Limping in the Small Blind
Conventional poker wisdom suggests that when you are the first player to enter a pot, you should come in for a raise. This is usually good advice---by raising pre-flop instead of just calling (i.e. limping), you give yourself a chance to steal the blinds, as well as make the pot bigger with your strong hands. As is often the case in poker, however, there are exceptions.
The most common exception to this rule is when we are in the small blind. In this article, I will explore the benefits of open-limping in the small blind. I will compare limping to raising and explain when we should choose to limp, and when we should implement a traditional raise-or-fold strategy. I will also discuss how to proceed on the flop after limping. The concepts and strategies discussed here apply to all poker games with a flop, but the examples I use are specific to No Limit Hold'em. Here we go!
Benefits of Limping
Open-limping in the small blind has a handful of advantages over raising:
1. We get to see the flop for a cheaper price.
If we were make a standard raise to 3 big blinds, it would cost us 2.5 big blinds to see the flop, assuming the big blind calls. When we limp and the big blind checks, it only costs us half a blind.
2. We avoid building the pot while out of position.
Against a player who is defending the big blind wide against a small blind raise (as they should be), we do not want to be shoveling money into the pot since our range is wide and weak, and we are guaranteed to be out of position for the entire hand.
3. We lose less with hands that would otherwise raise and then fold to a 3-bet.
Imagine we have K♣ 6♦ in the small blind and it's folded around to us. This hand is too strong to just fold. We could raise, but then when the big blind 3-bets, we have to fold and lose 2.5 big blinds. Our other option pre-flop is to limp. Admittedly, we should still usually fold this hand if the big blind raises, but many players raise vs. a limp only slightly more often than they 3-bet vs. a raise, and the 2 big blinds we save by limp/folding instead of raise/folding is significant.
4. We get to profitably enter the pot with more hands!
There are some hands, such as J♥ 3♥, which are not profitable to raise from the small blind; according to a raise-or-fold strategy, this hand should be folded. However, in most cases it is a profitable hand to limp, and therefore we can expand the amount of hands we play, boosting our overall profits.
5. We can often min-bet the flop, making our entire steal attempt cheaper.
When we raise to 3 big blinds pre, we are risking 2.5 big blinds (since we have already invested the small blind). That's significantly more expensive than when we limp, the big blind checks back, and then we bet 1/2 pot on the flop---in this case we are risking only 1.5 big blinds overall (our limp plus our 1 big blind flop bet), as opposed to 2.5 big blinds. As there are a lot of moving parts here, let's explore this scenario in greater depth.
What I want to do is compare the EV (expected value) of a 3 big blind pre-flop steal attempt versus a limp then min-bet flop steal attempt.
(We're about to get mathy here, so bear with me---or feel free to skim over the rest of this section.)
First, consider a traditional small blind raise to 3 big blinds. In my experience, most players fold the big blind approximately 40% of the time here. Let's find the EV of stealing with any two cards, assuming we always lose when the big blind doesn't fold.
EV = (frequency big blind folds * pot size) -- (frequency big blind continues * amount risked)
= (.4 * 1.5) -- (.6 * 2.5)
= -- 0.9
So the EV of this steal is negative 0.9 big blinds. It should come as no surprise that this is a losing play, since otherwise we would be raising the small blind with 100% of our hands.
Now let's compare that to a limp then min-bet flop strategy, which is more complex and we're going to need to make some more assumptions.
First we have to guess how often villain will check in the big blind after we limp. Many players' raising range facing a limp is going to look something like this:
That's ~25% of all hands, meaning they will check back 75% of the time. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume we bet half pot on 100% of flops after the big blind checks pre. (This is not an optimal strategy, but it works well against many players, especially since our range still contains all strong hands while the big blind's checking range is weak). Let's also assume the big blind folds 50% of the time to this flop bet, which is again conservative in practice, as we'll see later.
To re-cap: 75% of the time, we risk 1.5 big blinds (limp plus flop bet). Out of that 75%, half the time we win 1.5 big blinds (the pot size before we limped), and the other half of the time we lose the 1.5 big blinds we risked.
The other 25% of the time (when the big blind raises pre-flop), we simply lose our 0.5 big blind limp.
EV = .75([.5 * 1.5) -- [.5 * 1.5]) -- .25(0.5)
= -- 0.125
The EV of this limp then min-bet any flop strategy with any two cards, assuming we lose every time a) the big blind raises pre-flop, or b) the big blind does not fold to our flop bet, is only negative 0.125 big blinds. This is a huge improvement over the --0.9 big blind EV of our pre-flop steal attempt!
Yes, there are a lot of assumptions going on here, and no, these assumptions will not apply to all players in the big blind. But this EV discrepancy is so large that I believe it proves limping the small blind is an important weapon to have. Now it's time to refine this strategy further, so that our EV of entering the pot is positive, as opposed to a comparison of two negatives.
Which Hands Should We Limp?
Hopefully by now you're on board that limping in the small blind can be a powerful strategy. But which hands make a profitable limp, and which hands should we just fold? I recommend starting with a limping range of the top 60.48% of hands, which looks like this:
This range can be even wider if you believe the big blind is particularly passive. You might think some of these hands look pretty weak, and maybe you're wondering how to continue with them after seeing a flop, which brings us to our next section...
Playing Limped Pots
There are a variety of ways to proceed on the flop and beyond after we have limped pre-flop, and it would be impossible for me to go over every possible line on every possible board. Instead I'm going to provide you with a simple yet effective strategy, which you may choose to refine further if you wish.
The basic strategy is: Bet half pot on every flop that contains a 9 or higher, and check every flop that is 8-hi or lower.
Think about how each player's range interacts with various flops. As the small blind, we are going to have all the high cards, and since the big blind is raising most high-card hands pre-flop, their range will contain a lot of low cards. Therefore, we can bet high-card boards very aggressively, and there's not much the big blind can do about it. Conversely, if we bet low-card boards too aggressively, the big blind can exploit that by raising often.
Let's take a look at how the big blind's range connects with various flops, so we can estimate how often they will fold to our bet. For this I am going to use a program called Flopzilla.
On the left, we see the big blind's pre-flop range. (To show this, I simply selected 100% of hands and then deselected the hands that most players will be raising vs. a limp.) To the right of that, we can see that on a flop of J♦ 8♦ 5♣, the big blind has no made hand greater than 56% of the time. When we account for gutshots, straight draws, and flush draws, we can estimate villain will fold at least 41% of the time, and this is assuming villain actually continues with all A2o combos, which is unlikely. How often does our opponent need to fold for our half pot bet to be immediately profitable?
our bet size
(pot size + our bet size)
2 + 1
So we can bet with all our hands here and show an immediate profit, as our 41%+ fold equity is well above the 33% required for a break-even bluff. Since we have plenty of strong hands here as well, the big blind cannot do much to counter this strategy.
Let's take a look at one more flop:
On the K♥ Q♣ 4♠ board, we can see the big blind has a gutshot or better only 41.3% of the time, so they will fold to our bet 58.7% of the time. On this flop we have even more fold equity than on the previous J♦ 8♦ 5♣, and again we are printing money by betting! Note that some more advanced players will be raising some of the weaker suited kings and queens pre-flop from the big blind; I recommend playing around with Flopzilla on your own so that you can input whatever ranges you believe are appropriate for your opponents.
Overall, our small blind limping range is much stronger than a big blind's checking range, so we know we can bet many flops aggressively, but we still don't want to be betting 100% of the time. Checking the flop on 8-hi or lower boards is a good place to start.
When to Raise
At this point, I feel it's necessary to clarify: I am not advising you to always open-limp in the small blind. It works well in many cases, but there are plenty of times when raising is more effective. By far the most important factor in determining whether you should limp or raise in the small blind is the specific player in the big blind. Do you think they will fold too often to raises? How often does the big blind have to fold for a raise with any two cards to be immediately profitable? To answer this question, we can use our equation for determining how often our bluffs need to work to break even:
(pot size + amount risked)
(1.5 + 2.5)
So for a 3bb steal to be immediately profitable, it needs to work greater than 62.5% of the time. An optimal folding frequency BB vs. SB, however, is probably around 35%. If you believe your opponent is folding more often than 50% of the time (which is a leak some players have), you should probably just go ahead and raise. Despite all the benefits of limping we've explored, if we can immediately exploit someone by just raising, it's a good idea to snag that opportunity.
Disadvantage of Limping
The main argument against open limping is that we lose value with our strong hands, such as A♠ A♦. I have two responses to this argument:
1. It might not be true.
While we do generally want to put as much money in the pot as possible pre-flop with pocket aces, in some cases we do a better job of accomplishing that by limping. Imagine our opponent holds a hand like K♥ J♣. If we raise to 3 big blinds with A♠ A♦, our opponent is likely to call. If we limp, however, our opponent will raise, and then we can put in a 3-bet. Now we are able to play a 3-bet pot, which makes it relatively easy to get all-in post-flop when we choose to do so. When the board is K-hi or J-hi, we are likely to win a huge pot, whereas it would be a much smaller pot if we had raised pre-flop instead of limping.
Exploring another example, let's imagine our opponent has 7♣ 3♦. If we raise, our opponent will fold. That would be okay, but by limping and letting that hand see a flop, we will often win more money post-flop, especially when there is a 3 or 7 on the flop.
2. Limping increases the EV of our entire range.
It may or may not be true that raising with AA is more profitable than limping in the long run. But even if it is true, developing a limping range allows us to play more hands profitably from the small blind. Also, the EV of limping some medium-strength hands, such as K♠ 7♠, is usually higher than that of raising. When we look at the big picture of our whole range, limping helps maximize our long-term profits.
Finally, if you decide that you are in fact losing too much value with premium hands by limping (which is certainly possible), you may decide to implement a mixed strategy. This means limping some hands and raising some hands. While this is likely the most optimal strategy, it is difficult to implement effectively, since you need to make sure to keep enough strong hands in your limping range to avoid getting exploited. Hands like KK become a mixed strategy on their own, meaning you'll need to sometimes limp and sometimes raise with them; but if you feel confident in your balancing skills, go for it.
Other Situations to Limp
We have now thoroughly explored open-limping in the small blind. In what other situations at the poker table can we consider limping as a viable strategy? Here are a few:
1. When one or more players have limped in front of us, and we have a hand that plays well multi-way and wants to see a cheap flop, such as 3♦ 3♥. This is referred to as over-limping, as opposed to open-limping.
2. When there is a weak and loose player to our left with whom we want to play a pot when we hold a hand like 6♠ 5♠, but don't necessarily want to inflate the pot out of position before seeing a flop.
3. When we have a hand that wants to see a flop but doesn't want to get 3-bet. An example that comes to mind is a hand like J♦ J♠ 7♥ 4♦ on the button in PLO; I'm sure there are some Hold'em examples as well.
Don't go overboard with these, because raising is, in the vast majority of non-small blind cases, the more profitable play. But being able to think for yourself is an important skill in poker; don't do what everyone else is doing just because it's "standard".
Ultimately, I am not telling you that you must implement a small blind limping strategy. I believe it's an important strategy to understand and be able to use, but the point of this article is to give you pertinent information so that you can make the best decisions within your own game conditions. Good luck at the tables and feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
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