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Perfect Play from the Blinds? No Thanks!

by Matt Matros |  Published: Nov 20, 2019


This beautiful game we call poker often picks its long-term winners based on the answer to a simple question: how good is your strategy? Strategies, the overall plans for success, lead to tactics, the choices we make in individual game situations. Almost every player carries out a strategy through their tactics, even if they don’t know those specific terms. And when a player doesn’t have a clear plan to guide them, meaning they’re not sure of their strategy, tactical decisions get difficult.

Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in play from the small and big blind in no-limit hold’em. Picking a strategy from the blinds is hard because there are conflicting principles at work. You’re getting better pot odds than from anywhere else at the table, and you can often close the action, all of which means you should play looser. But you’ll be playing the entire hand out of position, often against a raiser, which means you should play tighter. What to do?

Indeed, many players don’t really know how to answer that question, and so they keep experimenting with different approaches. For years, typical players were folding too often from the blinds for fear of playing out of position. Conversely, many otherwise solid players still enter far too many pots from the small blind, overvaluing the discounted pot odds.

These days we have solvers to tell us what the theoretical best play is in many situations. Unsurprisingly, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, best play from the blinds is quite complicated, and usually involves a mixture of calls, folds, or raises even when choosing the strategy for a single starting hand. Such a plan is hard for humans to execute.

The driving principle behind my book The Game Plan is that a simple, effective, easy to execute strategy will work just fine against 99 percent of real-world opponents (assuming you haven’t entered a high roller tournament or something), and will actually prove a better approach for most players than trying to memorize every solver solution to every scenario. With a straightforward preflop approach, you’ll be clear in your own mind what your range looks like at any given point in the hand, which will greatly improve your post-flop decision-making.

Keeping this guideline in mind, here are a few candidate strategies for play from the blinds:

• Raise/reraise any hand you want to play from the small blind, flat call any hand you want to play from the big blind.

This is more or less the approach I advise in The Game Plan. It keeps things simple. “Is my hand good enough to call a raise out of position from the small blind?” It doesn’t matter because you won’t be doing it. “Should I be three-betting A-K from the big blind in this spot?” No, because you won’t be three-betting anything. Carrying out this strategy might mean three-betting (or four-betting or five-betting) only premium hands from the small blind, but calling a single raise from the big blind with anything remotely reasonable.

In addition to making your life a whole lot easier, this strategy helps you avoid falling into the trap of playing either too loose or too tight. You’ll never be calling a raise from the worst possible position on the table (the small blind), but you also won’t be folding too often when closing the action. It’s a nice blend.

• Never raise or reraise from the blinds, period. Call with any hand you want to play.

The nagging question of whether to build the pot out of position when playing from the small blind has led a lot of strong players in recent years to simply open-limp with whatever small blind hands they want to play. The above strategy is an extension of that idea. Keep the pot small out of position, and save your aggression for after the flop. For what it’s worth, this strategy is probably the lowest stress one you can employ from the blinds. It’s definitely the one that reveals the least information about your hand. You’ll be playing aces preflop the same way you play the rest of your range!

• Almost always call from the blinds, but select your very strongest hands and a few semi bluffs to raise/reraise with.

This one isn’t quite as clean as the others, but it probably gives you the closest approximation to best play. The most important question here is, which hands should we choose as our semi bluffs? If I were playing this strategy, I would three-bet with some hands that have decent value when called, but that I wouldn’t mind folding to a four-bet. Something like J-8 suited, K-10 suited, or maybe A-2 suited.

When you get aggressive from the blinds you’ll be quite strong overall, which will allow you to sneak in these weaker hands. More importantly, you’ll still be calling so often from the blinds that you will threaten to hit every flop very hard, so your opponent won’t have a massive range advantage by being the preflop aggressor.

All of these suggested strategies share the wonderful benefit that it will be totally clear going forward what hands you have in your range and what hands you don’t. If the board runs out Q-J-4-7-10, you won’t have to agonize about whether you could possibly be holding A-K based on the previous action. You’ll know.

Being able to visualize the strengths and weaknesses of your own range will prove far more important in the long run than playing perfectly before the flop. Near-perfect play that makes sense to you, the player, will yield better results against all but the very stiffest competition.

A strategy that is internally consistent, that has some logic to it, and that you can comfortably execute at the table, will put you way ahead of your competition. It almost doesn’t matter what preflop strategy you choose, so long as you understand that strategy’s implications on the later streets. Know your own range first. After that, you can worry about your opponents. ♠

Matt MatrosMatt Matros is a three-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, poker instructor, and the author of the strategy/memoir The Making of a Poker Player. His new book, The Game Plan, is available now on Amazon. Want to see how the Game Plan would apply to a hand you’ve played? Write Matt at