The term “Small Ball” was popularised by professional poker player Daniel Negreanu. What exactly does it mean? More importantly, can it be used to increase our earnings at the poker tables?

Small Ball poker is characterised by the following -

- Playing lots of hands preflop
- Using small bet-sizings postflop
- Looking to steal a lot of pots
- Giving up easily when Villain shows interest

Some have drawn similarities between Small Ball and the LAG (loose-aggressive) playing style, but there is an essential key difference. Small Ball poker tries to keep the risk very small relative to the reward.

While a Small Ball strategy can sometimes give the impression of a maniacal plan on the earlier streets, that aggression falls off dramatically on the later streets where the pot becomes large. LAGs,on the other hand, may keep applying the pressure across all streets.They may also use large bet-sizings when bluffing, while Small Ball players typically try to bluff as cheaply as possible.

The essential advantage to Small Ball poker is that it focuses on lowering the risk while maximising the potential payout when we make a big hand. It allows us to play a wide variety of starting hands and hence capitalise on our postflop edge.

The opposite gameplan is typically described as “Long Ball”. In fact, this was considered the more traditional way to play poker before the advent of Small Ball strategies.

Long Ball involves entering the pot with a tight range and playing aggressively postflop (using larger bet-sizings on average than Small Ball).

Small Ball Poker

Long Ball Poker

Playing lots of hands preflop

Playing a tight range preflop

Using small bet-sizings postflop

Using larger bet-sizings postflop

Giving up easily when Villain shows interest

Giving up less because stronger on average

Good for more advanced players

Suitable for beginners

Table of Contents

Does Small Ball Poker Work?

Small Ball can be an extremely profitable style of poker when used in the right circumstances and against the right opponents.

It potentially requires more skill than Long Ball poker (so not necessarily recommended for beginners) but can also be more profitable than Long Ball poker when executed correctly. Small Ball poker works best in scenarios where the potential reward (i.e. effective stacks) is large relative to the bet-sizings made on the earlier streets.

In other words, Small Ball doesn’t work as well in shorter-stacked scenarios. It is ideally suited to the earlier stages of tournaments or to full-stack cash games.


Small Ball poker makes money by relying on a combination of fold-equity and implied-odds.


Note that Small Ball players are absolutely not maniacs (the name for hyper-aggressive players). However, they may give the appearance of being maniacs due to their aggressive play on the first two betting rounds.
The first two betting rounds (preflop and flop) are designed to pick up lots of pots without the need for having any sort of hand. Not only is this profitable, but it potentially helps to create a maniacal image making it easier to get paid off on the later streets.Small Ball fold-equity – Small Ball poker looks to steal a lot preflop and on the flop. It’s common to open-raise wider than average when playing Small Ball. When missing the flop, it’s usual to make use of continuation bets with air on a wide variety of different board textures.


Small Ball implied-odds – After the first two betting rounds (preflop and flop) the outlook shifts dramatically towards taking advantage of implied odds. At this stage, the investment into the pot is still small (especially since Small Ball players both open-raise and c-bet for small sizings on average).

Assuming Villain has shown interest (i.e. perhaps he called the c-bet) a Small Ball player will show a strong tendency towards giving up. Continuing aggressively on the turn would increase the level of risk making it a strategy not congruent with the Small Ball approach.

After making a strong hand, Small Ball players will now look to bet aggressively for large sizings, hoping to generate a payoff. Villain, who may mistakenly suspect he is dealing with a maniac, calls down significantly wider, thinking that his Small Ball opponent might be bluffing.

Since the size of the payout is very large relative to the initial investment, Small Ball players are effectively taking advantage of their implied odds.

How to Play Small Ball Poker

poker player holding up the button as if it’s a ball

Here are some basic pointers for playing Small Ball poker -

1. Open raise wide, especially from late position.

Good Small Ball players are continually looking for opportunities to pick up pots preflop. However, we should not try and force the action. Our goal should be to find intelligent steal spots,not resort to blind aggression preflop.

Steal attempts are nearly always more likely to succeed in late position. So, although Small Ball players may occasionally look to widen their opening ranges from early position, most of their aggression will occur in late position.

2. Look for opportunities to see cheap flops.

Good Small Ball players love to see cheap flops with a wide range of holdings. Again, intelligence is employed here; some spots are better than others for defending wide ranges. Big Blind defence is an especially favoured spot since we are usually guaranteed to see the flop when cold-calling in the big-blind. (Unlike calling in other positions where our opponents may elect to squeeze behind us.)

A second reason why the BB is a decent spot is that we get a discount on our preflop calls. We have already invested the 1bb mandatory blind payment, so we are effectively getting a discount of 1bb on any preflop call we make.

Small Ball players will even be comfortable defending their BB against a tight opening range when getting the right price. We might not expect to be a big favourite equity-wise, but there is a significant potential payout for us if we flop well with a disguised preflop holding. Besides, even our opponent’s strong holdings can sometimes miss the flop, and a good Small Ball player is always looking for opportunities to pick up pots with nothing.

3. Look for opportunities to steal cheaply postflop.

Although good Small Ball players don’t typically run big multi-street bluffs, they are always on the lookout to pick up pots cheaply. An excellent example of this is firing a continuation bet on many flop textures even when completely missing. If our opponent shows interest in the pot, we can give up almost immediately. While if he folds, we’ve managed to win a few chips despite not holding a legitimate hand.

Small Ball players are always looking to get the best price on their bluff. Our opponents won’t necessarily notice small changes in our bet-sizing, and, in many cases, will proceed to fold the same range of hands regardless of the sizing we pick.

If our opponent folds at similar frequencies against small bet-sizings, it means we are increasing our profits overall. Small Ball players are usually content to make c-bet sizings of half-pot or less when holding nothing.

4. Only build big pots with the goods.

Small Ball players are often misinterpreted as maniacs. Our opponents might assume that since we are playing loose-aggressive poker on the flop and turn, we will also look to continue this aggression on the later streets.

However, our gameplan (as Small Ball players) should primarily be to completely cut down on later street aggression, assuming our opponent shows interest in the pot. If our opponent starts calling or raising against our bluffs, we should simply give up rather than build a big pot with trash.

The only time we’ll look to build a large pot on the later streets is when we have a legitimate made hand.

Small Ball in Practice – Cash Games

Let’s see some example hands where the Hero in question makes use of a Small Ball style -

6 handed, NLHE

UTG (100bb)
MP (100bb)
CO (100bb)
BTN (100bb) Hero
SB (100bb)
BB (100bb)

Hero is dealt Kh5d

UTG folds, MP folds, CO folds, Hero open-raises 2bb, SB folds, BB calls.

Flop (4.5bb)Ac6s2c

BB checks, Hero bets 2.5bb, BB folds

A couple of key takeaways from this first example.

1. We were happy to open-raise the button without a premium holding. We recognise it’s an excellent spot to go for a cheap blind steal despite not holding a legitimate hand. Besides, we can still sometimes hit the flop, perhaps a pair of kings, etc. Notice also that we select a small open-raise sizing. While traditionally players like to open-raise for larger sizings (especially in live cash games) Small Ballers are always looking to get the best price on their steal.

2. We were happy to take a stab on the flop despite missing. Some players decide to check back the flop and give up. Small Ballers will usually look to take at least one stab here for a small bet sizing. This play typically applies on all but the most co-ordinated board textures.

6 handed, NLHE

UTG (100bb)
MP (100bb)
CO (100bb)
BTN (100bb)
SB (100bb)
BB (100bb) Hero

Hero is dealt 8h6h

UTG open-raises 2bb, MP folds, CO folds, BTN folds, SB folds, BB hero calls.

Flop (4.5bb)5cTs2c

Hero checks, UTG checks.

Turn (4.5bb)2d

Hero bets 2.5bb, BTN folds.

Here are the key takeaways from our second hand example.

1. We are looking for spots to see cheap flops, especially from the big blind. Facing the min-raise open from UTG, we are happy to see a flop with our suited gapper. We know that Villain might have a strong range after opening in early, but we are content to defend marginal holdings due to the good price we get. Besides, as a skilled Small Baller, we are ready to get out of the way postflop if our opponent shows significant interest in the pot.

2. We look to stab after our opponent show disinterest. In this example, we’d likely be folding the flop if our opponent had elected to cbet. However, Villain does not fire the continuation bet, perhaps indicating that he has not connected hard with the flop. Therefore, we take our opportunity to run a cheap bluff on the turn despite holding garbage.

Small Ball in Practice – Tournaments

poker player at table with thought bubble with the words “SEE FLOPS FOR CHEAP”

Let’s see a couple of examples taken from tournaments. Mostly the principles are the same, but we do need to be careful to account for the effective stacks and any relevant ICM implications of our decisions.

9 handed, NLHE

UTG1(25bb)
UTG2(38bb)
MP1 (10bb)
MP2 (48bb)
MP3 (17bb)
CO (72bb)
BTN (68bb) Hero
SB (23bb)
BB (25bb)

0.9bb added to the pot in antes
SB posts 0.5bb
BB posts 1bb

Hero is dealt 8h7h

UTG1 folds, UTG2 folds, MP1 folds, MP2 folds, MP3 folds, CO open-raises to 2bb, BTN hero calls, SB folds, BB folds.

Flop (6.4bb)5cTs2c

CO checks, Hero bets 3bb, CO folds.

In our first example, we have a healthy tournament stack and need to play cautiously when dealing with opponents who have us covered. Unfortunately, the ICM pressure is always going to be against us regarding commitment decisions in this kind of spot.

So, we would need an excellent equity edge to consider getting the stacks in. Luckily for us, the situation conforms nicely to the overall Small Baller outlook, since we would really only look to be playing big pots with very strong holdings anyway.

In this scenario, our opponent shows disinterest by not firing a continuation bet on the flop. This is an excellent opportunity for us to try and pick up the pot cheaply while holding nothing.

9 handed, NLHE

UTG1(25bb)
UTG2(38bb)
MP1 (10bb)
MP2 (48bb)
MP3 (17bb)
CO (72bb)
BTN (68bb) Hero
SB (23bb)
BB (25bb)

0.9bb added to the pot in antes
SB posts 0.5bb
BB posts 1bb

Hero is dealt 8h7h

UTG1 folds, UTG2 folds, MP1 folds, MP2 folds, MP3 folds, CO open-raises to 2bb, BTN hero calls, SB folds, BB folds.

Flop (6.4bb)5cTs2c

CO checks, Hero bets 3bb, CO calls.

Turn (12.4bb)2d

CO checks, Hero checks back.

River (12.4bb)Kh

CO bets 7.5bb, Hero folds.

This hand helps to illustrate the difference between Small Ballers and more aggressive types of player profile. We begin in the same way as the previous example apart from the fact that our opponent now calls our flop bet.

More aggressive players might try to find reasons to fire a second barrel on the turn with air. “My opponent just check/called the flop, he is probably capped (weak)”. We are not saying that this option is always incorrect, but when following a Small Ballstrategy, we look to give up on the turn when our opponent indicates a measure of interest in the pot.

When facing the river bet, we simply accept that we have garbage and make the easy laydown. More aggressive types of player profile might even think about mixing in bluff raises on the river, but the Small Baller has already mentally given up on this pot (which is fine).

When Not to Use Small Ball

If we are thinking about using Small Ball style strategies in our game, here are some useful exceptions that we should try to remember - 

When Not to Use Small Ball

  1. When we are playing short stacked scenarios.
  2. When our opponent is actively trying to counter our Small Ball approach.
  3. When we can exploit our opponents by deviating.

As an example of that last point, imagine an opponent folding 70% of the time to continuation bets on every street. 

Sure, we could stick to our Small Ball approach of just c-betting the flop with air and then giving up on the later streets. A skilled Small Baller is going to recognise the exception, however, and be prepared to run the big triple barrel bluff - even though this is not a normal aspect of his strategy.

It’s, therefore, better to think of Small Ball as a default mode of operations rather than a rigid set of rules that we must always stick to no matter the cost.

In terms of our opponents actively trying to exploit us, keep reading to see some examples of the types of counter strategies that may potentially be employed against the Small Ball playing style.

The Theory Behind Small Ball

If Small Ball seems to do well in many poker environments, it’s natural to wonder how Small Ball strategies stack up against theoretically optimal (GTO) poker strategies.

The truth is that Small Ball poker might quickly run into difficulties against stronger theoretically-correct opponents.

Here are some of the differences between GTO poker and the average approach to Small Ball -

Theoretical Problems with Small Ball Poker

  • Too many hands played preflop.
  • Lack of aggression on later streets (and high folding frequencies).
  • Overly strong betting and raising ranges on the later streets.
  • Overly bluff-y strategies on the earlier betting rounds.

So, how exactly could these components of Small Ball strategy constitute leaks?

Let’s imagine we were looking to counter a Small Ball player at our table and use the above weakness to generate an exploitative response.

Countering Small Ballers

poker player with table tennis racket hitting ball

1. Too many hands played preflop.

When an opponent plays too many hands preflop, they are automatically forced into making postflop errors when facing skilled opponents. Either they’ll fold all the unplayable hands postflop (resulting in overly high folding frequencies), or they’ll try and stand their ground with insupportably weak hole cards. There is no solution for this, aside from reverting to a correct preflop strategy.

This particular weakness may manifest itself in different ways postflop, but an astute player will be able to spot and exploit the weakness. It will usually involve one of the following three areas.

2. Lack of aggression on later streets (and high folding frequencies).

Put simply, not only do Small Ballers usually get to the turn with a very wide range, but they are often resolved to give up with anything that is not a relatively decent made hand. As the opponent, we’ll be presented with a high frequency of very profitable bluff opportunities. The bread and butter for a Small Baller is to open-raise aggressively and c-bet the flop. As soon as they check the turn, however, we’ll know that they are usually not strong and will likely be folding with a high frequency.

We should look to stab the turn aggressively (if in position) or lead the river aggressively (if out of position).

3. Overly strong betting and raising ranges on the later streets.

Small Ballers are relying on the fact that we’ll assume their bets are weaker than they actually are on the later streets and pay them off with a wide range. Of course, if we know that’s what they are looking for, we can exploit them by not paying them off. As soon as the Small Baller tries to build a big pot, we’ll know they have the goods and can get out of the way.

We are removing the critical component of a Small Baller’s strategy that drives the profits: their implied odds. The whole premise is that they can invest small on the early streets but get paid off big on the later streets.

Now that the big payout is harder to achieve, the Small Baller’s winrate really starts to plummet.

4. Overly bluffy strategies in the earlier betting rounds.

Small Ballers will be stealing wide preflop and firing continuation bets on a wide variety of flop textures, even after missing. Such an approach might perform well in general, but Small Ballers leave themselves open to some powerful counter strategies.

We know that a Small Baller’s aggression on the earlier streets is on the loose side, so they’ll struggle to deal with us playing back at them. They are generally quite susceptible to both raises and floats. If we know our opponent is opening wide and c-betting 90% of flops, he’ll usually struggle to defend frequently against flop raises.

The other counter strategy, known as “floating” is to call liberally against the Small Baller’s continuation bets to take down the pot on a later street.

Small Ball vs Long Ball

Long Ball poker was perhaps considered the “original” tight aggressive poker style. In fact, the term “Long Ball” only arose to differentiate it from the newly coined “Small Ball”. If the term “Small Ball” had never been invented, the term “Long Ball” would never have been created either.

Let’s see a quick overview of the differences between Small Ball, Long Ball and GTO poker -

 

Long Ball

GTO

Small Ball

Outlook

Play tight range preflop and play bigger pots on average.

Play a balanced range preflop along with a solid mixture of bluffs and value hands postflop.

Play wide range and play smaller pots on average. Look to pick up many small pots unless strong

Advantages

Easier style.

Unexploitable style of poker.

Potentially more profitable than both Long Ball and GTO if executed correctly.

Disadvantages

Less exciting, potentially less profitable, higher variance.

Doesn’t exploit or take advantage of opponents.

More skill required to play this style.

Counter

Steal a lot preflop, and postflop vs disinterest. Give up frequently vs aggression.

The only counter to GTO poker is GTO poker.

Avoid folding vs early street aggression, give up vs late street aggression. Steal pots on later streets when disinterest is shown.


 
 

Small Ball Poker Technique

So, if Small Ball poker is technically highly exploitable, why exactly does it work well? Are there any essential tricks we should know for making the most effective use of Small Ball strategy?

Firstly, Small Ball tends to work because it is based around the idea of risking small amounts in an attempt to win substantial returns. Hero enters lots of pots, but only inflates the size of the pot with premiums. Small Ball poker works mostly as a result of implied odds.

Should we be worried about our opponents figuring out our approach to the game and countering us as outlined above? In most cases, no – despite what we may feel, the average opponent is simply not paying us enough attention to start generating effective counters.

However, in the rare case that our opponent is actively trying to counter us, the best Small Ballers are capable of switching up their strategy. So, while we might hit the tables with the default intention of playing Small Ball poker, it’s vital that we understand when it’s necessary to mix up our game style vs specific opponents.

To Small Ball or Not to Small Ball?

Now that we know a little more about the pros and cons of Small Ball poker, the question is whether we should actively be trying to use Small Ball strategies in our own games.

Before making Small Ball poker the mantra we live or die by, it’s useful to realise that players often mean different things when talking about Small Ball poker. We’ll find two “Small Ball” players who actually follow significantly different strategies when at the tables.

The term ‘Small Ball’ ends up being an incredibly vague descriptive of a group of somewhat related poker strategies. So, rather than trying to accurately reproduce an approach for which there is no official rule-book, it might be better to use our consideration of the topic to improve our understanding of the mechanics of poker.

For example, think about the following –

  • Which components of the above discussion could we use to augment our own strategies at the tables?
  • Which parts of the Small Ball approach do we want to avoid in our own games and why?
  • What are the theoretical flaws associated with Small Ball play, and how can we look to counter known Small Ballers in our game?
  • How does Small Ball poker differ from the LAG styles, and which is superior?
  • Which opponents are the best to use Small Ball strategies against?

Even if we never choose to go full Small Ball style, thinking about the above questions in depth can really help boost our understanding of poker as a whole, along with our winrate at the poker tables.

About the Author
By
Timothy "Ch0r0r0" Allin is a professional player, coach, and author. Since the beginning in 2006 he has built his roll from the lowest limits online without depositing a single dollar. After competing in some of world's toughest lineups (and winning) he now shares his insights and strategies with the 888poker magazine.
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