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Three Great Small Stakes Plays That Fail In Tougher Games

by Ed Miller |  Published: Feb 19, 2014

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Ed MillerMany of my students are successful small stakes no-limit hold’em players who have tried and failed in tougher games. These students often rely on a short list of bread-and-butter plays to succeed. These plays tend to work brilliantly in small stakes games, but they lose potency when you wade in against tougher players. Learning to beat the tough games requires a major overhaul in thinking and approach.

In this article I explore three plays that work fine in small stakes games, but that fall flat against tougher opponents.

Play 1. Playing small pairs preflop.

In small stakes games, small pocket pairs are great. There’s a good chance you can limp in or see a flop for a small raise. Opponents with top pair will tend to pay you on at least two streets if you flop a set. More aggressive opponents will sometimes tend to play imprudently aggressive with some drawing hands or easily beaten top pairs, and you can get stacks in very good.

Furthermore, in these games the small pairs retain considerable value even when you don’t flop a set. Frequently your opponents will leave you opportunities to bluff profitably with any two cards, no matter how hopeless. And sometimes your opponents will passively check to showdown and allow you to win unimproved.

These factors combined give small pocket pairs considerable value in these games. I tend to play them even from under the gun.

In tougher games, however, you should often simply fold small pairs preflop. While you can still get your sets paid in tougher games, your opponents will be sensitive to board texture, and you will often need the right sort of flop to get money in.

For instance, on a flop like QHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 5Spade Suit, your opponent may expect you to raise a wide range of hands including many draws. This cover can get you paid on your set of fives.

On a flop like KHeart Suit 3Diamond Suit 2Spade Suit, however, there’s often little incentive to raise most hands. So if you want to raise sets like treys and deuces, you must also adopt a well thought out bluffing strategy on these boards, something few players have done. It’s easy, if you haven’t carefully planned your ranges, to show too much strength early in a hand, allowing a strong opponent to fold.

The problem with small pairs in tough games is that they retain almost zero value when they have not flopped a set. Tough opponents are less likely to give you plum bluffing opportunities. And they’re also much less likely to allow you to see a freebie showdown with your pair — at least not if your pair rates to win. When you miss a set in a tough game, small pairs are among the worst hands in your range on many flops. You’re stuck checking and folding too often to make them profitable.

In tough games, I tend to fold these pairs from early and middle positions. I will play them late, and I will also sometimes use them as a three-bet bluff against a steal position raiser.

Play 2. Folding to large bets.

This play is almost mandatory in many small-stakes games. If your opponent makes a big bet on either the turn or the river, you fold. Obviously you aren’t folding the nuts or sometimes combo draws or other very live hands. But if you have a pair or a bad two pair or some other common holding, and your opponent bets big, you fold.

Why does this work? It’s simple. A big bet polarizes your opponent’s range. Either the opponent has a very strong hand or a bluff. Whenever your hand falls between these two poles, you have a bluff-catcher. You lose when he’s got the hand, and you win when he’s bluffing.

Most small stakes players do not make big bluffs often enough for you to call with bluff-catchers. That’s pretty much the end of the story. Even if you’ve seen someone bluff one or three times, you still usually should keep on folding to the big bets. Because to call, you have to think that your opponent might be bluffing 25 to 35 percent of the time. Very few small stakes players bluff this often when they make a big turn or river bet. Therefore, you fold all bluff-catchers to these bets in small stakes games.

If you carry this play into tough games, however, you set yourself up for slaughter. Players bluff in tough games. Some players actually love to make big bluffs and do it too often. In any event, most players in tough games — even the weaker ones — will notice if you never seem to call big bets. You will get bluffed and bluffed and bluffed.
You’ve got to call with bluff-catchers at a healthy frequency. Sometimes that will mean that you make payoffs that look like rookie mistakes. But tough players force you to do it — they make you put the money in, and from time to time they make you look silly. It’s just part of the game.

Play 3. Making probe bets.

In small stakes games, you can often be shameless about your bet sizing. You can size bets from $5 to $500 to get just the effect you want. Want to set your own price for a draw? Make a small bet. Want to see if your opponent has a nutted hand? Make a small probe bet that fishes for a raise. Want to make sure your opponent folds? Make a massive overbet. Don’t have much and want to give your opponent a chance to make a ridiculously terrible fold? Bet $10 into a $300 pot. And so forth.

In small stakes games, I will vary my bet sizes widely from very tiny bets to huge overbets. Most small stakes players are tame and predictable enough that you can fairly count on your bet to achieve the goal.

The problem with these bets, as a rule, is that they betray a lot of information. If you are betting $40 into a $300 pot, then a good player can rule out most of your possible holdings and focus on the few that might make sense for that strange bet size. Once they have a good idea of what you have, they can play almost perfectly.

It’s extremely difficult to employ many wide-ranging bet sizes while still hiding information well.

In tough games, I skip the shameless bets. They are too transparent. I don’t try to probe for information, because too often the information I receive will be that I have been raised, and I still don’t know where I stand.

Final Thoughts

If you plan to try out harder games, it’s critical to be introspective about your game. Why do you make money in the smaller game? What mistakes are your opponents making, and how should you adjust if you find new opponents who don’t make these mistakes? Once you can answer these questions clearly, you have the tools to take on players at the next level. ♠

Ed’s brand new book, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top, is on sale now at notedpokerauthority.com. Find Ed on Facebook at facebook.com/edmillerauthor and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.