Small ball poker is a playstyle where your aim is to get involved in many cheap pots and keep those pots small – unless you hit a monster hand and then you build the pot as big and as quickly as possible. This was largely popularized by Daniel Negreanu, and to a lesser-extent Harrington’s books, and is a style adopted heavily by players evolving from fishy play.
As you watch this video or read this entire guide, note that the goal is not to insult players that use this style. Heck, I used to implement a small ball strategy, and my training videos before 2014 reflect that. Instead, the goal here is to explore the pros and cons of small ball poker and get you thinking more deeply about both playing this strategy and exploiting other players that use it.
Why Poker Players Like Small Ball
The overall concept of small ball is a mixture of three things: getting involved in lots of cheap pots preflop, avoiding getting involved in big pots postflop without monster hands, and trying to get monster hands paid off for maximum value.
Risk-averse players love this strategy since they really only get involved in big pots with huge hands. This ultimately creates a sense of simplicity and control in an otherwise complex and chaotic game.
When I ask students why they play small ball, most of them say that they enjoy the decreased variance that the style creates. Unfortunately, that’s not normally true. The style may decrease exposure (how much total money you put at risk in pots during a session), but it does NOT automatically lower your overall variance.
And the biggest reason why players like this style, although most won’t verbalize it, is those small losses from tight folds and missed bets don’t register as strongly in our poker mindset. Our brains tend to remember big losses, since they create bigger pain, and deprioritize small losses. The issue is that, over time, all of those small pots that we lose add up and eat into our winrate. Plus, as the game gets tougher and players fall for small ball antics less often, this playstyle will not win.
The Pros Of Small Ball Poker
In no particular order, here are some of the benefits of using this playstyle:
It’s rare to have huge losing sessions. Since big pots are reserved for monster hands, and monster hands come along so rarely, it’s unlikely to have a session where you lose 5+ buyins. If you play small ball and miss a bunch of flops, then chances are you only down .5-2 buyins at the end of the session. That’s preferable to more risk-averse players.
You can play longer sessions. Since small ball is simple to implement, it requires less brainpower to use it. This means you can play longer sessions before you hit mental fatigue.
Extra preflop “lottery tickets”. Small ball includes getting involved in lots of cheap preflop pots with hands that can catch monsters. This allows you chances to hit big hands, and get big returns, with relatively small investments. Just remember that flopping the nuts is very rare, and all of those limps (and even more so, preflop calls) can add up in a hurry.
You may appear looser than you are. If your opponent is only looking at your VPIP HUD stat, and you are getting involved in many pots preflop, you can appear looser than your postflop strategy actually is. Bear in mind that good players will use a variety of HUD stats and aren’t likely to be fooled by a single stat, like VPIP, being looser. But inexperienced players will make this mistake.
You retain tournament chips. Tournament players who implement small ball minimize the chances that they blow up a medium or big stack in a single hand. This doesn’t mean they set themselves up to final table, or even win, tournaments often though. But they may get ITM and min-cash more regularly than other players types.
Small ball is better than some playstyles. Using a small ball approach can be a better playstyle than being a maniac-fish who is blindly aggressive or a calling station that pays off with any pair.
Why Is Small Ball Poker Bad?
Now let’s look at some negative aspects of a small ball playstyle:
Monster hands are rare. Hitting a huge hand in NLHE just doesn’t happen very often. And especially as the qualification for a monster hand nears toward the nuts, things can get even rarer.
Simple strategies are suboptimal. The highest winrates in poker will never be earned with the simplest strategies. This is not to say that small ball cannot make a profit – it most certainly can. But to earn the highest winrates at any game you need to be able to think deeply and take creative lines that edge toward optimization. Small ball just doesn’t do that.
Playing too many preflop hands. It’s easy to go “too far” when trying to get involved in cheap pots preflop. Especially as a small baller’s qualification for a monster hand drops from “the nuts” to “nut flushes or better” to “any flush is fine, kthanx” – it’s easy to see how hands like K♥4♥ and 9♠5♠ start creeping into that preflop limping-behind range.
Preflop aggression is lacking. Small ball players rarely act as the preflop aggressor, which means they are limping or calling way more often than raising or 3betting. This puts them in more multi-way pots, which can be OK for the “lottery ticket” approach, but it misses tons of opportunities to contend for pots preflop or isolate players. Again, it’s easy to fall into the trap of finding a +EV option of the passive approach preflop while failing to find that a more +EV option is available by being aggressive instead.
Missed postflop opportunities. Since small ballers have a reliance on hitting monster hands (given that’s the only time they get involved in big pots), they fail to throw chips into postflop pots often enough. While there is simplicity in this, and a satiation for the risk-averse, it simply misses too many profitable opportunities. This includes missed cbets, missed floats & peels, missed barrels, and even missed value bets with hands that are strong-but-not-nutted.
Only fish get outsmarted. Good players can sniff out small ballers with ease, and won’t fall for their tricks when a small baller starts trying to build a huge pot. Sure, fishy players will continue to pay off the small baller’s big hands, but other player types just won’t offer the implied odds this strategy seeks. Which means against most players the small baller has limited upside potential the rare times they do catch a huge hand.
It’s easy to beat small ball. Beating small ballers is the easiest thing in the world. If they try to build a pot on the turn or river, don’t pay them off. If they check, continue firing. If they cbet, heavily consider floating and taking the pot away when they check the next street. When sizing bets/raises postflop, remember that they are typically super elastic right up to the hand strength where they become super inelastic – so large sizes are rarely required to capitalize on how often they are folding.
Small ball doesn’t win tournaments. Using small ball approaches for the duration of a tournament or SNG may result in more min-cashes, but it fails to set up big wins. The monster hands come along too rarely to offset the increasing blinds and antes. And while a small baller may be able to hold on to a 10bb-15bb stack longer than some other players, they will eventually dwindle down to dust and be forced to gamble with their short stack like everyone else.
How To Play Small Ball Poker Better?
Small ball is better than having zero strategy at all, which is why it performs better than calling station fish or maniac fish. But in the long run, any strategy that is reliant on hitting monster hands is going to be suboptimal. Monster hands are too rare, and there are too many +EV opportunities available between folding and waiting for that next monster to come around.
A better option is to strive toward building a holistic strategy that isn’t confined to hand strengths and related pot size creation. This means getting away from focusing on YOUR hand strength and instead focusing on your OPPONENT’S ranges and frequencies.
Two simple areas to do this that would quickly upgrade a small baller out of small ball status, would be by adding some extra bluffs into their game. Even cheap bluffs like a one-time 3bet or a bluff cbet on the flop can tip the scales. And adding more sophisticated bluffs like double barrels and bluff check-raises can do wonders for your winrate.
Another area that would help immensely is getting thinner on your value betting requirements. Again, we need to remove the confinement of “X pot size is reserved only for X hand strength.” Think about how many times a small baller checks with a strong, but not nutted, hand and misses value on the turn or river. Sure, sometimes they may induce a bluff and make a little profit – but in games where players are more comfortable calling than bluffing themselves, this misses so much value.
You may already notice how these changes would impact your overall strategy. These tweaks would have you folding less, being aggressive more often, being less nitty, and focusing on poker’s key variable: your opponent.
Admittedly, these changes will increase your exposure and have you risking some extra chips with hands other than the nuts. But the goal isn’t to turn you into a spewy fish. The goal is to make decisions based upon the right factors and to capitalize on profitable spots when they arise. And I assure you, they arise way more often than any small baller would admit.
Upgrading From Small Ball
For most players who gravitated to small ball for its simplicity and due to their own risk-averse nature, it may not seem easy to upgrade from a small baller to solid TAG or LAG. Sure, in theory, it seems like bluffing more, folding less, and risking more chips in +EV spots is all well and good. But actually pulling those triggers is a scarier proposition.
For me personally, the only way that I can overcome monetary fear is with information and study. When you don’t know what goes into a good bluff, the math behind various bluff sizes, and how to estimate the profitability of a bluff – chances are you’ll avoid making the play. When you’ve value bet thinly in the past and gotten snapped off by a slightly better hand – it makes you feel that you’ve made a mistake and has you look toward safe-haven “strategies” like small ball.
And look, the work needed to get away from small ball and into a higher EV strategy is no joke, but anything worthwhile requires hard work. I think it’s massively worthwhile to make more money, even if it’s just a few extra dollars per hour, when I do get to play.
The truth is that if you put in the work to build your hand reading skills, and pair those with simple poker math, it makes pulling triggers way easier. Putting a $300 river bluff out there with zero ideas of how good or bad it is results in an uneasy feeling. And if you have any risk-averse tendencies, an uneasy feeling leads you to avoid the risk.
But putting a $300 river bluff out there expecting it to be +EV to the tune of +$180 because your opponent has X range and would fold Y percent of it is a totally different feeling. Now even the most risk-averse person, because they can see the long run benefit of risking that $300 bluff, is more encouraged to make that bet.
Some work and dedication toward hand reading will help you find so many spots that you’re currently passing upon. These extra spots may put some extra chips in play, but when you know they rate to make you money in the long run, you’ll feel confident pulling triggers and breaking into more aggressive territory.
Remember, the goal isn’t to turn you into a maniac. The goal is to arm you with the necessary tools to find +EV spots and to give you the confidence to make the extra plays that increase your winrate. Take the good plays, avoid the bad ones, and make decisions based upon the variable that matters most: your opponent. Good cards come around too rarely, and monster hands are even rarer – so capitalizing on all of the spots between now and your next big hand is crucial for long term success.
The Next Step
Going from small baller to a solid TAG or LAG requires improvement in your hand reading skills and your ability to craft exploitative lines. When you know your opponent folds too rarely, it makes bluffing a breeze. When you know your opponent has too many second-best hands that they can’t fold, it makes thin value betting simple.
The good news is that I have a complete course on hand reading, aptly named The Hand Reading Lab. This course shows you how to put your opponent on a correct range of hands, how to understand ranges from a technical point of view, and gives you simple shortcuts so you can utilize this skill at the tables. Plus, there are lots of examples to ensure everything sinks in.
Now most players won’t even consider buying this course because a.) it’s a complicated subject and b.) it’s $500. But I want players with bankrolls of all sizes to be able to hand read with confidence, so I decided to build THE VAULT poker membership. This gives you instant 24/7 streaming access to The Hand Reading Lab, along with all of my other high-end training courses. You can study The One Percent, get heaps of hand reading examples from the poker workbooks, and even stream The Mental Advantage to ensure everything is on track.
Instead of spending over $2,000 on all of these courses, you can invest one black chip per month and study them all. Plus you get access to my private Discord channel to ask questions, early-access to future courses & books, and homework to help the material sink in between sessions.
If that sounds up your alley, you can take a 1-week free trial of THE VAULT here. Make a dent in The Hand Reading Lab and if it’s not a good fit for you, just cancel with one click. But if you enjoy it and see the value in learning these concepts, stick around and I’ll be right here to help you!
Either way, good luck & happy grinding.