Small-Ball, Long-Ball, and Push-or-Fold – Which Strategy is Best For a Sit ‘n’ Go Poker Tournament

You will find in many of today’s poker books that there are discussions and mentions of three strategic styles of tournament play – small-ball, long-ball, and push-or-fold. In case you are having trouble visualizing these strategies, and fitting their pieces together, here is an article that might help in answering the question – which strategy is best?
First of all, the mental images that these strategies might conjure are quite accurate. In baseball, small-ball is about the infield plays – bunts, base hits, stealing bases. Which you can think of as similar to small-ball poker tactics. Basically, all of the small risk plays that can add up to a score, so to speak.

Long-ball represents all the big plays in the outfield – action like home runs and grand slams. Small-ball is quite, simple, and methodical. Long-ball is bold, forceful, and aggressive. Small-ball is about finesse, while long-ball is about force.

Just as baseball teams strive to incorporate both styles into their overall game plan, so should a poker player. In this sense, a poker player has a choice, a strategic choice that is situation dependent. In other words, as different situations arise during a tournament, a player should decide his best strategy – small-ball, long-ball, or even push-or-fold.
For example, in a given hand, a player might choose to limp to safely see a cheap flop, figuring to outplay his opponent post-flop. That is the essence of small-ball play. Or, he might choose to come back over-the-top of his opponent to attempt to win the pot pre-flop right there. And, that would be typical of long-ball play. The choice depends on the situation – stack sizes, opponent playing style, pot size, etc.

But, later in the tournament during the very high blinds stage, a player no longer will have a choice of playing strategy. To continue with the baseball analogy – it is the bottom of the ninth, your team is behind, and there is only one possible winning play. This is when long-ball morphs into the poker equivalent of push-or-fold. It has become a ’Hail Mary, pass’ time, to borrow another sports analogy.

Truth is, push-or-fold could be an appropriate strategy at any point in a tournament, even for an entire tournament. But, once the very high blinds arrive, say on the bubble or in-the-money, push-or-fold would likely be the only possible winning strategy.

So, to tie this discussion of strategies together, using the single table sit n go tournament as an example, you would typically select playing strategies according to blind levels and remaining players, as follows:

Early Stage. Typically, 7 to 9 players. The blinds are at their lowest, and your starting stack is intact, yielding a comfortable ratio of blinds-to-stack. This is a good time to see lots of safe, cheap flops against inexperienced opponents. Your losses, if any, would be minimal and manageable. But, you likely would get a head start over your tighter opponents in chip accumulation. Thus, small-ball could be the favored playing strategy during the early stage of a tournament.

Middle Stage. Typically, 5 or 6 players. The blinds are higher, but not yet crippling. The higher blinds mean larger pots. Limping, and other small-ball tactics, are no longer reasonable in terms of a pot-to-stack ratio. In other words, the risk-reward equation has turned upside down – more chips are required to enter a pot, which requires a larger percentage of your stack, which builds a larger pot, which your opponent(s) will be less willing to abandon. Long-ball is now favored over small-ball. It is now a good time to begin to exert substantial force to win the pot pre-flop, or to force your opponent off his hand post-flop.

Late Stage. Typically, 3 or 4 players. The blinds are now, or near, crippling in their impact. You must at least win the blinds once every round, or become ground into oblivion. There is only one effective strategy – push-or-fold. You have no other choice. Unless, you can sit-tight for a while on a dominate stack. But, even then your bets would represent a push-or-fold decision for your opponents.

Be sure to make note of the strategical sequencing just described – small-ball, then long-ball, then push-or-fold. It happens to be a valid, winning game plan for a single table sit n go tournament. I know, because it is the plan that I have followed for my last one-thousand, or so, tournaments. And, it works.
So, what is the answer to the question – which strategy is best? Well, as you can see, the question is slightly misleading. As any one of the three can be the best at different times and in different situations, but no one of them is best for all situations.

The trick is to master all three, so that as a player you become capable of switching gears on the proverbial dime. Switching gears, by the way, has a much larger meaning than simply adopting one of the strategies to fit a particular blind level or situation. Switching gears from one strategy to another can even occur during the course of play of a single hand, and from hand to hand.
If you are not already, start thinking in terms of macro (the tournament), as well as micro (the hand), strategic adjustment (switching gears). Poker situations are dynamic changing events, and you should be mentally focused and mentally flexible enough to continuously respond with the correct, and often changing, strategy.

Our goal should not be to pick one strategy over another for our favorite playing style. Instead, our goal should be to achieve the ability to play any of the strategic styles at any moment in any situation regardless of the frequency of change, correctly.