Monday, August 14, 2006

Playing "Small Ball"

Okay, it has been a good long while since I had a real "poker" post. Time to get in there and start talking about the game again.

As stated earlier, I'm not playing as much recently, but I have been trying out a new strategy for online play that I have seen some pros use with success lately. This strategy is "small ball". Basically, you are playing small pots, accumulating chips, and staying out of big pots unless you have the absolute nuts or a read that your hand is good.

A lot of people will think "Well, isn't that the way that everyone plays?" The short answer is no. The medium answer is no. The long answer follows.

One of the things that really brought this post to life was a recent episode of "Poker Superstars III" with Johnny Chan, Chris Ferguson, Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Hellmuth. If you are serious about trying to be a better player, and you are not watching this show and "High Stakes Poker", you are missing a lot. In this episode, Johnny was playing small ball to perfection after the first few hands. He was very lucky and picked up KK in hand one, then QQ in hand three and sent Phil Hellmuth and Chris Ferguson to the rail right away. He ended up heads up with Antonio Esfandiari with a 2:1 chip lead and tiny blinds. Johnny went into small ball mode and didn't take chances with hands, and would let hands go if Antonio raised enough preflop or on the flop. He was looking at flops cheaply, keeping the pots small, and then taking them off Antonio with agressive bets.

The only way that you can be truely successful, IMO in small ball is to have a deep stack or have good reads on the players at the table. To some, small ball will look like semi-loose aggressive play. There is a difference though, and it is very subtle. Semi-loose or loose aggressive players will sometimes gamble and push hard into a pot with marginal hands. The small ball players don't do this as often. They rarely raise preflop, and will bet in small increments of the pot post flop. Some think that small ball looks like slowplaying a hand that you have "hit" with. Again, this is close. You are looking to see a lot more flops cheaply with some more marginal hands, and then keeping your losses to a minimum if you are outkicked and outdrawn. Some think that small ball looks like semi-loose passive play. Again, this is close as you aren't looking to "ram and jam" the pot to build it up. You are looking to keep the pots small and push players around.

In fact, small ball is all of these styles combined. You are looking to change gears based on the pot odds, the hands, the players. Small ball is very difficult to play unless you are paying close attention to the play at your table. If you are like a lot of internet players, you are multitasking and not paying too much attention to the table. Most players are playing their cards, not the other players at the table. You will be able to pick these guys up in games within a few orbits, depending on the cards and whether they need to show down hands. If you are being smart and paying attention, you should know if you can play small ball against them successfully. These are the players that small ball will pay off with successfully.

Okay, I know. I am dancing around the do you play small ball successfully? I wish I knew. I think to be truely successful at it you need to be a superior hand reader, which I am not (but aspire to be). I really do think that the majority of pros out there see this as a good winning strategy, as long as there are no "Kill Phil" types at your table. Small ball basically looks to pick up as many "orphan" pots as you can while risking a minimum amount of chips. You are looking for weak players to pick on. You aren't betting huge amounts, giving the "TV Poker" players out there the itch to get in and mix it up with you in big pots. You are just sitting quietly, over in your chair, quietly and efficiently accumulating chips.

I am still experimenting with the strategy and have mixed results. Several authors talk about this strategy, but not in great detail, which makes me think that they don't want to let the cat out of the bag, and "spoil" this strategy by teaching it to others. I'm learning the lessons the hard way, with some losses. To date (been playing this style for about 2 months) I am down $40 in the .25/.50 NLHE games. So roughly 80 BB. A small price to pay to learn a new, effective strategy, IMO.

If anyone out there is willing to talk this more, feel free to drop me a line. I am always looking to talk strategy, and this new one is fascinating to me. I can be reached at illinifan97 AT gmail DOT com.

In the meantime, I'll cya at the tables.


At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've wrapped up "Small Ball" in a nut shell. To be honest, this is how I make a killing in cash games and online. Reading and avoiding traps are essential. Overtime, you're going to steal a lot of pots if you pick your spots well. But you have to be very cautious of large check raises, and getting too involved with average hands. Here is a great link to a you tube tutorial on small ball.

Enjoy....CardsCoach (FTP)

At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Koibito said...

Nice to see some else's thoughts on Small Ball...after playing for a few years now, I developed into a Small Ball player, without even knowing what it was. A good poker friend of mine point it out to me in a cash game the other week...great way to go with your game, if you can work it out for yourself...adaptation is the key to being a great small ball player...adaptation!


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