Small-Ball Poker Tournament Strategy – How Can Small-Ball Benefit You?

Discusses The Advantages Of Pot Control In Poker Tournaments
A Small-Ball Poker Tournament Strategy

Updated! Since this article was originally published, average bet sizes in poker tournaments have become progressively smaller. It is almost like the collective minds of the poker playing public decided that Small Ball was the right way to go! I have now updated the article to reflect this, and also added new sections: One on post-flop small ball play and a warning to some players that small ball may not always be the best course of action!!

Small Ball Poker describes a playing style that emphasizes managing the size of the pot to accumulate chips without the risk of going broke. Many players employ this style in their poker tournament strategy, Daniel Negreanu being one of the best known.

The small-ball poker tournament strategy has many advantages. These include the ability to gain information over several betting rounds in order to put your opponent on a hand. Secondly, by not risking big all-in confrontations players can reduce the chance of going out of a poker tournament due to a bad-beat or mis-read of an opponents holding.

Small Ball Poker Strategy - Keeping The Pot Small Starts Pre-Flop

Keeping pots small in poker begins on the pre-flop betting round. This is due to the fact that on the flop, turn and river bet sizes are usually a proportion of the pot. Let us look at and example that assumes deep stacks, here the big blind is 100 chips and we track the pot size with 2 players where all bets are called (ignoring the blinds for simplicity):

Pre-flop Raise:

After Half Pot Flop Bet:

After Half Pot Turn Bet:

After Half Pot River Bet:


















As you can see, increasing the pre-flop bet by just 150 chips leads to a pot size jump of 2400 by the river. Keeping the raise small pre-flop has risked less chips, those times you find yourself behind in the hand you will still have a enough chips to make a comeback!

These days, bets tend to be even smaller in the later to middle stages of tournaments. 2.1c (210 in our example) or 2.25c (225 chips) are common. There are some strong arguments for this, since most opponents will not adjust their play for pre-flop raises you can get away cheap when re-raised, or have a bigger pot-stack ratio after the flop to let your post flop experience tell.

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Smallball Strategy - Playing Small Ball Poker After The Flop

Continuing the logic of keeping the pot smaller, post-flop bet sizes also need to be taken into account. Here there are several factors which dictate how much you might bet – of which your own hand strength is only one. The key things to look out for are:

  • How dangerous is the flop? If there are overcards, or flushes / straights which could be completed on the turn or river then small-ball might be dangerous – you smaller post flop bet might give opponents a good price to continue with the hand.
  • How many opponents? This can be thought of together with the flop texture, if you have several opponents several high cards + a flush draw on the flop then you can be sure someone has enough to continue.
  • Tendencies of those opponents: Any known aggressive players who might see your small bet as weakness? Known slow-players (who will check-raise often?), or calling stations who will stay in the hand with anything and everything?

Continuation betting is so powerful that a slightly smaller bet size will not usually make a big difference. For example if the pot is 700 chips and you bet  325 instead of 400, or 575 instead of a full-pot sized bet. Remember to ensure that your bet size does not change predictably with the strength of your hand. If you always bet one amount with a monster and another with a draw or vulnerable holding (like top pair) then observant opponents will quickly take your cash!

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Small Ball Poker Strategy - Controlling The Pot With A 'Check'.

Pot control in small ball poker often requires checking at some point during the hand. This is most important when you are in a ‘Way Ahead / Way Behind’ situation. An example would be holding a pocket pair when an ace flops. Here you are either favorite in the hand (your opponent holds a lower pair) or drawing to just 2 outs for trips (when your opponent holds an ace).

If you continuation bet on the flop and are called a small-ball approach would be to check behind from position on the turn. You have actually achieved two objectives. Firstly keeping the pot small to lower your risk when behind. Secondly you may induce a river bluff from an opponent with hands you can beat. If you had bet out you could easily have faced a re-raise you did not want to call. The small-ball approach has kept your risk low and given you an opportunity to win more chips when you are ahead.

Small Ball Poker Strategy

Small Ball Poker Strategy – When Not To Use Small-Ball Betting

Key to the advantage of keeping the betting smaller is that you can let your skill and experience count over several betting rounds. You can build your assessment of your opponents most likely holding – and decide whether you are ahead. By reducing the pot size you are reducing the variance caused by getting your chips all-in.

Now, if you are one of the less experienced players at the table – this same logic would put you at a disadvantage!

In fact, if you are playing against a super-star like Daniel Negreanu or Phil Hellmuth – they may consider their skill advantage so great that they prefer to fold a slight favorite in a potential all-in hand  - in order to find better spots later. The argument is that taking a 60% / 40% leaves them busting too often, online this is somewhat different, it is easier to fire up another game - so more people will take any +ev spot (even though they might not love the idea)

Everyone starts somewhere, and if you want to keep your decisions simple after the flop, then bigger bets might well be best to cut down the number of opponents and 'keep them more honest' in the types of hand which they play.

Early In Poker Tournaments:

Many players start with their 2.1x raises from the very beginning of poker tournaments – with 150 big blind stacks and fields full of likely callers (at the lower buy-ins) this is not always a smart strategy. You get called in 4 places and have no idea who has what hand, what strange draws they might call with or who might overbet the pot on the flop… I like to raise 3x at BB20 and BB30, reducing the size later in the game when the stacks become shallower.

There are a lot of advantages to keeping the pot size smaller, you just need to be aware that (as with most poker ideas) there are always some exceptions.

Small Ball Poker Strategy – Combine a Soft Site with Deeper Stacks

Lets not mince words, any poker strategy works best against players that are not aware of how you are thinking. This includes small ball strategy. 

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