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I have read Daniel Negreanu's book on small ball poker strategy in tournament play.

Essentially, small ball poker involves playing a wider range of starting hands more aggressively, but only using small bets and raises to save you from losing too much money when certain plays do not work out. If you play small ball poker correctly, in the long run the amount you win from opponents when they call you down with sub standard hands should outweigh the amount you lose from making consistent raises and bets without a strong hand. This is a reason why it is important to make small raises and bets instead of large, stronger bets (source).

So, by taking advantage of position and playing aggressive when you can minimize your loses you can exploit weaknesses in other people's table play.

It brings about two questions:

  1. Could this potentially work in a cash game?
  2. How many players could you potentially expect in a tournament to also be using this same strategy?
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Could you add some summary detail about the main few points of this strategy, so others can make a comparison if they haven't read the book? Or would that be difficult? –  Toby Booth Jan 25 '12 at 15:46
    
That is fine. Sorry :D –  Chris Jan 25 '12 at 15:55
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It is virtually impossible to address the question of how many players could be expected to use this strategy in a tournament. That is going to depend on WAY too many factors to address in any meaningful way, and even if it were addressed completely, it would change in few months as players learn new strategies and incorporate new adjustments. –  Jeffrey Blake Jan 25 '12 at 16:20
    
Correct, I guess I wasn't really sure how popular it is. I guess I was just looking for some insight from experienced tournament players. I'm looking to get into more tournaments at casinos and am trying to learn some of what to expect. –  Chris Jan 25 '12 at 16:53
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Perhaps a better question would be how quickly can someone using this strategy be detected and how easy is it to exploit that knowledge. –  Chad Jan 27 '12 at 20:40
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7 Answers 7

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Your second question is unanswerable. Estimating what the mix of styles in a tournament will be on average is too inflexible an assumption for any strategic use. Your first question is more interesting and problematic. Can we play small-ball poker in a cash-game? Yes, but it takes far greater personal involvement from the player, and frankly doesn't lead to vastly improved results. It's more useful against smarter opponents, but the poker community represents a bell curve of skill. Unless you're playing the top few percent, it's rarely going to matter. Seriously.

Read on if you're interested in my reasoning.


The short version

Considering most game dynamics in cash games, I advocate playing slightly larger than small-ball, and don't overdo the aggression. That may sound arbitrary, but you'll soon know what I mean when your opponents won't let you play a small pot with any high frequency, and are constantly testing your weak bets and small raises with re-raises and all-ins when you inevitably have weak hands. Big pots impact your win rate differently in cash, and small-ball will make it an incredibly difficult path to tread, where one mistake will be close to unrecoverable.

If your opponent is too aggressive, it's not so bad to small-ball. Try to play a wider range, but stick to being aggressive when you have a value-hand.


The long version

Almost all things in poker come down to frequencies. Either you're doing something too much, or not enough. e.g. you fold too much, you call too little, etc. It's easy to call it balance.

Small-ball, and conversely, big-ball strategies are about these frequencies. Small ball advocates you play a wider range, and play it more, perhaps very aggressively. Big-Ball poker advocates the opposite, tighter although not overly passive.

In the linked article we see this...

"Small-ball poker benefits from players who call you down with mediocre hands because they do not give you credit for holding a strong hand."

We can flip that statement to this...

"Big-ball poker benefits from players who fold to you with mediocre hands because they do give you credit for holding a strong hand."

Both of these statements concern your image, and using it deceptively. That's not a narrow subject. Without maths, that's about all of poker! Finding the balance between them is good poker.

Small-ball in my mind has its place, correctly, in tournament poker. The majority of anyones time in a tournament is short-stacked (less than 50bb). That's about all . How often do you have 100bb or more at a tournament table? How often does more than one player have that? At your table? The answer is rarely.

There is a perpetual mindset of survival in tournament poker, which isn't there with cash games. Although it's useful to know who's scared of losing and who isn't at any table type, the result is definitive in a tournament. When you bust, that's it, game over. Extracting bluffs in this environment is more difficult than average.

This pot-to-stack ratio issue, and this survival mindset, lead to inevitably poor implied odds in a tournament for each hand. Which is why playing a high frequency, high aggressive style will reap greater dividends in this case. The idea that you steal small pots very often, balances the negative effects of increasing blinds and dwindling stack sizes. If you get in a pot for stacks, it's unusual without two big hands showing up. Small-ball wins the day.

If a tournament is about survival, then a cash game is about opulence. In cash, big pots are king. Implied odds are far more important.The small pots are just for positioning your image. Small pots are crucial, but they are not the desired outcome like in tournaments.

Try this out. If you track your stats, filter for your own hands where you won/lost <5BB; 5-15BB; 15-40BB; 40-65BB; >65BB. Look at where you're earning your profit from. Invariably, big pots are where most profit comes from. What you're likely to see is that big pot profitability bears a striking resemblance to your overall profitability. Gear your game to focus on deceiving your opponents into big-pot mistakes and you'll improve your win-rate. You might say that "By winning small pots, I'm setting them up for a big one later, right?". True, but the frequencies you represent by playing small-ball will mean you have to adjust your understanding of what is a big hand for you now. Your value hands later will have thinner equity than what is usually considered value for a TAG, e.g sets, straights, flushes, etc. You'll have to be ready take down medium and large pots with top pair-mid kicker type hands, regularly, to cover your losses and avoid being exploited by the inevitable increase in bluffs you are faced with.

From my experience, there are better ways to crush poker than using a small ball strategy in a cash game.

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While I agree in general, I have to nitpick with one thing "big pots are where most of the profit comes from" should be amended to add "if you are a winning player". –  Brandon DuRette Jan 30 '12 at 2:06
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Honestly, I think that small ball strategy is significantly more effective in cash games. Many of the benefits it provides center around people adjusting to your image. In tournaments, that can all go down the drain when players are moved to different tables. By contrast, in cash games you are much more likely to play a large number of hands against the same opponents.

Further, in tournaments, you have to balance this strategy with the necessity of survival with a limited number of chips. You need a deep stacked tournament for it to work well for any meaningful period of time, and even there, as blinds rise other factors will trump the gains from this strategy, forcing you to play differently to accommodate. By contrast, in cash games, you can always have a deep stack, simply by adding chips to your stack if it starts to drift too low.

Finally, I would argue that winning lots of small pots is more meaningful in cash games than in tournaments. This is again because of the rising blinds in tournaments, which make the small pots you win early on relatively less important.

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" I would argue that winning lots of small pots is more meaningful in cash games than in tournaments." I can't agree. Relatively, in bb terms, the size of won pots in tournaments are rarely going to match the size of won pots cash-games. Also, through my own analysis I've found that almost ALL of my own profit, and that of other people who I've analysed, comes from big pots in excess of 30bb. Pots below this size commonly have a negligible effect on a cash game winrate. This will depend on your style (LAG; TAG; etc.), but for a TAG or Semi-Loose disposition, this is very common. Try it. –  Toby Booth Jan 25 '12 at 17:16
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I am not saying that the majority of your profit will ever come from small pots in either format (save, perhaps, if you are in an ideal situation late in a tournament, with a big stack and a tight table). If you read through the linked info, one of the tenants of making this strategy profitable is "Small ball poker benefits from players who call you down with mediocre hands because they do not give you credit for holding a strong hand." That's where the real profit comes in, but the small pots you win along the way are more relevant in cash than in MTTs. –  Jeffrey Blake Jan 25 '12 at 17:23
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Just trying to clarify because i'm reading mixed messages from what you write. We're probably saying something similar but it's important to be clear. You say 'small pots are...more relevant in cash than in MTTs'. What's your definition of relevant? More relevant than what? Big pots? Also, flipping the phrase , "Big ball poker benefits from players who fold to you with mediocre hands because they do give you credit for holding a strong hand." This being the case, small-ball strategy is primarily a function of pot-to-stack ratios, as you can't big-ball with only a small number of bb's. –  Toby Booth Jan 25 '12 at 18:01
    
I'm not comparing them in terms of other pots. Big pots are always going to be more important than small pots. I'm saying that, all other factors being equal, play in the cash format benefits more from winning lots of small pots than does play in the tournament format. –  Jeffrey Blake Jan 25 '12 at 18:04
    
As an addendum, are you advocating that a big-ball style is preferable to a small-ball style in tournament poker? –  Toby Booth Jan 25 '12 at 18:05
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Unless you are truly expert, small ball is just an excuse to play loose and weak and likely to be a losing strategy. What you should do instead is focus on the other players at the table and try to adjust to the way they are playing. See if you can figure out what kind of mistakes they tend to make and play in a way that has the best chance of exploiting those mistakes. Sometimes that means playing small ball, but the difference is that when you do it, you do it for a reason.

Also: Playing aggressively and exploiting position are part of any winning strategy.

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In raked cash games, small ball is terrible. The rake significantly devalues small pots. Furthermore, the usual lack of antes make the pots small relative to your small ball raise. For these reasons and others that Toby already mentioned, I would argue against small ball in cash games.

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? Rake is proportional to the pot, and typically rounded down or even omitted for small pots (in particular, "no flop, no drop" policies are common). –  Karl Knechtel Jan 31 '12 at 8:36
    
In most places I've played, the rake is capped. When the pots get above the cap, the rake gets smaller (as a percentage of the cap). –  Brandon DuRette Feb 1 '12 at 4:24
    
+1 I don't agree that it is terrible as I have myself employed small ball and won at cash games, but I do agree that the rake and the lack of antes necessarily makes the pots smaller. Negreanu, in the book mentioned, recommends raising with 2,5BB, because in a full ring tournament game with antes that is less than the amount in the pot. In cash games you can't raise to an amount that is less than the pot (2,5BB is 60-70% more than the pot in cash games). This makes stealing much more expensive and therefore small ball less viable (but not necessarily completely unviable). –  Halvard Jul 2 '13 at 11:44
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Playing loose and weak in cash-games is the fast-track to loosing money and developing bad habits, because people arent scared to put their chips in to easily counter your weakness with aggression. I think I have never seen a loose and weak winning player in a cash game . It's right that most of your winnings should come from small pots in position, but to do this you need aggression.

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Small ball works for Daniel Negreanu because he is Daniel Negreanu. We have all seen his sick predictions of what someone has in their hole on TV. So he gets that cred. In theory, if you can learn to play this style perfectly then you can probably have alot of luck against someone like Negreanu, who is great at reading people, because this style will help to through him off of your actual hand.

I would argue that the Negreanues are so rare that confusing them is not worth focusing on unless you play against them regularly. Further unless this style of play suits you that trying to adapt to the new style will be more costly than rewarding. In the end the strategy that wins for you is a good strategy.

I am of the opinion that learning new techniques and strategies only helps your game when it does not distract you from your strengths. I think it helps more when your regular game has you figured out, and you need to change it up to keep from losing, or to recapture the gains you are no longer making.

If there was a single magic bullet then the entire final table of every tourney would be full of people using that.

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Small ball poker is a "theoretically" incorrect version of poker. It appears to be an "adaptation" of the principles of the game based on the fact that the vast majority of players play too "loosely." As such, it can be a good strategy "under the circumstances."

If OTHERS play too loosely, it means that YOU can play somewhat more loosely than is dictated by the "logic" of the game. That's because you will "catch" more people with weak hands more often than you will be "caught." For instance, you can play A-J and A-T "freely" in games where MOST players will play A-x, but seldom in tighter games.

The other aspect of the game is that you can afford to play this way only when the stakes are relatively low (for the level of the game) in a "small ball" environment. If they suddenly "escalate," you can no long play "loose," but ought to revert standard "tight game" strategy, and fold most hands.

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There is no "theoretically correct version of poker", except for toy games like push-or-fold on short stacks or simplified versions of the game with limit betting. Also, this style of play isn't simply about playing loosely because you're still tighter than your opponents; it's also about playing loosely because you can confuse your opponents and exploit weak-tightness. –  Karl Knechtel Jan 31 '12 at 8:37
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