A close-up look at small-ball poker, the modern-day bet sizing strategy of Daniel Negreanu.
It wasn’t too long ago that tournaments thrived on big bets from big players. You were either a weak limper, or an aggressive pot-multiplying raiser. The unleashing of so much aggression is what reduced the fields so quickly. The aggressors eliminated most of the weaklings, and for many, themselves in the process.
Daniel Negreanu, the Canadian Kid Poker who’s brought the tournament world to its knees time and again, came up with a new way to survive multi-day events, without being an easily-exploitable weak or aggressive player. He developed a unique bet sizing technique he calls “small ball poker” (as debuted in his 2008 book, Power Hold’em Strategy).
Negreanu says, “bet-sizing is extremely important”, but that the concept has changed drastically since his early days on the felt. “People came out raising 3 times or 4 times the big blind, minimum. Pot-sized bets on the flop were the rule and not the exception.”
For this reason, Daniel came up with his own small-ball bet sizing strategy. As he explains it, small-ball poker betting “means that you size your bets much smaller to give yourself the chance to play many more hands.”
Small Ball Poker Bet Sizing
The theory behind small-ball betting in a multi-day tournament is that players can make their stacks last a lot longer. In the early days, when a player was dealt A-A, strategy called for them to bet 3-4xBB right out of the gate. If the hand went to a flop, they’d follow that with pot size bets.
The problem was that this betting style was getting no value for A-A owners. That early aggression would either scare everyone else away, gaining the player just a few chips, or, if an opponent stayed with it, A-A wasn’t all that hard to beat with suited-connectors on the turn or river. Either way, those pocket Aces were earning little, or too often, losing a lot.
Chip Conservation Pre- and Post-Flop
With Daniel’s small-ball betting system, players with a good hand are able to gain value pre- and post-flop. Smaller bets and raises conserve chips, and if the fates align, the player can go into aggressive betting mode on the turn and river to maximize their value.
“If you look at High Roller tournaments and how they’ve developed in the last 18-24 months, you see a lot of small pre-flop raises and small bets on the flop,” says Daniel. “But then on the turns and rivers we see 2x or 3x the pot bets—huge over-bets to put as much pressure as possible on the other players. And this is poker on the highest levels so this shows you the way to go.”
Over-Betting the Turn & River
Daniel goes on to explain that, come turn and river, over-betting can be the right move in two situations—when a player has nothing, and when a player has everything.
“The over-bet is your weapon in polarized situations when you either have a very strong hand or nothing.” In this way, a player gains value and power over their opponents, without becoming too legible.
Negreanu calls small ball poker “the fabric that every good player uses” to outlast a large field in modern-day tournaments. Pre-flop and post-flop are now more conservative, while the turn and river are “where the game gets interesting”.
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