Playing small ball simply means that unless you have the stone nuts, you don’t create huge pots in no-limit hold’em. You want to win smaller pots and have them build up in your stack. That’s small ball, and it’s a viable approach. It’s pretty much what you do in multi-day tournaments as a regular part of your play.
We’ve all played “small ball” to start off a tournament. However, in the early part of a tournament, I don’t play small ball when I’m the raiser, like some of the other pros do. I also don’t play as many pots in the first couple of days as a lot of players do. As the tournament progresses, I start playing more and more hands.
Most players raise three to four times the size of the blinds for their first raise. I raise five to six times the big blind, strictly because I don’t play that many pots—but when I’m the initial raiser, I usually want to play a big pot. I think I have the best hand or I wouldn’t be raising. I’m putting my money in with pretty strong hands early in the tournament. And of course, I start building a bigger pot by raising bigger before the flop. That way, I can bet more on the flop since there’s more money in the pot. And more again on the turn and river. That’s not small ball—that’s big ball! The whole idea is that I can win five pots whereas you might have to win fifteen pots to accumulate the same amount of money that I win in five pots.
I like everybody thinking that I’m playing real tight, because I can take advantage of a lot of situations that way. When somebody describes my play as tight-aggressive, they’re probably right. Actually, I am every type of player that you can think of at some time in a tournament. Solid or tight or aggressive or semi-aggressive or passive or just a regular player who plays in the middle of the stream—I play all those styles at some different point in the tournament. I don’t want to get pigeonholed, to let anybody think that I just play one way and they can run over me, because they can’t. Sure, there are times when I might play small ball, but that’s not my usual style at all.
Daniel Negreanu has written a lot about small ball. He plays those little connectors around the back, as long as nobody raises too much, and looks to hit one often enough to make the gamble worthwhile. Obviously, you don’t want to play just one opponent with those hands too often; you want to play multiway pots. When he’s hitting with some of those hands, Daniel will play anybody, he’ll stand raises around back and come in with small pairs and little connectors.
If you’re famous for doing that as a small ball player, a lot of people will recognize how you play, so they’re not going to get crazy playing pots with you. Suppose you’ve called a raise from around back and the flop comes something like 4-7-8. People understand the small-ball approach these days, so when a small connecting flop comes out, they are far more likely to expect that someone is playing a 5-6, especially if that player is known for playing small ball. The point is that if you’re alert and aware of who you’re playing against, you can see the possibility that players like Daniel might’ve hit their hand. So, you have to slow down a little bit until he proves that he didn’t hit it. (When Daniel plays those small hands, they’re always connected, there’s no air between them. They’re not cards like 6-8 and they’re definitely not 6-9.)
Suppose flops don’t run in the small ball direction. The small ball player might call those little raises 20 times and burn up a lot of money before he can ever hit enough flops to win a pot with them. So, it’s just a matter of what you’re willing to do. As for me, I’ve called with those small connectors. I try not to play them in the blinds because I have to act first after the flop, but if I’m in the highjack seat or the cutoff or the button, that’s a different ballgame. If it’s a multiway pot, I’ll come in and take a flop to those kinds of hands. But I don’t make a habit of it. I’m not going to burn up a bunch of chips that I can use later in the tournament when I have a hand that I can double or triple or quadruple up with. If those chips are no longer in your stack because you’ve spent them on little cards, you can’t do that.
I realize that small-ball players want to raise something like two and a half time the big blind instead of three times the blind. But you’ve got to understand that a lot of players these days are sharp, they understand no-limit hold’em very well. So if you’re coming in for a raise that is five times the blind one time, and three times the blinds the next time, these sharp players are watching, noticing what kinds of hands you’re showing down in pots. And before long, they can pick off what type of hand you’re playing based on how money you’re betting. That’s why I say that if you raise three to four times the blind, do it consistently. If you raise five to six times the blind, do it consistently. That way, you don’t tip off the strength of your hand.
Say that you’re playing $25/$50 and a player makes it $200. Then on his next raise, he makes it $150. That’s a signal that he’s playing a small hand. He risks having an opponent come right over the top of him. If you want to make a two-and-a-half-times raise to keep the pot small, that’s fine. Just be sure to do it every single time.
I’ve heard people say that this small ball approach is one of the ways that no-limit hold’em has changed, but I just don’t see the big changes that everybody talks about. I don’t think the basic game has changed primarily because of one big factor: When you’re playing in a tournament, the only thing that you’ve ever been able to control is the table you are playing at.
The only thing that I guarantee has changed is that some of these “new kids on the block” have played more hands than I have—and I’ve been playing poker for 50 years—because they’ve played so many hours online. More people understand the basics of the game these days than ever used to. Many of them still have to get accustomed to looking you in the eye instead of looking at a machine, but when it comes to knowing the basic parts of the game, they know them.