In nearly every televised poker tournament, it seems that 99% of the players on the button (last to act before the Blinds) will put in a raise with any two cards when no one has raised the pot prior to them. And, while that may be a slight exaggeration, it’s not a big mistake; if six or seven other players have folded, then almost any hand is no more than a 2 to 1 underdog against the two “random” hands in the Blinds. If we exclude obvious dog hands like 7-2o and 8-3o, and pick one like 9,6o – hardly a great hand – and compare it with an “average” hand like Q-7o or J-5s (see Lesson 13 for more information on that), we see that it has a winning probability of 28.1% against both (like if the Small Blind has Q-7o and the Big Blind has J-5s) and it has a probability of 38.3% against a Q-7o and a probability of 39% against J-5s, which might be the case if only one of the Blinds calls you.
Believe it or not, a lot of professional poker players just try to lose as little as possible when they’re in the Blinds, so “stealing” is actually fairly easy in a general sense. Of course, professionals and other savvy players know a button raise might be made with virtually any two cards, so they’ll play back at it with two objectives in mind. The first is to win this particular hand and the second is to get you to stop messing with their blinds. There’s been more than one time that I’ve reraised a Button raise all-in and 99.9% of the time, the raiser will fold and leave me alone. Of course, if they do raise me again from the Button, they’ll likely have a hand with which they can call my all-in reraise, so I stay prepared for that eventuality as well.
But let’s talk about a strategy you can adopt to make late position play even more profitable overall and not just from stealing the blinds. As I discuss in Lesson 13, I prefer to call it “earning” the blinds, but that’s just terminology, plus that lesson involves playing Limit Hold’em and I want to talk about No-Limit Hold’em here. In most tournaments (and cash games, too), you’ll run into one of these scenarios:
- Both Blinds are relatively passive and will either fold to a raise or will just call.
One Blind is passive and will usually fold, but the other Blind will call most of the time and reraise some of the time.
Both Blinds will frequently call and both have shown a willingness to reraise.
Before we go any further, let me remind you that you don’t have to play every hand when you’re on the button. You are allowed to fold, but a lot of the overly-aggressive players out there seem to forget that. Don’t let aggression get in the way of good, basic fundamental play. Sure, we’ve all seen the “maniac” that goes on to win a tournament, but far more are won by tight-aggressive players than loose-aggressive players, I assure you. That said, folding on the button is one thing and limping on the button is another. Until you’ve figured out what types of players are in the Blinds, I’d suggest that limping will work only against the category 1 players listed above. These days it seems that limping on the button (or in the Small Blind) is a sign of weakness. File that little tidbit of information away, because we’re going to use it later. But before you draw any conclusions about what types of players those in the Blinds are, limp in a few times with a decent hand (say, Q-10o, J-8s or better; an above-average hand) to see how they react. Of course you’re not going to call an all-in with those hands, but you might want to call a raise just to establish the fact that you’re not necessarily weak every time you limp. If you subsequently win the hand at a showdown, your limping “credibility” will go up and you’ll likely be able to limp at will. An added benefit is that they’ll give your raises from the button more credibility because they saw you limp with a “decent” hand, so you must be raising with something better (even though that may not actually be the case.)
The Power of Position
It is commonly estimated that any hand increases its expected value by about 25% when played “in position.” In other words, a hand like 9-6o, which has a probability of winning 39% against J-5s, actually has a probability more like 50% if you get to bet last. And if you’re on the button, you always get to act last after the flop, regardless of how many players are in the hand. If you raised preflop, your opponents will often check to you after the flop and that allows you to make a continuation bet of at least half the pot, which basically sends the message: “I was strong before the flop and I’m still strong.” Whether or not they’ll fold depends upon how the flop affected their hand, of course, but you should make such a bet anyway because it’ll tell you where you’re at in the hand. If an opponent calls and you have nothing, it’s probably time to go into check mode. If an opponent raises you, it’s time to consider folding, unless you can reraise. Anything but a fold by your opponent(s) is disappointing when you don’t have a strong hand, but at least your position has opened up some options and that’s the real power of being on the Button.
In fact, position is so important that I’m going to recommend that you spend less time trying to steal the blinds and spend more time trying to “buy the Button.” What I mean by this is to raise more from the Cutoff (the seat to act immediately before the Button) because you will accomplish two things. First, your raise will not appear to be a “standard Button raise”, which implies looseness, so it may have more credibility. Secondly, if you can get the Button to fold, you will get to act last for the rest of the hand. While I and many other authors recommend that hands played from the Cutoff be slightly stronger than hands played from the Button, I think a lot of that has changed so they’re really almost equal, at least in the tournaments I’ve been playing lately (and winning, I might add, in all humility.) The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is the player on the Button. No savvy player is going to be thrilled about giving up his or her position, especially when s/he was thinking of making a raise until you came along. Consequently, you might get a call from the Button, which really isn’t all that bad but you might get reraised and if that happens, it’s probably because the Button has a “real” hand. But if the Button just calls, don’t be surprised if one or both of the Blinds comes in also, because they will be getting pretty good pot odds, although they’ll be way out of position for the rest of the hand.
Do not be surprised if a player out of position bets after the flop. They likely know they’re out of position and are trying to win the hand here and now. Depending upon what came on the flop, your “read” on that player and whether or not the flop helped your hand in any way, calling or reraising such a bet usually carries very little risk, in my experience – particularly if the Blind made a “probe” type of bet that is less than half the pot. You still have the Button to worry about in this scenario and s/he may have just called with a big hand, so I’m more inclined to call the Blind’s bet than reraise, unless the flop was very good to me – like two pair or better – in which case I’d definitely put in a big reraise. By just calling, you never really know where you are in the hand, but if you have a decent draw or can improve your hand in other ways, then you’ll very likely get the pot odds needed if everyone keeps calling. You will, of course, continue to evaluate the strength of your hand versus the pot odds as the other community cards are dealt, but many situations like this are pretty clear-cut by the time the river card falls, so if you’re getting a decent price and have, say, second pair, try to stick with the hand. You’d be amazed at some of the junk that appears in the showdown; either Blind or even the Button may have just Ace high.
A Good Reason to Limp in Late Position
Because limping in late position is viewed as weakness more often these days, you can sometimes use that to your advantage. While what I’m going to describe here usually works best in the Small Blind (which really is “late position” preflop), it’ll also work pretty well on the Button, but less so in the Cutoff seat. Here’s the scenario: Let’s say the Big Blind is pretty short-stacked with only 5 or 6 bets left – it’s very reasonable to assume that s/he could go all in if you limp on the Button or from the Small Blind – so limp with a pretty good hand, rather than raising, which might cause the short-stack to fold. Then, if the BB does push all-in, you’ll probably be calling with the best hand. Sure, it might come down to a coin toss, but in my experience, limping with A-x in a situation like this works very well. Plus, it might remove one more player from the tournament and that’s always worthwhile.
I’ll see you here next time.