Editor’s note: The following is from Jonathan Little’s Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker, Vol. 1.
Re-published courtesy of our content partner Ante Up Magazine.
There is much discussion over which style of play is better, one where you try to play lots of small pots, called “small ball,” or one where you try to play a few large pots, called “long ball.” You have to play a decent number of pots if you want to make it in poker tournaments. Waiting for A-A, hoping to double up every time you get it, will not work in the long run. There are three main reasons for this.
First, if you play only premium hands, you will be playing about 7 percent of hands, which is much less than you need to play to maintain your chip stack.
Second, most opponents are observant enough to realize how tight you are playing, so you will rarely get action when you pick up a good hand. On average, you will lose the blinds every orbit but will only win the blinds every 0.7 orbits, meaning that you should expect to lose 0.3 sets of blinds on every orbit. This will clearly cause you to go broke over time.
Finally, even if you are patient and get all the money in as a 2-to-1 favorite, you will usually have blinded off your stack so much that even if you win the hand, you will just be back at the stack you started with. For example, say you have 20 big blinds and decide to blind off until you get a premium hand. If you blind down to 10BBs and get all-in with A-A vs. 4-4, you will double up 80 percent of the time to 20BBs, which is where you started, and 20 percent of the time you will go broke.
Waiting for a big hand is a sure way to go broke in no-limit hold’em tournaments. Weaker players often say that if they didn’t constantly suffer bad beats, they would do well in tournaments. They fail to realize that everyone will lose hands as a huge favorite throughout a tournament. You have to build up a large chip stack to survive these beats and still have a chance to win. If you are blinding off and waiting for a big hand, you are setting yourself up to get all-in, which leads to going broke. If you can avoid ever being all-in throughout a tournament, it will be tough to go broke.
That does not mean you should raise to three big blinds out of your 10BB stack and fold to an all-in reraise. It means that you should keep a large stack and maintain the aggression, picking up numerous small pots while still getting large amounts of money in as a favorite. Small ball is so effective because people fold too often. If you can make most opponents fold by raising to 2.2BBs preflop, and then betting 2.5BBs on most flops, by all means do it.
In the high-stakes tournaments, though, most players realize that when they’re getting 5-to-1 to see a flop, they should usually take it. Also, when they are getting 3-to-1 on the flop, there are huge odds to call or bluff. Because of this, the extreme version of small ball that is preached by a few of the big tournament winners does not work too well in high-stakes tournaments. I have figured out that if, instead of basically min-raising preflop, you raise to 2.5BBs and make reasonably-sized continuation bets, you will accomplish all the goals of small ball, while still getting some of the respect of a long-ball player.
When you raise more than your fair share of pots, people will eventually start to call. This isn’t a problem if you will be in position in most hands and can induce your opponents to fold postflop. Because of this, you need to size your raises preflop a little larger so you can later make flop and turn bets a little larger, which will get you many more folds. You need to be in position. If you are constantly raising hands out of position, you are destined to lose.
Another huge benefit of this hybrid style that I play is that when you actually get a good hand, instead of winning only a decent amount of chips, you can usually get your opponent’s entire stack. If you min-raise preflop and then bet half-pot on the flop, you will find it tough to get your entire stack in if you make a strong hand. If you raise just a tiny bit more preflop, you can get all-in as long as your stack is around 80BBs or less, which it will be once you get to the middle stages of most tournaments, because the pot tends to grow exponentially in no-limit hold’em. People generally bet around the size of the pot or a bit less, so you tend to make small bets if the pot is small and larger bets as the pot grows. You don’t have to make larger bets. But it’s an option. It’s well worth the risk of raising by 0.3BB more before the flop to give yourself more options throughout the hand. Because you are raising to a slightly larger amount preflop, you should tighten your range. You need to win a higher percentage of pots preflop because you’re giving yourself slightly worse odds to steal the blinds. This is usually negligible though, as the extra 0.3BB you raise over a normal small-ball strategy will win the blinds a higher percentage of the time.
All winning poker players are aggressive. If you take the passive route on most hands, you will find yourself losing money. If a winning player thinks a play is profitable, he will make the play. In fact, not making aggressive plays that you know you should make is similar to burning money. In order to take home first prize, unless you get a great run of cards, you are going to have to take some risks. The best way to take risks is to be aggressive. This will give you a chance to play some big pots, and pick up numerous small pots along the way.
— Jonathan Little is the Season 6 WPT Player of the Year and is a representative for Blue Shark Optics. If you want to learn to play a loose-aggressive style, which will constantly propel you to the top of the leaderboards, check out his poker training website at FloatTheTurn.com.