Defending Your Big Blind
By Tony Bee (a.k.a. ‘Tony’ on the Low Limit Poker Forum).
Most Hold’em players know that table selection is extremely important. Generally speaking loose tables comprising weak players are more profitable than tight tables (with the possible exception of tight, passive tables in shorthanded games), so the usual advice is to seek out these kinds of games. This is sound advice.
However, this ideal may not be possible for a number of reasons. Perhaps you’re chasing a bonus at one of the smaller online poker sites and find yourself at a table of tight aggressives who all had the same idea.
Or maybe you’ve been crushing the game at $0.5/$1 where most pots are 4 or 5-handed. You’ve decided to move up to $1/$2, only to discover that most pots are being played heads up or three way and preflop raises are the norm. They seem to raise with anything and call way too often after the flop, yet your stack is quickly dwindling and you don’t know why. Why can’t you beat these terrible players?
Well, the truth is that often players who are decent when playing in loose passive games just don’t know how to adjust to a tougher table where they are often required to defend their blind.
Many players who are unused to these conditions will tend to ‘play safe’ and stick to their usual game. This usually approximates to the following:
- Wait for the best hands before committing themselves
- Raise or reraise with their usual raising hands
- Defend their blind if they have a reasonable hand, but don’t call just to ‘keep them honest’
In short, they play a ‘safety first’ game and hope that the apparently foolishly aggressive play of their opponents will tell against them in the long run. Unfortunately, in a game where you are likely to find yourself heads up most of the time, this is a losing strategy. In fact, these aggressive opponents may not be as foolish as they appear.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting you start to play like a maniac. However, there are strategy adjustments that need to be made if you are not to lose your shirt. This article will attempt to outline these adjustments and hopefully equip you with some tools to help you survive if you find yourself in this situation.
Know Your Enemy
This is probably the most important difference between tight games and loose games. You absolutely MUST know the playing tendencies of your opponents. Of course, this is important in any game, but it’s particularly so in tight ring games and particularly shorthanded games.
To see why, let’s assume you’re in a loose game in a 5-handed pot on the flop. All you have a gutshot draw, four outs. You’re second to act and an opponent bets into you. You haven’t played with this character before so you’re not sure what his bet means. Maybe he’s the type of player who will only bet out with top pair, or maybe he’ll bet with any part of the flop including the dodgiest of draws. Maybe he always bets his draws or lower pairs but would checkraise his stronger hands. The point is, in this situation it doesn’t matter.
You’re almost certainly behind with little chance of bluffing out the ‘loosies’ behind you. You simply compare the odds the pot is laying you to your implied pot odds and play or fold accordingly. Knowledge of your opponents has little bearing on this decision.
However, let’s now assume you’re in the big blind preflop in a tight game and facing a raise from a player in late position. Your response will now be greatly influenced by what you know about your opponent.
Does this player only raise with the ‘usual’ raising hands, even in late position? If so, you should only be calling with decent hands that are justified by the pot odds you are being offered. Similarly on the flop you play your usual game because he’s likely to be holding a quality hand.
But the situation is very different if your opponent is a tricky player who is more likely to be raising with trash than he is with a decent hand. He just can’t resist stealing blinds at every opportunity, and he’s tried to steal yours whenever he can.
In this situation playing as you would against the first character is a disaster. You have to meet fire with fire and defend your blind to prevent him from making an automatic profit from you. You also have to play more loosely after the flop, since you know he’s going to bet it every single time.
The Blind War
Let’s look more closely at the situation where you are facing a probable steal raise from a loose aggressive player in late position. You know this character will always steal with any two cards if he can, and he’ll always bet the flop no matter what.
When he raises preflop he’s risking two small bets to win 1.5 small bets. This means that if you call less than 3/7 of the time (approximately 43%) then even if he check/folds after the flop every time you call he will still automatically make a profit from you.
You can see that this is the case by considering what happens if he tries 7 steals in a row and you call exactly three times. In this situation he would lose 2 small bets three times for a loss of 6 small bets, but would win 1.5 small bets 4 times for a gain of 6 small bets. In other words he’d break even. However, if you only call twice he makes an automatic profit of 3.5 small bets.
Of course this doesn’t mean you have to call 3 times or more out of every seven, we’re talking long term here. But you do need to call at least 43% of the time in the long run to prevent this player from stealing your money. In actual fact you need to call a bit more than 43% of the time since some of the time he will hit the flop and win even when you do call.
Personally in this situation I call about 50% of the time, in other words with any hand ranked in the top 50% for heads up play. This list comprises any pair, Ax, Kx, Qxs, Q5+, J5s+, J8+, T7s+, T9 and 98s. (Where for example, J8+ means J8, J9 or JT).
However, ideally we’d like to do better than this and try to dissuade our plucky opponent from stealing from us in the future. To do this we need to RERAISE more frequently than we would against a player who only raises with genuinely strong hands.
In their superb book Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players, Sklansky and Malmuth suggest reraising in this situation about 25% of the time. This means we should be reraising with approximately the following hands:
44+, Axs, A5+, K7s+, K9+, Q9s+, QT+ and JTs.
This may come as a shock to those of you who normally only reraise with premium hands. But remember, these are not normal circumstances. This guy is raising with anything, so you’re effectively playing against a random hand. In this case your K9 offsuit stands to be in pretty good shape, and your frequent reraising will hopefully make him think twice about stealing from you in the future.
Just to reiterate, you do NOT play this way against an opponent who only raises his better hands, although obviously you can loosen up somewhat in the blind depending upon the odds the pot is laying you. This super-aggressive approach should only be used against an opponent who you know will steal with any two cards.
Playing the Flop
Unfortunately, there’s not much point in adjusting your game preflop against this kind of player, if you don’t continue to adjust once the flop comes. Many players call approximately often enough before the flop but fold much too often to a bet on the flop.
For example, Mr Aggressive raises from the button and you know he could be doing so with any two cards. You call correctly with Q9. He bets the flop.
At this point many players seem at a loss at what to do. Even decent players who can hold their own in loose games and are well aware of counting outs and considering pot odds seem to lose their heads in this situation. The problem is that most of the time you’ll have missed the flop, yet you KNOW that this guy could be betting with nothing just because he has position on you and he’s getting good pot odds. His bet tells you nothing about the strength of his hand. Yet you also know that he could have hit the flop, so you don’t want to continue blindly with any hand. It’s a tough spot to be in, and some players seem to lose their heads here. Either they raise and reraise uncontrollably to try to scare the raiser into folding (not too wise against a player like this in most cases) or they just fold and hope to hit the next time. This is a BIG mistake. Let’s look at why.
If he always bets the flop he’s risking 1 small bet to win 4.5 small bets. This means that if you call less than 9/11 of the time (that’s about 82%) he automatically makes a profit from you! I’m sure some of you reading this will be incredulous, but it’s true. (Remember we’re assuming the raiser will steal with any two cards and always bet the flop no matter what.)
Clearly if you only call when you make a pair or a draw you won’t be calling anywhere near enough to prevent him from doing this. (In fact you’ll only be calling in this case about 50% of the time). So how should you decide what to do?
Well, as with any poker decision, let’s first of all consider the odds. When he bets the flop you’ll be getting 5.5:1 immediate pot odds (ignoring the rake, which may make a difference depending on where you play). However, as we know it’s not the pot odds but the implied odds that matter. In this situation you might estimate that your implied odds are closer to 9:1, assuming your opponent will call bets on the next two streets. So in a normal situation we would call (or consider raising) with about 5 outs or more.
However as we’ve already noted, this isn’t a normal situation. We know we have to be calling most of the time or we’re making a mistake, so we have to adjust. But how?
Sklansky and Malmuth suggest pretending that the highest card on the flop isn’t there. Then count your outs and consider your implied odds as usual. The idea is that this will enable you to call often enough to avoid making a mistake.
For example, let’s say you are considering calling a flop bet with J9 on a rainbow flop of A86. Remember that his bet says nothing about the strength of his hand. Should you call?
To call a bet with about 8:1 implied odds requires about 5 outs. If we ignore the ace then we have two overcards and a backdoor straight draw. Two overcards heads up are usually worth around 4 outs on average, and the backdoor straight draw is worth about 1 out. In all we have enough to call.
I used this example because it’s the kind of flop (rainbow with an ace) that many players will always fold to if they miss. They just assume the raiser is likely to be holding an ace. Of course in this situation this will often not be the case.
You might adjust your out count slightly depending on the situation, but hopefully this is enough to enable you make good decisions on the flop. Obviously, if you happen to hit the flop (and by that I mean you have hit any pair or better, any four-card draw or even two genuine overcards) you should strongly consider check-raising.
If you reraise from the big blind before the flop then your implied odds facing a bet will be closer to 12:1, so you’ll be calling (or betting out or checkraising) even more often. And in this situation you should certainly play very aggressively on the flop (bet out and consider reraising) if you have a decent chance of being ahead.
Playing the Turn and River
Let’s assume you called on the flop but didn’t improve on the turn and Mr Aggressive bets again. What should you do?
Well, as usual decisions on fourth street are more difficult because the bets double. Assuming you only called on the flop you’ll be getting about 4:1 immediate pot odds on the turn and you may win another bet on the river if you make your hand so your implied odds are about 5:1. If the turn card doesn’t look too scary for your hand and therefore you still feel that hitting one of your outs is likely to win, AND you have enough outs to call then you can continue.
Obviously if you hit one of your outs then you have the option to become aggressive. In fact if you make top pair on the flop, you should often be more aggressive than you would in a normal situation. For example if you hit a Q on the flop when holding Q9 and the flop isn’t too coordinated you might consider just calling on the flop with the plan of checkraising the turn, when in a normal situation you might just check/call it down because of your weak kicker. But in this scenario your pair is quite likely to be the best hand, and your aggressive opponent is more likely to be semibluffing and hoping you fold but will still want to see the river. This may earn you an extra bet and is great for your table image.
You also shouldn’t be folding very much on the river if you called or bet the turn in this situation. The pot will be fairly large by this time and considering the type of player you’re up against in this scenario there’s certainly a reasonable chance he’s just trying to bluff you out of the pot. Unless the river card looks terrible for your hand then you should be calling (or betting) most of the time.
This is particularly true if you’ve put in a lot of action on the flop and turn. The last thing you want to do when playing against this kind of player is to get the reputation of being a ‘folder’ on the river. If you do he’ll bet that scare card every time, knowing that if you fold too much he’ll be making the right decision.
In summary, if you’re considering playing in tough games against aggressive players where many pots are heads up and you are often required to defend your big blind, you must be prepared to adjust.
- Knowing your opponents. This is absolutely crucial. If you like to play 5 tables at once and watch MTV while you play, you should stick to loose tables against very poor players.
- You need to call or reraise more preflop and play much more loosely postflop. This doesn’t mean you play like a maniac and forget about odds and outs. They’re still important. But you have to fight fire with fire. If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
- If you hit a decent but not great hand you should make your opponent pay on the turn, particularly if your opponent is a good player who may not bet the river if his turn semibluff doesn’t come off.
- Call often on the river if you make it there. Don’t fold unless you think it’s hopeless.
There’s much more that can be said about blind play, including what to do in the small blind, reading hands and studying and adjusting for betting patterns. However, I’m out of space so I’ll save that for another day.
Just two final points:
- When you play like this then a sensible blind stealer will often modify his play and stay out of your way. You need to be aware of this change and adjust accordingly, otherwise when he does raise he’s likely to be holding a stronger hand than you might give him credit for. Concentrate at the table!
- If you know that the players to your left don’t know how to defend properly, then YOU are the one who should be stealing and betting the flop. In tight passive games blind stealing alone can make you a healthy profit. It’s not much of an understatement to say that to beat weak tight players you just bet, bet, bet.
Until next time, good decisions at the tables.