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Playing The Button

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: May 30, 2012

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Bob CiaffoneEvery poker player looks forward to playing the button, which gives late position on the preflop betting round and last action on the three post-flop betting rounds. The deeper the money, the more the button is worth. Shortstacks tend to run out of money before the game runs out of betting rounds. If you lose a pot that leaves you shortstacked, you are better off reloading when your turn comes to play the button.

How deep should you be to have an appropriate size stack to play no-limit holdem? I think you need to have at least 40 times the big blind as an absolute minimum. 100 times the big blind is an ideal number. Naturally, the size of your bankroll plays a role in your stack size decision, as does your competence as a player. If buying in for 40 times the big blind is too steep for your bankroll, the game itself is too steep for your bankroll.

While it is nice to act last on all three post-flop betting rounds, be aware that in raised pots, the flop betting round is often key. The preflop raiser is going to be the flop bettor most of the time, especially if there is not too large a field of players who call the raise. If the preflop raiser is the small blind (who is on your immediate left), you will have perfect position for the flop betting round. If the big blind is the preflop raiser, this will be almost as good. The further around toward your right the preflop raiser is located, the less impressive is your position on the button. The worst seat for the button to have the preflop raiser in is the cutoff seat player, who is on your immediate right. If he bets the flop, you have the whole field acting behind you. I like to call the seat on the immediate left of the preflop raiser the “electric chair” because that person has the bet coming through him and the field is yet to act in a meaningful way. Though it is true that the field acts before you do on the button, the other players tend to check to the raiser, so the info you get from their actions can be unrevealing. For example, if the field checks to the raiser and the raiser also checks, one can hardly say that the coast is clear for you to steal the pot on a bluff, as someone counting on the raiser to bet may have checked a big hand. He was hoping for the preflop raiser to bet, but he will settle for you. Contrast this situation to the one where the preflop raiser acts first and checks, and the rest of the field checks around to you on the button. This latter checking situation is truly a greed stimulator.

Preflop, if there are a number of limpers and the cutoff raises, your position will be bad after the flop – if you get to see the flop at all. So do not put money into the pot with lots of possible callers thinking your “good position” will offset a very modest hand, because you do not have good position. Particularly bad in this spot are small suited connectors. If you make a call on a pocket pair, you will at least either have either a set or an exit ticket. But with four-fifths of a complete hand, the usual situation when small connectors “get a piece of the flop,” you are in poor shape to contest the pot on the flop betting round.

On the other hand, if the field folds to the cutoff seat and that person open-raises, there might not be a field of players, since there are only the blinds to act. You may well wind up in a heads-up situation. Furthermore, the raise could have been made on very modest values. So there is no need to show restraint on calling.

One of the virtues of having the button is you are the player who is in the best position to “get free money” by stealing the blinds. When everyone folds around to you, prospects are bright for raising and taking it. But don’t get mechanical about raising. In poker, the best players are none too predictable. Vary your play by raising perhaps about half the time, or even limping in every once in a while. The word “always” is a poor choice when considering your menu of poker strategy.

How often you try to steal the pot depends quite a bit on who is in the big blind. When in the blind, some players are like me, disliking to go out of their way to get involved when having bad position. Others try to be real macho, feeling that their masculinity is being attacked when you raise their blind, and are quick to call or even re-raise. So know your opponents rather than playing too mechanically. Pick the pockets of the weak, and look for ways to give a sheriff an expensive speeding ticket.

The amount you open-raise on the button does not need to be as much as you might raise in other seats because you do not need to try and fold players who act after you. I vary my raise amount from 2.5 times the blind to 4 times the big blind. Most of the time I just triple it, but will sometimes depart from that amount in a random manner.

I see players who will open-raise from the button on eight deals out of ten – some raise ten out of ten deals. Personally, that is not the way that I do things. I do not like to be involved on a hand where I can hardly ever or never make the nuts unless I flop a full house or better. So hands with small cards where there is a gap in rank of two or more spaces are not for me. I am referring to hands like 7-4 (only one card combination will make a nut straight) or T-6 (there are no nut straights). And suited crap is still crap, in my book (think lipstick on a pig). I do usually open-raise on weak hands such as 5-4 offsuit and K-6 suited, but I can’t stand to look at hands much uglier than those.

The right philosophy in maximizing the benefit of your positional advantage of last action on the post-flop betting rounds is to be aggressive by exploiting weakness. It is useful to just call a flop bet and see what your opponent does on the turn. If he blinks by checking the turn, be quick to make an attempt at taking the pot away from him. If he wimps out by making a small bet when the situation calls for a large bet, be quick to make an attempt to take the pot away from him. If he shows fear by a phony-looking huddle before checking or wimping out with a small-size bet, be even quicker to pounce by making a play for the pot with a bet or a raise. Bully the weak; beware the strong. ♠

Bob Ciaffone has authored four poker books, Middle Limit Holdem Poker, Pot-limit and No-limit Poker, Improve Your Poker, and Omaha Poker. All can be ordered (autographed to you) from Bob by e-mail: bthecoach@att.net. Free U.S. shipping to Card Player readers. Ciaffone is available for poker lessons at a reasonable rate. His website is www.pokercoach.us, where you can get his rulebook, Robert’s Rules of Poker, for free. Bob also has a website called www.fairlawsonpoker.org.