How to Master Short-Stacked Small Blind Play in Blind vs Blind Battles
Modern Short-Stack Play (Part 3)
I used to be pretty bad at shallow blind vs. blind play.
I didn’t really know how to approach it – according to simulation tools, you could just open shove a ton of hands from the small blind, even with 20 big blinds, and make a profit. But then I’d feel like an idiot jamming my A-2o and losing my whole stack to my opponent’s 6-6, risking 20 big blinds just to win the 2.5BB that’s out there.
Yet every time when I made a smaller raise and got jammed on, I felt like an even bigger idiot. Of course they knew that I was stealing. After all, everyone always steals from the small blind! Having to raise-fold A-2o felt twice as bad – now I’d lost an eighth of my stack without even seeing a flop.
For such a simple subject – playing 20 big blinds with just one opponent left to beat – I felt lost for many years. I wasn’t doing terrible, or at least I didn’t think so, but I sure wasn’t crushing those spots either.
This brings us to…
Part 3: Playing Shallow Blind vs Blind Spots from the Small Blind
When it folds to you in the small blind with 12-20BB, you have a few options:
- Complete the big blind (or limp)
- Raise to some amount that still leaves you room to fold to a shove, typically 2-3 big blinds
- Go all-in
With a stack of less than 12 BBs, I’d generally advocate always just shoving or folding. A good case could be made to still raise-fold when shallower than 12 big blinds, but I’m personally not a big fan.
Anyway, let’s take a more in-depth look at our options.
Small Blind Option #1: Open-shoving
Let’s start with the all-in shoves. I’m not going to waste your time (or mine) by including shoving charts in this article. As a tournament professional, there’s really no excuse to not have either memorized or printed out small blind shoving ranges 5 to 20 big blinds deep. I had them glued to my desk for many years, and although friends often laughed when they saw them, I can now remember them in my sleep.
However, there’s something important to understand about open shoves that many people don’t really have a good grasp of. The point, in my opinion, isn’t to know exactly what you can shove in each spot. It’s semantics whether you can shove 62% or 64% with this and that stack size. Getting it slightly wrong will have virtually no effect on your winrate.
What’s really important is having a good idea of how much each shove will roughly make. And there’s no shortcut to learning these values, you have to put in the hours using a program like HoldemResources calculator.
While you can shove an insane amount of hands profitably when short-stacked in the small blind, against many opponents it’s not the most optimal play. An obvious example would be open shoving A-A for 20 big blinds – unless your opponent is calling shoves with an absurdly wide range, it just can’t be the best play. But the opposite end of the spectrum is much more important.
If your opponent is a gigantic nit who will fold the vast majority of his hands to a small raise, then it clearly can’t be good to risk your whole stack when you’d get the same result by just risking two or three big blinds. However, most opponents fall somewhere in between – they defend roughly the correct amount by either flatting and shoving, and that’s when it’s really handy to know which hands make so much by shoving that compared to raising smaller it becomes the better option.
Here’s what you can shove for 15 big blinds in a 9-handed table (antes of 10% of the big blind, assuming the big blind calls correctly):
Now look at these numbers. Say you have 8-4s here. Is the 0.02 big blinds worth risking your whole stack? It usually isn’t.
But what about 2-2 or A-2o or K-6s, all of which are profiting over 1 big blind on average? It’d be criminal to pass that value, so drag that bet slider all the way to the right
When you know exactly how much a hand profits by shoving, you already have half of the riddle solved. The only thing left to do before shoving is to figure out if your opponent is tight enough to raise-fold instead. If he’s playing back with virtually the same range against both shoves and smaller raises, it becomes suboptimal to risk your whole stack when you could achieve the same profit with much less risk.
So, cliff’s notes: I don’t think it matters a lot when you get to the border areas of the chart – whether you shove or fold Q5o or T7o or 65o is almost irrelevant. The important thing is knowing the clear shoves, which will be huge money-makers for you in these spots. Figure out what to do with the rest of your hands based on your opponent’s playing style and his stats.
Lastly, it’s important to also consider how wide you think your opponent will call your shove. HUD stats are typically more relevant to deeper-stacked play, but they can still give you a decent feel for your opponent’s overall tendencies. Generally, if they call too wide, it rarely affects your shoving ranges that much. The chart above assumes that the opponent calls mathematically correctly, which in that spot would be 39% of hands. But what if we double his calling range to a totally insane and unrealistic 78% of hands? This is what you can still shove:
Not that different from the first chart, even though your opponent is now calling a crazy amount of hands. But what if we’re on the bubble against some scared money player looking to make the money? Here’s what you can shove against someone who’s only calling 66+, ATo+, A8s+, KJs+, KQo:
Yep, you are now profiting 1.33 big blinds by shoving 7-2o. By the way, I find it really cool that 7-2o makes virtually the same as A-2o or K-9o, as most of the money comes from the big blind over-folding.
Again, despite knowing that you can make this much by shoving 7-2o it’s important to realize that it still might not be the best option. For example, a reasonable adjustment against such a tight player would be:
- Raise non all-in with a range containing all the really crappy hands and some monsters
- Open shove the remaining hands
This is obviously a very exploitative strategy, but the reason you’d want to use it is because your average MTT opponent just isn’t very good at recognizing these things to begin with. As with any exploitative strategy: proceed with caution and be ready to quickly readjust if needed.
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Small Blind Option #2: Raising Small
So, how exactly do you figure out whether a small raise is profitable or not? The answer is – shocker alert – math. The basic math is this:
the amount you risk / (current pot size + the amount you risk) = how often the raise needs to get through
For example: Let’s say the blinds are 500/1000/100 at a 9-handed table, which makes the pot size 2,400 chips. You’re in the small blind and decide to raise to 2.5x the BB, 2,500 chips. You’re risking 2,000 chips (the 500 in the small blind is no longer yours), sp the calculation would look like this:
2,000 / (2,000+2,400) = 0.454
Your raise has to work 45.4% of the time to show an immediate profit (not accounting for post-flop play).
I’ll save you some time and list the formula’s outcome for all typical raise sizes (9-handed, 10% antes):
- 2x: 38.4%
- 2.25x: 41.1%
- 2.5x: 45.4%
- 3x: 51%
The first thing I want to address is this: I think min-raising is virtually always wrong. You see it happen all the time, and as the big blind, I’m always almost insulted – it feels like my opponent either has no respect for my game or thinks that I’m some huge nit (although the most likely explanation is that they just aren’t that great at the fundamentals).
How much your opponent needs to defend to stop you from auto-profiting doesn’t change much from size to size. Against a min-raise they need to defend 61.6% of hands. That number dips just 7% to 54.6% against a 2.5x raise. That’s it. Yet in reality, making it 2.5x instead of 2x will often boost your opponent’s folding equity by much more, often by something like 15%.
In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the price the big blind is getting against each of these raise sizes in more detail, but quickly: The big blind needs ~20.4% raw equity to call against a min-raise. So even if your small blind opening range was only [QQ+, AK], 72o would have enough raw equity to call the minraise.
I wouldn’t advise calling 72o because it realizes it’s equity very poorly, but this helps illustrate something key about BvB play:
When there’s a lot of money to be won by raising, we shouldn’t make it enticing for our opponent to call with nearly any two.
And this, my friends, is where the game is going. I remember the good old days too, when people defended their big blind with 20% of hands and you could min-raise any two and print money. But people are becoming more and more sticky from the big blind and learning to play back at those min-raises.
If I had to choose between 2x and 3x raises from the small blind for the rest of my life, I’d choose 3x in heartbeat. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an opening size of something like 2.7x from the small blind 20 big blinds effective became the norm within a year or two.
Small Blind Option #3: Limping
Open-limping in the small blind is one of the most prominent new trends among MTT regulars from the last couple of years. I know I’m going to get flamed by a lot of good regulars for what I’m about to say, but I was hired by UpswingPoker to write articles that’ll maximize the amount of money the readers make playing poker.
I truly believe limping is currently overused in online MTTs. The reason is quite simple; people still don’t defend the big blind enough against raises, which makes raising more profitable. When you limp, you’re at the mercy of your opponent to even see a flop (unless you limp-shove).
Let’s take another look at the numbers that tell us how often villain must defend his big blind to stop us from auto-profiting:
- 2x: 61.6%
- 2.25x: 58.9%
- 2.5x: 54.6%
- 3x: 49%
Do you think the players in your games defend this often against these sizes?
While I can certainly think of a lot of good reasons for limping, there are so many villains who massively under-defend against raises (and who you can thus exploit the shit out of by raising) that using limping as a basic strategy just can’t be more profitable.
The lower stakes you play, the more true this typically becomes. Most players in $22 buy-in MTTs have no idea how to defend their big blind. They might 3-bet shove their top 10% hands and flat another 15%. But when they see a limp, they sense weakness, because they read in some 2007 poker book that limping means weak, and raise you off your hand.
Perversely, many top regulars play a limp-only strategy to be absolutely balanced, when weaker players actually see limps as unbalanced and end up “accidentally” exploiting regulars by shoving way too much based on their belief of the limping range being weak. But you still can’t call the shoves with that many hands, which means that you’re just saying goodbye to a lot of money you could’ve made by raising in the first place.
Allowing this to happen is a disaster against opponents who would have otherwise let you have their big blind if you raised. I think that deeper-stacked limping is often a pretty good strategy – people tend to defend their big blind more against raises deeper, and we also have room for limp-raises and so on. But when we are less than 20 big blinds deep, the problem is that our opponent can also just shove over our limp.
Remember how much we could shove for 15 big blinds from the small blind? Against a limp, the big blind’s situation is basically exactly that, plus there’s another 0.5BB in the pot. Obviously you’d also balance your limps by also limping with a lot of traps, but it’s just really hard to come up with a limping range that would both be balanced and make a bigger profit than playing a strategy that mostly consists of raising or folding.
I’m all for limping with, say, 30 big blinds or more, but I’ve yet to see evidence of it being optimal with less than 20 big blinds. I’m not saying that a limp-heavy strategy wouldn’t be profitable – I’m sure it is, but I just don’t think it’s the most profitable one.
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Here’s just one more anecdote: according to Nash shoving ranges, you make 0.75 big blinds by shoving Q-9s from the small blind for 20 big blinds. Are you really going to make more by limping? When you limp, your opponent picks up 3 options they wouldn’t otherwise have:
- Your opponent can see a flop (if they want to)
- They can take the initiative in position by isolating to a smaller size
- They can just go all-in with a bunch of hands (that couldn’t have called the shove) and force you to fold your ~50% of equity instead of vice versa.
That said, I do like limping shallow against chronic over-isolators. These are often the types who like to isolate limpers in non-blind vs blind scenarios extremely wide too.
If you have a good read that your opponent will raise to 3x and then fold against your limps a lot, you print more money by limp-shoving all kinds of hands than by using any other strategy. But you have to be careful to ensure that you’re deep enough that your opponent won’t just be shoving. With a hand like A-2o, it’s obviously great if you can get an additional 2 big blinds of value and then get him to fold before the flop by limp-shoving, but what if he goes all-in?
You’re now in a bit of a disaster spot yourself – you either call, resulting in a coin-flip you could’ve avoided by shoving yourself, or you fold and feel stupid about wasting your hand.
Post-Flop Play in the Small Blind
With the way the game is evolving, you’ll be seeing more and more flops in blind vs blind scenarios, even when very shallow-stacked.
As we discussed in the previous article, the shallower you are, the more equity you actually get to realize post-flop. I don’t think the general MTT-playing population has realized this yet, but I suspect that they will at some point in the near future.
We’ll talk about this in the next part of the series in more detail from the perspective of the big blind, but as soon as you make that raise from the small blind with a garbage hand, you should already be buckling up and getting ready to play some post-flop poker with extremely wide ranges/
The first thing to understand is board coverage. Which boards hits which player?
- Ace-high boards are advantageous for the small blind.
If you see a flop as the pre-flop raiser from the small blind, or have limped and your opponent has chosen not to raise, you have a massive range advantage on ace-high boards. Nearly everyone 3-bet shoves most or all of their aces against a raise, and likewise raises small blind limps with those hands. Thus, when the flop comes A-x-x, the first thought in your head should be “great, this is my flop”, regardless of if you have an ace or not. You need to bet those flops, and if the stack sizes allow you to do it or you have any half-decent equity at all, you should barrel turns as well.
- Broadway-heavy boards are advantageous for the small blind (but less-so)
Same as above, but to a lesser extent. On a flop like K-Q-2, the range advantage is still on your side. You can have all the AA, KK, QQ, AK, AQ, KQ, KJ type hands, whereas your opponent has virtually none of them. He, too, can still easily have top pair, but you’re the only one who can have nutted hands, and you should still be winning the vast majority of these boards regardless of if you’ve hit the flop or not. It’s always at least worth a bet even if you have completely whiffed, but unlike A-high boards, you should exercise a bit more caution and not just barrel hands with no equity.
- Super-bricky boards are advantageous for the small blind in raised pots and the big blind in limped pots.
On boards like 3-2-2, 5-2-2, etc, the range advantage is actually again on your side in raised pots. Many people raise up to 100 percent from the small blind (and they often should, as many people don’t defend the big blind enough), but hardly anyone defends every single hand from the big blind. What are the first hands that people cut off their defending ranges? Yep, the junk like 7-2, 4-2, 8-3, etc. Plus, you can also have all the overpairs, and they can’t.
In limped pots it’s the opposite, because assuming you don’t limp 100 percent, hands with deuces and treys are the least likely limping hands (since garbage hands work better as shoves or folds), but your opponent certainly can have all of them when he checks.
- Any other board becomes a game of chicken, equity, and luck.
On boards like T-8-5 there’s nothing wrong with playing somewhat according to your hand. When you have a draw or top pair, go for it. When you’ve totally missed with your Q-4o, you can just check-fold and not even bother to c-bet. Obviously this is all very simplistic advice, and your post-flop strategy should depend on your opponent and the specific situation more than anything else.
Lastly, this is the most important rule about blind versus blind post-flop play: everyone is full of shit.
When you play with super-wide ranges, usually no one has anything better than second pair, yet for some reason in blind versus blind pots people always spazz out like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t know what causes it, but people just do. It probably has to do with the psychology of you two being the last two in the hand, and each of you knowing that the other has a wide range.
While that’s all true, I think that people still over-adjust by trying to win every single pot by doing stupid things. You should keep in mind that, as established earlier in this article, you can already make automatic profit against a lot of opponents by raising the small blind even if you check-fold every flop. Especially in small to mid-stakes MTTs, that’s where most of your profit comes from, and not from some epic post-flop bluff attempt.
You could play completely fit or fold and still make a lot of money in these situations. I’ve said this to dozens of people who I’ve coached over the years, and I’ll say it once more: as a general rule, let your opponents do the spazzing in post-flop pots blind versus blind. I promise you that they will spazz out, over and over again, until the end of time.
Blind vs Blind HUD
As a bit of a bonus, here’s a picture of my blind vs blind popup HUD. When I hover over a specific icon in my hud, this pops up. Of all the popup huds that I have, I’d say that this is by far the most effective one. It takes 10 minutes to set up, and there’s no excuse to not having it up at all times.
The HUD is quite simple and self-explanatory. But it’s also a powerful tool that basically solves many pre-flop situations for you. I might write a separate article about HUDs later on, but just as a quick pointer: HUD stats are at their most useful in spots where they show the biggest devations between players.
Blind vs blind pre-flop spots are where I regularly see gigantic differences between the styles of otherwise very similarly playing regulars. When you look at more generic numbers, it really tells you nothing at all whether someone has a 22% or 20% VPIP. But in blind vs blind situations, you often see a winning regular only open 22% from the small blind, and another reg open 90%. It’s a huge difference.
By looking at this regular’s statistics, what would your approach from the small blind 20 big blinds effective be (assuming there are no bubble / ICM considerations in play)? Think about it for a moment and click below for the answer.
In the final part of this series we’ll take a look at these situations from the big blind’s perspective – click here to check it out.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to hit me up in the comments box below or on twitter @chuckbasspoker.
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Read more from Miikka Anttonen’s Modern Short Stack Play series: