Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Playing From The Blinds: Offense And Defense

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jun 01, 2022


The Pros: Xuan Liu, Michael Trivett, and Justin Lapka

Craig Tapscott: What are some of the differences in how you play the small blind versus the big blind?

Xuan Liu Credit: WPTXuan Liu: In general, you should be looking to three-bet more often in the small blind than if you were the big blind. This is because we would prefer to isolate and take away the big blind’s option to see the flop for a great price with most of our playable hands.

We should always be three-betting our premium hands and adjust our three-bet percentage based on the position and tendencies of the original raiser. The later the position they raise from, the weaker our hand can be when we three-bet. This is because as our opponent’s position gets better their ranges should get wider, which means they are more likely to have hands that can’t continue to a three-bet. We also mitigate any out-of-position disadvantages of being in the worst position by playing a pot with a shallower pot to stack ratio. 

Who is in the big blind and their aggression factor should also be a consideration when deciding what to do in the small blind. With a passive player who seldomly squeezes to our left we can call a little bit more and see a flop for an extra ~1.5 big blinds in a tournament, whereas versus someone with a re-steal stack or a trigger-happy isolator we may want to take away their option to put in another bet with marginal hands or blockers that can apply a lot of pressure. 

You should have the lowest VPIP (Voluntarily Put In Pot) from the small blind out of any position, even though your three-bet percentage is significantly higher than while in the big blind. This is because a big blind three-bet usually indicates a lot of strength because the player elected to bloat the pot out of position instead of simply completing to see a cheap flop. The big blind should have almost exclusively premium holdings to raise with unless they are making a squeeze play. 

Michael Trivett: Playing from the big blind and playing from the small blind are completely different strategies. When playing from the big blind, for example, we are going to be defending a lot and seeing a lot of flops because we are completing the action. When playing from the small blind it’s much different because we still have a player to act behind and depending on who that player is will dictate what strategy we choose to implement.

It’s important to note in these scenarios when we are making these adjustments, that they are minor adjustments. If we look at a scenario where we are facing an open from the cutoff 50 big blind effective, we are three-betting about 12 percent of hands. If I want to three-bet more and with tougher players in the big blind, I might go from 12 percent to 14 percent. If we want to flat more, we could go from 13 percent to 15 percent. Very small adjustments.

It will always be a sliding scale based on the information you have on your opponents. My strategy in these spots is using GTO (Game Theory Optimal) as a baseline and then I use the information that I have on opponents to determine how much I want to deviate or if I want to deviate at all from GTO.

A good example of a hand I would three-bet a good reg in the big blind but would flat with weaker players in the big blind would be hand like A-J offsuit.

There are a lot of different variables that go into making these decisions. Does ICM (Independent Chip Model) come into play for tournaments? What kind of player is opening? What kind of player is in the big blind? What are stack depths of these players? What does the opening range look like for the opener? What does my range look like if I flat or if I three-bet? These are all important questions you want to ask yourself when determining how much you really want to deviate from GTO strategies.

Justin LapkaJustin Lapka: The blinds are the two positions where you are forced to make automatic bets every hand, therefore they will be the two positions where your expected value is going to be the lowest of any other positions. Which then means, they are probably the two most important positions to learn how to play profitably.

In the small blind, you are going to be the most out-of-position player, even to the big blind, so in terms of strategy you are going to see a lot more three-betting, and less flatting. Let’s say someone from mid-position were to raise, and you call, the big blind is now getting a very enticing price to continue with half the deck, which chops your equity three-ways.

Two important variables that determine the correct ranges for that position are going to be stack depth and card removal. If we are 30 big blind effective, you won’t see us three-betting K-J suited in the small blind against a middle position opener. Even though it has good card removal, if we get jammed on, we then don’t get to realize our equity. Oftentimes, the strategy would be to flat hands such as K-J suited and keep in hands that we dominate like K-10, or K-9, and to three-bet the K-9 suited instead, which can fold out our opponent’s A-X and K-10/K-J offsuit portions of their range.

As for flatting, you will oftentimes see our ranges consisting of the hands that don’t have good card removal, like A-2 suited thru A-7 suited, and pocket pairs, 2-2 thru 8-8. But those are also hands we don’t mind having the big blind come along for the ride as well. Because those hands play well multiway and have good implied odds. 

Craig Tapscott: We see a lot of top pros defending their big blind much wider today than in the past.

Xuan Liu: The simple answer for this trend is that good players started realizing they were getting the correct price to see a flop and contest for the pot even with subpar hands, especially if there are antes. 

Keep in mind it can be quite different between cash games and tournaments. In a tournament if you complete the big blind for a ~2x raise with the bottom ~70 percent of hands you should have a pretty good idea of how well the board hit you and whether you should continue after the flop. Stacks are also shallower, so any potential mistakes are not usually that egregious.

On the flip side even though you are making “smaller” errors in terms of big blinds you increase your chances of being eliminated from the tournament if you are playing too many dominated hands, so it’s still important to compare your holding with the spectrum of hands your opponent may have from the position they opened in.

In a cash game, players are not calling nearly as wide from the big blind from single raised pots because open sizings are generally larger and any preflop mistakes can compound and potentially put hundreds of big blinds of chips at risk. Having said that, if a player is very comfortable and knows they have a big skill edge over the other players in the game it may be a good strategy to play as many hands as possible against them. This applies to both tournaments and cash games. 

There are a lot of other fringe considerations that play into these decisions as well. Does your opponent have a low continuation bet frequency so you are more likely to see four community cards instead of three for one big blind? Are there tournament bubble or ICM considerations? If so, you’d want to avoid playing subpar hands that often get you into marginal situations that could eliminate you from the tournament. 

Bet sizings are always a consideration because ultimately poker can be reduced to a game of probabilities. If you are getting the correct odds to call relative to how much you can potentially win you should often be looking to realize your equity. Just keep in mind that the expected value of folding is zero, while calling can be positive or negative. Just always be observing and adjusting to the table and each opponent’s human tendencies.

Michael TrivettMichael Trivett: Over the past few years players have realized you have to defend the big blind a lot wider and with the inclusion of big blind ante it’s even more the case. One of the most common spots you will be in in poker is button opens and you defend the big blind so because of this it’s important to understand how big blind ranges interact with button ranges and build a strategy around that.

My strategy in the big blind is to defend a lot of hands while also three-betting at a decent clip. If you look at GTO big blind ranges, we are playing around 80 percent of hands which 64 percent of those are defending while the other 16 percent is three-betting.

If we look at population tendencies, I can confidently say that most players do not have 16 percent three-bet range from the big blind versus button opens. In fact, a lot of very good regs that I’ve talked to will tell you big blind three-bets from anyone that isn’t a top pro is very heavily weighted towards value. You take advantage of this by understanding what type of players are raising and how are they reacting to three-bets. In a lot of instances overfolding is going to be their reaction.

There are a lot of reasons why you need to watch players carefully and assign players to certain player types and doing so will make it so much easier for you to know which ranges you need to play versus certain player types.

Justin Lapka: With the development of solvers we are finally understanding the strategies that can make us the most money in the big blind, as I think in the past it was just assumed that everyone will take their lumps and lose in that position no matter what.

A big determining factor for our ranges is always going to be equity. Specifically, how much equity does my hand have against my opponent’s range in UTG, button, middle position, etc. Oftentimes, we will end up defending a lot more hands against later positions like the hijack, middle position, button, because their ranges are a lot wider and thus more hands will have sufficient equity to continue profitably.

Obviously, this changes a bit when you are multiway as I think a big leak of many is completing with too many hands. Oftentimes, say middle position opens, small blind calls, and we are 30 big blind effective in big blind with J-9 offsuit, that is supposed to be a fold. As I mentioned earlier, being multiway chops our equity three-ways or more, and therefore multiway we only want to continue with mostly suited holdings in the big blind, or hands like pairs, offsuit Broadway (J-10 offsuit, K-10 offsuit, Q-J offsuit, A-10 offsuit) which will maintain their equity very well even multiway.

Another factor to touch on briefly is that as the open size gets bigger, as big blind we are getting a worse price to continue, and therefore our range of hands should shrink as well. However, say our opponent is only opening to 3x with nutted hands, then we can confidently overfold even more hands, and continue with only suited holdings, pairs, and the top portion of the deck. But that also requires having played with someone for a substantial amount of time. 

Oftentimes, in the big blind we will have a polar three-betting strategy, but at deeper stacks that is not true. You will oftentimes see hands like J-10 suited, K-9 suited, be three-bet when 50 big blind or more as they play very well out of position versus tighter ranges. As stacks get shallower, oftentimes you will see hands like K-9 offsuit or A-6 offsuit get chosen as three-bets because they have card removal to our opponents better hands, but also because the value of flopping top pair goes up as the stack-to-pot ratio goes down. ♠

Xuan Liu was born in China but grew up in Canada, where she attended the poker hotbed of Waterloo University. She has more than $3 million in career tournament earnings, and is featured on this season of PokerGO’s High Stakes Poker. She is currently the Special Projects Lead for A5 Labs/World Poker Tour and is also on the advisory board for Poker Power, an organization that teaches women poker to amplify their careers and decision-making skills. Find her on @xxl23.

Michael Trivett is a native of Johnson City, Tennessee and has more than $800,000 in career cashes, including a WSOP Circuit gold ring from Las Vegas in 2019. In 2020 the poker coach finished runner up in the Global Casino Championship Invitational, and in 2021 he made two WSOP final tables, giving him seven overall. Look for him on Twitter @mtrivettpoker.

Justin Lapka is a Twitch poker streamer better known as ‘Lappy Poker’ to his followers. The Minnesota native has more than $3 million in cashes online. He enjoyed a stellar 2021, winning his first WSOP bracelet in an online event in July, and following it up with his first WSOP Circuit ring just a week later. Earlier this year, he final tabled the ACR Punta del Este event. He can be found @LappyPoker.