs just 28.5% equity to profitably call.
With such great pot odds being offered to us, we can often times get away with having a calling range from the small blind in tournaments, especially when the big blind is a weak player who is unlikely to 3-bet.
Speaking of big blind 3-betting…
4. Keep Your Eye on the Player in the Big Blind
Have you ever had a really good, aggressive player sitting on your left? It is an absolute nightmare, especially for blind vs blind play. Their constant flatting, floating and 3-betting makes it tough to play any marginal or speculative hands.
By contrast, if you’ve had the pleasure of playing blind vs blind vs a nitty player, you know how great it feels to consistently steal their blind every orbit.
You need to be mindful of tendencies like these for every player, particularly the one on your left, and adjust your strategy to counter them.
If you’ve got an aggressive player in the big blind who is defending by 3-betting and 4-betting at a high frequency, narrow all of your ranges to avoid bleeding chips in marginal spots. If there’s an extremely tight player to your left, widen all of your ranges and win as many pots as possible.
5. Don’t Lead Out (aka Donk-Bet)
As previously mentioned, you should avoid calling raises from the small blind. However, if you do find yourself calling and seeing a flop out of position…
Don’t donk-bet. Even in a limped pot.
It simply does not make sense from a theoretical perspective. The player who raised (or open-limped) should almost always have the strongest range, because the player who called (or over-limped) would have put more chips into the pot preflop if they held a strong hand.
Donk-bets are most commonly done by weaker players (hence the name) for value or protection when they have connected with the board in some way. Due to their range disadvantage, they would usually be better off checking in order to protect the rest of their hands.
Note that donk-betting from the small blind can make sense as an exploitative adjustment, but that is a complex topic and beyond the scope of this article.
Small Blind Strategy Recap
With so many unique factors to consider, it’s no wonder the small blind is the most difficult position to play from in No Limit Hold’em. Remember:
- Steal often when its folded to you (but mix in some limps in tournaments).
- Don’t defend your small blind like its your big blind.
- 3-bet with your entire continue range (except in tournaments).
- Adjust your play based on the big blind’s tendencies.
- Don’t donk-bet.
It is nearly impossible to win in the long run from the small blind, so don’t beat yourself up over that red number in PokerTracker. Just stay mindful of these 5 tips to keep that red number from getting bigger.
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