Improving Your Small Blind Play in No Limit Texas Hold’em

By Randy Ray in Blog
| August 5, 2019 11:04 am PDT

To be a winning Texas hold’em player, you need to be good at every part of the game. You need to master 1,000 little things to win the long-term battle. One of the most important things to do is recognize and fix leaks in your game.

One of the biggest leaks I see when playing is how poorly most no limit Texas hold’em players do in the small blind. They play too many hands, call too many raises, and lose more money than if they simply folded every small blind.

You can learn how to improve your small blind play on this page. I cover all of the hands you can play in depth and offer a simple solution that will instantly improve your results without much effort.

The Worst Position

The small blind is the worst position at the Texas hold’em table. After the opening betting round, you have to act first for the rest of the hand. This makes all but the best hands unprofitable to play.

All of the best poker books talk about position, but most players either ignore position or don’t understand how much it has to do with profitability. Texas hold’em is a great game because it’s based on a set of 52 cards which never change, but each hand is played with a limited amount of information.

You only know which cards you have and the cards that are on the board. Everything else has to be estimated or guessed, based on the actions of other players and probability. As each hand plays out, you have the opportunity to gather additional information, and each extra piece of the puzzle you put together helps you win.

Here’s what this has to do with position.

When you have to act before your opponent has to act, you give your opponent an extra piece of information. It might not seem like much, but every extra piece of information is helpful. The information you give your opponent when you act first is if you check or bet. Don’t underestimate how important this is.

On the other hand, if you get to act last, you get an extra piece of information instead of giving something away. You also have the opportunity to take a free card by checking if your opponent checks. If they bet, you can determine your odds and fold, call, or raise.

This page is designed to help you play more profitably from the small blind, but the more you understand and use position at all times, the more profitable your overall play will be.

Know Your Opponents

You should always try to learn as much about your opponents as possible, but from the small blind, you need to know how likely the player in the big blind is to raise. If the hand gets to you without a raise, you can enter the pot for a half bet, but if you complete the bet and the big blind raises, you’re left with two poor choices.

Most players call an average size raise from the big blind after putting money in the pot, but if your hand wasn’t good enough to raise with, it’s not good enough to call a raise with while you’re out of position.

The other choice when facing a raise is to fold. This happens to be the best play in this situation, but it means you wasted the completion bet.

As soon as you start playing, start tracking how often the player to your left raises. Pay attention to his or her position when they raise and keep a separate count of how often they raise from the blinds. The best player to have to your left is one who almost always limps when they enter a hand.

If the player to your left raises often, you need to play even tighter than normal from the small blind. I suggest folding any hand that you wouldn’t play from the under the gun position. Under the gun is the first player to the left of the big blind.

In most games, this limits your starting hands to the following.

  • A-A
  • K-K
  • Q-Q
  • J-J
  • A-K suited
  • A-K
  • A-Q suited

I realize this may seem to be extremely tight, but I can’t stress enough how much the positional disadvantage costs you in the long run. The truth is, even with this small list of starting hands, everything other than A-A and K-K can be tricky to play out of position.

Let’s look at the other hands on the list so that you can see why they can be costly to play from the small blind.

Both Q-Q and J-J will have an over card hit the board often. Because the hands that are most likely to be played by your opponents are high, the chance an opponent has an ace or king is good. So if you play one of these hands and don’t hit a set, you have to play cautiously when you continue.

This tends to lead to winning small pots when your hand holds up, and it can make you lose large pots when you refuse to get away from the hand after an ace or king hits the board.

A-K suited, A-K, and A-Q suited all need to improve to win. And unless you have a nut hand, or close, they tend to lose money after the flop. These hands also lead to small wins and big losses.

Here’s an example.

You see the flop with A-K, and the flop has an ace. This gives you top pair and top kicker. This sounds like a good hand, but let’s look at two possibilities. You bet after the flop in both situations.

The first possibility is everyone folds to your bet. It’s fairly easy to put you on a hand with an ace in this situation, so if your opponents can’t beat a pair of aces, they usually fold.

The second possibility is an opponent calls or raises. What kind of a hand does an opponent need to hold to raise in this situation? It’s almost certain they can beat your top pair. If they call, they’re either trapping you with a big hand like a set or have a strong draw. Neither of these possibilities is good.

When you know your opponent in the big blind is unlikely to raise, you can afford to complete the bet with a wider range of hands. But if they raise often, it’s best to fold almost all of your hands from the small blind.

The other thing to realize is if you have a strong hand, you’re better off raising from the small blind than completing the bet.

Raising

It’s often better to raise instead of checking or calling at the Texas hold’em table. When you raise, you can win the hand if everyone else folds and when you have the best hand at the showdown.

When you check and call, the only way to win is when you have the best hand.

The other advantage of raising is that it forces your opponents to make a decision. Every time an opponent has to make a decision, it’s an opportunity for them to make a mistake, and each mistake is profitable for you.

This leads back to the list of hands in the previous section. If your hand is good enough to play, is it good enough to raise with? I don’t suggest raising with all of the hands above because some of them need to improve to win. But with your best hands, you should always raise.

Completing or Limping

You’ve already learned the importance of knowing how your opponent in the big blind plays. When you have a good handle on them and know that most of the time you can complete the small blind bet without facing a raise, you can start thinking about the types of hands you can play.

The types of hands you want to play are the ones that can win a big pot. Most of the time, you aren’t going to hit the flop, so when you make a hand, it needs to have the ability to win big. Most players overvalue suited aces because they can complete a nut flush.

The problem is that everyone can see the possibility of a flush and is hesitant to lose a big pot when they don’t have the nut flush.

In many games, the only big pot that happens with a nut flush possible is if the money gets in early and someone hits the flush later or a player has a full house and beats the flush.

You can play suited aces from the small blind in an unraised pot, but don’t overvalue them. They’re a fairly weak profit hand, even when you hit your flush.

Good limping hands are ones that have two large cards, suited connectors that can complete a hidden straight with the flush as a backup, and medium and small pairs for set value.

Two large cards, from ace down to 10, give you a chance to complete a high straight or other good hand on a high flop.

You need to be careful of hands that flop top pair or two pair because the only way these create a big pot is usually when you’re beat by a set or better kicker. You need to get away from weaker hands on the flop if you get much action.

Suited connectors create most of their value when they make a straight. Most players can easily see flush possibilities, but many miss straights. You can win a big pot with a hidden straight over a set or high two pair hand at times.

Medium and small pairs should only be played for set value. You see the flop, and if you don’t hit a set, just check and fold to any bet.

When you complete the bet, you’re playing for a big win or a quick exit after the flop. The only time to continue after the flop is when you hit a hand or get a draw to a winning hand and get the proper pot odds to continue.

Folding

You should fold to any raise unless you have a hand good enough to re-raise with. Remember, you’re in terrible position after the flop, so if you can’t lead the hand, you should get out when you face a raise.

The only other hands to consider playing when facing a raise are medium pairs. These should only be played when facing a raise if you know enough about the aggressor that you can stack them when you hit a set. This is a trap hand, and you have to win big when you hit a set because you don’t hit it often.

I cover this more in the simple solution section below, but for most players, it’s best to fold the small blind unless you have a strong hand.

In the last section, you learned about some hands that can be profitable when you can limp or complete the bet, but you have to be a strong player after the flop in order to make most of these hands profitable. It’s hard to overcome your poor position with average hands.

If you have any doubt at all about playing a hand in the small blind, fold it. This alone will help your long-term profit because most players lose money in the long run from the small blind because they play too many hands.

After the Flop

I’ve mentioned a few things about flop play in previous sections, but there are a few more things you need to know. The first big decision in each hand is whether or not to enter the pot. But once you’re in the pot, the most important decision is how to play on the flop and later.

Once you see the flop, you have seen five of the seven cards you can use for your hand. This is enough information to make profitable decisions.

Every decision you make after seeing the flop needs to start with the fact that you’re in poor position. You have to act first, so you need a plan.

In most cases, you’re not going to improve on the flop. When this happens, the best play is to check and fold to any bet. You might pick up a few hands from bluffing, but in the long run, it’s more profitable, or less costly, to get away from hands that haven’t improved.

When you flop a draw to a winning hand, you need to play 100% based on pot odds. Don’t chase any draws that don’t offer the proper pot odds. Just like when your hand doesn’t improve, if the pot odds aren’t right, simply check and fold to a bet.

When you flop a good hand, you need to start thinking about how to maximize the value.

Sometimes a bet is the way to maximize value, and sometimes looking weak and letting your opponent or opponents lead is more profitable.

The only way to know the best way to play good hands on the flop from early position is through experience and knowing your opponents. With opponents who usually check and call, you want to bet into them. With aggressive opponents, you usually want to check and let them lead the betting.

On the turn and river, you need to play straightforward poker. If you’re still drawing and getting the right pot odds, check and call.

When you have a winning hand, you should bet and raise. Against an aggressive opponent when you have a strong hand, you can check and let them bet on the flop and turn, but don’t give them a chance to check behind you on the river.

The best play against an aggressive opponent is to check on the turn and then make a large raise after they bet. If you get to the river, fire a bet at the pot if you have the best hand. Make them decide if they should fold or call.

In most cases, the pot is big enough that their correct play is to call, even when you have the best hand. This is why bluffing on the river isn’t very profitable unless you have a strong read on your opponent.

The Simple Solution

If you want to maximize your profits from the small blind, you need to understand all of the hands you can play when you aren’t facing a raise and how to play them after the flop. I’ve already covered these things above, but if you aren’t a strong player on the flop and after, you can start by following a simple plan.

Fold every small blind hand except A-A, K-K, and Q-Q. When you get one of these three hands, raise.

When you follow this simple plan, you give up some profit on a few other hands. But it’s easy to play too many hands and go from a small profit to an overall loss. Most players lose money in the small blind overall because of the poor position and poor decisions.

The worst decision is to play too many hands. When you only play three hands and fold everything else, you eliminate losing money on bad hands. The half bet you put in the pot to start the hand is not yours after it enters the pot.

If this bothers you, consider it a seat charge to play the game.

Most players look at the blind money and try to protect it. This costs you more money. Only play hands that have a positive expectation, just like you should do in every other position.

Until you can figure out which hands are profitable from the small blind and how to play them, the best course of action is to stick with only the best hands.

Conclusion

A big leak in most Texas hold’em players’ game is their small blind play. If you’re still learning how to win, simply fold everything but your best hands.

Once you get better, start adding a few more hands that give you a chance to win big pots.

But always stay tight in the small blind because you have to play the rest of the hand with the worst position at the table.

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