The small blind is arguably the most difficult position to master in No Limit Hold’em.
You are forced to pay half of a big blind without looking at your cards, and you play every single post-flop situation with a positional disadvantage.
These factors are impossible to completely overcome, which is why all players, no matter how skilled, lose money from the small blind over the long term.
But if you take this 6-step professional approach, you can minimize your small blind losses and elevate your overall win-rate.
This article has been updated to include more information to help you crush your competition from the small blind. Originally published September 28th, 2015.
Small Blind Step 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 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.
How wide can this range be? Well, in The Poker Lab, we recommend open-raising 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 considering the perils of small blind play, but the incentive to steal the dead money in the pot justifies a relatively wide opening range most of the time.
Below is the SB opening range recommended in The Poker Lab (44.19% of hands):
This range is a reasonable baseline strategy when open-raising from the small blind, but it’s important to adjust it as you learn more about your opponent. For example:
- If the BB is an aggressive player with a high 3-bet frequency, tighten your range
- When a super-tight player is in the BB, open-raise with an even wider range
You want to lean towards a larger open-raise size (around 3x-4x) in SB vs BB situations. Using a smaller size gives the player in the big blind an extremely good price on a call, which is far from ideal when out of position. 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.
(Note: Want to be the best player at the table from every position? Check out The Lab, an extensive poker training course developed and updated monthly by Doug Polk and Ryan Fee. Click HERE or below to learn more!)
Small Blind Step 2. Don’t Defend Your Small Blind Like It’s Your Big Blind
That 0.5 BB you put in the pot may slightly improve your pot odds, but that doesn’t mean that you should always honor this commitment to the pot.
(In fact, you should almost always avoid calling from the small blind when facing a raise. More on that in step 3.)
Let’s run through a pre-flop example to illustrate why you shouldn’t go out of your way to defend your 0.5 BB.
6-Max Cash. 100BB Effective Stacks
Hero is in the SB with:
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 23.07% equity needed to profitably call(see: how to calculate pot odds).
23.07% equity may not seem like much, but in order for a hand to realize its equity, it must reach showdown. There are a few reasons why J♥7♥ will do a poor job realizing its 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 (see: multi-way pots article). 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.
Step 3. 3-Bet Your Entire Continue Range
The inherent positional disadvantage of the player in the small blind is a catalyst for difficult post-flop 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.
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 such 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 value, our opponents can easily exploit us by over-folding against our 3-bets.
The optimal 3-betting range depends on the position of the original raiser. Here is a reasonable 3-betting range to use from the small blind facing a cutoff raise:
There are a few things worth discussing here.
- We choose 3-bet bluffs that improve our board coverage
Take notice of the hands that make up our 3-bet bluffing range. These include suited Ax, suited connectors, suited gappers and pocket pairs.
3-betting with a wide array of hands improves our board coverage so we can have strong hands on a variety of textures. If our range lacks wide board coverage, our opponent(s) can exploit us by turning up the aggression on boards that don’t connect with our range.
- We use a mixed strategy with some hands
The hands highlighted in pink are right on the borderline– they are either the bottom of our 3-bet range or the top of our fold range. The best option with these hands depends on the original raiser’s tendencies.
If the cutoff is a weak player with a high fold to 3-bet percentage, lean towards 3-betting the pink hands in order to pick up more pots. Against a formidable cutoff with aggressive stats, lean towards folding the pink hands to strengthen your range.
- The position of the open-raiser matter a lot
The earlier the position of the original raiser, the tighter your 3-betting range should be.
Versus a UTG raise in a 9-handed game, The Poker Lab recommends 3-betting just 2.56% of all hands, five times fewer hands than the Vs Cutoff range above. On the other end of the spectrum, versus a button raise you can 3-bet up to 21.27% of hands from the small blind.
3b. You Can Flat Some Hands in Tournaments
Flat call ranges from the small blind are more viable in tournaments for two reasons: antes and relatively small standard open-raises. 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 3x BBs. When facing a 3x raise, the player in the small blind needs ~36% equity to profitably call.
- In tournaments, the standard open-raise size is usually 2.5x BBs or less. When facing a 2.5x raise with antes in the pot, 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 flat range from the small blind in tournaments, especially when the big blind is a weak player unlikely to 3-bet.
Small blind flatting ranges are most viable with deeper stacks (50bb+), as you are able to better realize the equity of your implied odds. You can still get away with some flatting some hands when shorter, but as your stack approaches 20BB you should revert back to 3-bet or fold.
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 anything but the strongest of hands.
By contrast, if you’ve had the pleasure of playing blind vs blind vs a nit, you know how great it feels to confidentially and 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)
Don’t donk-bet from the small blind. Ever. (Even in a limped pot.)
It simply does not make sense from a range perspective. When a player flats an open(or over-limps), their range is instantly perceived as being weaker than the player who opened the pot. The caller would have 3-bet(or raised) with a strong hand if they had one, meaning that these can be eliminated from their range when they elect to flat.
Donk-bets are usually 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 be much better off checking in order to protect the rest of their hands.
Checking your entire range from the small blind is the only way to effectively balance your checking range. This is crucial because it prevents your opponents from profitably over-bluffing when you check to them.
6. Have a Blind vs Blind Strategy In Mind
Blind vs blind play is both dynamic and complex. This is because of the dead money already committed to the pot by both players, which incentivizes wider ranges.
There are two different approaches that can be taken from the small blind, both of which can be successful when executed properly. Decide which strategy you feel most confident using and go from there:
- Raise or fold
The first is a simple raise or fold strategy from the small blind. This strategy has two notable benefits: simplicity and a relatively high chance of winning the pot pre-flop.
Because less experienced players have a tendency to over-fold their big blind to a raise, this raise/fold strategy can be an effective one at lower limits.
- Mixed strategy
A mixed small blind strategy is much more complicated, with a range of limp/folds, limp/calls, limp/raises, raises and folds. Effectively balancing is very difficult with so many ranges to manage, and it can even become difficult to navigate certain post-flop spots.
A mixed strategy is most effective against players that incorrectly respond to limps in various ways. The obvious downside is that by limping, you allow the player in the big blind to realize equity for free by checking.
6b. Tailor Your Strategy For Tournament Play
In tournaments, the presence of antes can make limping a more 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 post-flop. Be careful limping with a short stack, however, as it’s usually better to just shove or fold to maximize your fold equity (see: How to Master Short-Stacked Small Blind Play in Blind vs Blind Battles).
Small Blind Wrap-Up
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 the blinds as often as possible
- Don’t go nuts defending your small blind
- 3-bet with your entire continue range(maybe flat some in tournaments)
- Keep an eye on the big blind’s tendencies
- Don’t donk-bet
- Sort out your blind vs blind strategy ahead of time
It is impossible to win in the long run from the small blind, so don’t beat yourself up over that big red number in PokerTracker. Just stay mindful of these 6-steps to keep that big red number from getting bigger.
(Note: Want to improve your poker skills, move up in stakes and make more money? The Poker Lab training course teaches comprehensive strategy for crushing No Limit Hold’em. Check out a walkthrough of The Lab HERE or click below to learn more!)
More poker strategy content from Ryan Fee and UpswingPoker:
- Double check that you are avoiding all 12 of the common preflop pitfalls with 12 Preflop Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs.
- Make your opponents think twice before they attempt to steal your big blind in tournaments! Check out Ultimate Guide to Big Blind Defense by Miikka Anttonen.
- Back to the top of this small blind poker article
I’m a professional poker player and one of the pros here on UpswingPoker.com.
I’m a WSOP Bracelet winner, LAPT (Latin American Poker Tour) tournament winner and a multi-million dollar winner of live & online tournaments.