Daniel Negreanu is widely considered to be one of the best poker players in the world, and his winnings in tournaments easily justify this image.
While poker has changed greatly during his career, back in the early 2000s, Daniel coined the phrase small ball poker.
Daniel won millions of dollars in No-Limit Hold’em tournaments in Vegas and beyond using the small ball poker strategy.
But what exactly is the small ball poker strategy?
I decided to delve deep into the topic and bring you a short guide to playing just like Daniel Negreanu.
Of course, you will need some practice to get there, but you should beat the low stakes using it pretty fast.
Let us start by defining the small ball poker strategy as such and learning the basic principles behind it.
How To Play Small Ball Poker
Poker is an extremely complex game with many variables. As such, there are many different approaches a player can take, and the optimal approach can depend on numerous factors.
Some of the factors to consider when deciding on a tournament strategy include the stack depth, field quality, blind levels duration, and more.
All of these factors will determine what the best way to play could be.
Of course, you could always just try to play close to GTO and make a profit regardless of all other things, but I will leave that to the math wizards.
Instead, the small ball poker strategy offers a relatively simple and profitable way to play Texas Holdem.
This strategy works well in almost any field but will do miracles in a weak lineup of amateur and novice poker players.
Unlike a nitty poker strategy that includes only playing premium hands, a small ball strategy involves playing various holdings.
However, unlike the ultra-aggressive players, a small baller tends to play more passively and looks to play in position as much as possible.
By playing many speculative hands, such as small pairs and suited connectors in position, you try to win massive pots while risking very little in the early betting rounds.
The idea of low risk and high profit is essential in the small ball approach to the game.
With a solid understanding of small ball poker, you can crush weak tournament fields, which basically means most poker tournaments in the world.
Hand Selection in Small Ball Poker
Small ball poker involves playing many different hands but with very specific selection criteria. The hands that dominate a player playing this strategy involve suited cards and pocket pairs.
A small ball specialist will always rather get in the mix with a hand like 75 suited than a hand like AT offsuit.
The reason being that 75 suited will often hit straights and flushes while AT will usually only hit one pair.
A small ball’s premise is to try and make big poker hands like a flush, straight or full house while risking only a small portion of your stack.
Once you make your hand, you start making the big bets.
A hand like a pocket pair is ideal for a small baller, as it allows him to make a set and potentially a full house or quads as well. If he can see a flop for only a couple of big blinds, this is ideal.
Of course, this does not mean a small ball player will not still want to see premium hands like AA, KK, or AK suited. However, he will still play some premium hands in a more conservative way than an aggressive player.
Bet Sizing in Small Ball Poker
Bet sizing is the foundation of success in poker. Whether you are bluffing or betting for value, you should understand that your bets always need to have a specific goal or multiple goals in mind.
In the small ball poker strategy, you are trying to make big hands while paying as little as possible.
This is why you will often just call before the flop first in or make a very small raise. If a raise is made, you will just call the raise with your speculative hand.
In addition to that, a small ball player will often fold his cards if a player decides to make a large raise in front of him. Remember, we are trying to make our hands cheaply, not pay through the nose to get there.
In poker tournaments where stacks are deep, there is a lot of value in paying a small 2 or 3 big blind raise to try and win 100 big blinds or more after the flop.
Even a small baller will still want to re-raise with some hands, namely premiums such as pocket aces or kings.
With these hands, you will be looking to make relatively big raises and try to commit your opponents to the pot.
This may seem like a poor approach to some of the more advanced players, but the reality is that most players in tournaments aren’t really paying too much attention.
Having bluffs in your 3-betting range may be necessary at the highest level, but playing a balanced poker strategy actually loses money in many lower to mid-stakes tournaments.
The position is King with Small Ball Approach
The position is generally a very important concept in poker, regardless of the strategy you are taking.
Whether you are a passive, aggressive, or GTO kind of player, you will always prefer to play on the button then on the small blind. This is one of the best poker tips that you should always follow.
Being “in position” means being last to act in post-flop rounds.
Being seated on the button ensures that you will always act last, but positions to the right of the button are also very good.
In small ball poker, you want to try and play as many hands on the button, cutoff, and hijack as possible.
If you are dealt 63 suited on the button, you may want to play it, but the same hand in the blinds should be a fold.
Playing in position as opposed to out of position is your ultimate goal in small ball poker. In fact, barring the really strong hands, you should not get involved when out of position at all.
A hand like AJ offsuit may as well be folded in the small blind to an early position raise, considering the negative implied odds of flopping an Ace against a hand with a better kicker such as AQ or AK.
Daniel Negreanu: The Small Ball Poker King
As such, small ball poker would probably not have become a big thing it had not been for Daniel Negreanu, one of the best tournament players of all time.
Over the years, Daniel won WSOP bracelets, EPT titles, and countless other tournaments, cementing his place in poker history.
Back in the day, he used to swear by small ball poker, which he tried to teach to many aspiring pros. You can see more about Daniel’s approach to small ball in this short video series:
Since then, poker has changed in many ways, and students of the game have used poker trackers and solvers to turn it into proper science.
Today, small ball poker is mostly considered to be an outdated strategy, and this video explains just the ways in which small ball poker differs from the modern GTO approach to the game:
All that said, let us keep exploring the strategy and what it actually brings to the table, even in this day and age.
Advantages of Small Ball Poker: When to Use It
Now that I have explained what small ball poker is, you should have a pretty good idea of how it works and the main ideas.
The question that must be asked now is when do I actually use a small ball poker strategy? Is this an approach that will work against any type of opponent?
The truth is that the only poker strategy that works in a bubble, regardless of who you are playing, is GTO.
However, learning to play GTO is extremely difficult.
What’s even more, a GTO approach can actually be missing out on money in some situations by not exploiting the players’ weaknesses and tendencies enough.
In a tough lineup where players are balancing their ranges, it would be difficult to gain an edge by playing a small ball approach. It would simply be too weak, and players would also catch on to what you are doing.
That said, most tournament poker fields are far from being tough.
In fact, only a small percentage of players in any poker tournament, especially in online poker rooms, will be serious players.
Playing small ball poker against a random opponent who is playing fairly straight up can be amazing.
If you think about it, most players will almost never fold AA, so if you can make a big hand against it cheap, you will be winning a huge pot.
It may sound like I am oversimplifying things a bit, and maybe I am, but the fact is that most poker players at lower stakes don’t play very good poker.
This is why risking your entire stack with a draw, or top pair can be silly at times since much better spots will arise if you wait patiently.
Small ball poker works as long as the stacks are reasonably deep, so no one is pot committed, and the players you are playing against are not world-class players or online tournament regulars.
Small Ball Weaknesses: When It Fails
A small ball strategy is a great approach to tournament poker, especially in the early phases. The stacks are 100 or more big blinds deep, and there are many weak players left in the field.
As the field shrinks and fewer players remain in contention, better players tend to survive, while the worst fall off.
What’s even more, the blinds go up, and the stacks get progressively shorter. By the time the endgame starts, most tournaments’ average stack gets closer to 30 big blinds.
Today’s understanding of poker tells us that you can’t play small ball profitably with short stacks.
For this reason, successful tournament players must also learn when to step up the aggression and take some risks.
We played passively and patiently with some hands during the early levels, but now that the tournament is getting close to the end, there is more value in re-raising and pushing people off their hands.
Most people will start getting timid about getting their stacks in, and they are used to us playing small ball. It is now time to use our image and their unwillingness to bust against them.
Of course, there are some tournaments in which small ball will not work at all.
If many great players are at the table and there is a lot of three and four betting going on, you will have to adapt.
You will need to play close to GTO or find new ways to exploit your opponents through aggression in fields like this. Playing small ball in high stakes tournaments will probably not work too often.
Top Class Players and Small Ball Poker Today
Small ball poker was invented and perfected by Daniel Negreanu and even displayed in poker movies. Many top tournament players applied a similar approach throughout the years and had great success.
Poker has since evolved, and most professionals have turned towards the GTO approach, trying to solve the game at a mathematical level.
Learning how to balance hand ranges and betting frequencies has become all the rage, but a good small ball poker strategy will still make you a winner in most poker tournaments, guaranteed.
The truth is that not too many professional players use the small ball as their main approach to the game. Poker today is more aggressive, and this may be another reason to revisit small ball approach.
In a sea of players trying to win pots without showdowns and making big overbets, playing small ball can prove to be quite useful.
After all, now you get to stack not only players with big hands but also those who are trying to bluff you off your hand.
Unless they are playing their approach to poker almost perfectly, your small ball poker strategy may just prove to be a great way to counter players’ aggression and high VPIP stats. In the end, you might end up winning big.