Negreanu’s Small Ball Strategy – A New Way of Trapping Yourself

posted by Jake Simmons on October 31, 2009 - 3 responses

Negreanu’s small ball poker strategy is probably one of the most well known poker strategies amongst beginners. Helped by his popular image Negreanu has been able to promote and sell thousands of books explaining how his strategy is one of the best ways to play poker tournaments, but is it actually any good ?

An Overview

First of all, let’s go over the basics of the strategy. The ‘Small Ball’ strategy at its roots is a way of minimizing risk by keeping the pot as small as possible. This is a key part of the strategy so if you think you’re doing great playing ‘Small Ball‘ but are going into big pots then you’re definitely not applying it correctly.

Secondly however great a poker strategy is, it’s only effective when you know your opponent has no idea you’re playing it. That makes your game unpredictable and being unpredictable is probably the biggest part of any game. Unfortunately since the ‘Small Ball‘ strategy is so well known throughout the poker world it’s a little to easy to pick out when you see it in play.

Transmitting Weakness

Most beginners struggle when applying this strategy because they never really know whether their raise represented weakness. The ‘Small Ball‘ strategy says you should avoid raising as much as possible, make limps or just minimum raises before the flop and always bet less than half the pot. From the outset these restrictions automatically transmit weakness to the opponent meaning they’ll probably end up raising you and forcing you out of the play.

Most beginners who play this strategy will eventually start to call as they won’t want to give up a top pair. This will again lead to larger pots and thus you’re throwing the strategy out of the window. Let’s take a look at a quick example.

An Example

Blinds are 100/200, John has A J and is using the ‘Small Ball‘. He minimum raises from a latter position and Dave calls it. Flop is 7 6 J, good flop for John, Dave checks and John makes just a weak bet of 250 in a 900 pot. Seeing this Dave calls.

The turn produces a 2 and John makes another small bet this time of 500, Dave makes a standard raise to 1.5K which following the Small Ball strategy should really mean John should fold, but John’s confused! His weak bets mean he can’t really decide whether he’s actually ahead of his opponent or if his opponent is just trying to bluff or semi-bluff him.

A strong bet earlier on may have forced Dave out of the game but letting him play on after the flop means Dave is able to very cheaply play along and maybe even pick out some cards putting him in a strong position.

So John going on instinct because he feels his hand is pretty good eventually calls, he just can’t force himself to lay down a strong pair with a top kicker that easily. Now he’s playing a 3.8K pot with one card to come, river is a K and Dave makes a continuation bet of 2200. John is an amateur, and finds himself in an extremely marginal situation with a huge pot going on and with no idea where he’s standing. Seeing the opponent’s hand will cost him a lot of chips which is not the idea for a small ball player.

Textbooks says he should fold his spot as his pair of jacks seems no good, but most beginners will call because they feel their weak bets allowed a bluff from the opponent. In some cases this is true but in many cases the opponent is usually holding a double pair or even a set that could leave John with few big blinds left in the tournament.

Even if he was just bluffing this play won’t be profitable in the long run and goes against the principles of small balling where the idea is not to risk so many chips with just a pair. Going back to the start this unfortunate sequence of events all kicked off from the initial weak bet of 250 that lead John down this confusing path.

Small Balling It

The above is one of the main reasons I’m not a big fan of the ‘Small Ball’ not only does it make it extremely difficult for beginners to know where they stand but once your opponent picks up on the fact that you’re small balling they can easily outplay you with a few big raises. Following the strategy means you’ll not only end up laying down mediocre hands but you’ll often be forced to fold on your best hands.

In conclusion the ‘Small Ball’ strategy is no good for beginners and certainly only useful in the hands of more experienced players like Daniel Negreanu who know how to use it without fault.

3 Comments Below to “Negreanu’s Small Ball Strategy – A New Way of Trapping Yourself”

  1. Counting The Odds » Blog Archive » Small Ball Strategy – Pre Flop on

    [...] I just came across a post from the folks at True Gamble, saying the the “Small Ball” strategy (hugely publicized by Daniel Negreanu), is not good for beginners. [...]

  2. Small Ball Strategy – Flop Bet Sizing « Counting The Odds on

    [...] a previous post, I looked at this example from TrueGamble, and studied the preflop action; concluding that the ideal raise would have been between 2.5x to 3x [...]

  3. SBmaster on

    This is a really bad example of why small ball is bad, which it’s not by the way. First off, a small baller would prob check that turn (keeping the pot small in a marginal situation) and then either induce a bluff or try to value bet river based on information gained on the turn by the opponents action, bet size timing etc…

    In addition, a small baller might not even bet the flop on that dry of a board with very little chance of being outdrawn.

    Lastly, considering the biggest leak of most beginners is stacking off deep money with just one pair, i’m always puzzled at all the “experts” who give advice that seems to perpetuate this leak. Small pots make many decisions easier rather than harder. Not to say that small ball is optimal for a beginner because obviously it requires hand reading skill, but once a player gets some experience then they should start trying to play a more postflop game.

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