Understanding the Straddle in Texas Hold’em Poker – Facts and Strategies
The definition of straddling entirely depends on where you use the word. If you’re in a rodeo, the definition of straddling a horse is somewhat blah, but with all that bucking you’re going to be in for one hell of a ride. If you’re in an intimate situation with a loved one (wink, wink), the definition of straddling each other is far from blah, but you’re still going to be in for one hell of a ride! (pun intended)
In a poker room, ‘I straddle’ is often received with mixed emotions, but the definition is understood – ‘I straddle’ means I’m going to put up a voluntary blind bet and the action starts on my left. And like the other two straddles above, when you straddle in a game sometimes your stack will fall hard and sometimes your stack will, uh, rise. Whether or not the straddle is a profitable play depends on how well you understand it and utilize it.
The straddle is a minimum of double the big blind and when there’s no cap it sometimes can be a much, much larger blind. It’s also a blind raise that allows you to act last in that round where players wanting to enter have to at least call your blind raise, giving you the open to raise your blind raise, reraise a raiser, check, or fold. Confused? I hope not. PTP readers are savvy, educated players and should know the basics of the straddle. But knowing how to straddle doesn’t mean a savvy, educated player can do it right or will even straddle when it’s right to do so.
I’ve heard a lot of good players bash the straddle, using harsh qualifiers like ‘never’ and ‘only an idiot’ and ‘kills the game.’ That’s nonsense from haters. When used right, the straddle can be a very powerful weapon. Here’s the deepest look in to the straddle that I can provide in a column like this.
Types of straddles / Not a kill
Not all straddles are equal, not all straddles are legal and not all straddles are right. The straddle usually occurs in games with at least one forced blind, like Hold’em and Omaha. An important note: straddling is NOT the same as a kill. Kill games are used in limit poker (and sometimes pot limit), but straddles can occur frequently in no limit, limit, and pot limit games.
In a kill game, when the kill conditions occur, the winning player posts what looks like a straddle, double the big in full kill games, a bit less in half kill games, and the betting limits subsequently increase for that one hand. There is no trigger for a straddle, just a reckless player’s impulse and the conviction to speak on it. So, in a 10-20 kill game when the kill is in effect, you’d play 20-40 until the kill is off. During a kill pot, preflop, the player does have action to raise himself and sometimes he gets to act last. However, a kill is not a straddle; it’s just a larger big blind structure for the entire hand. A straddle’s monetary impact is only felt preflop. In a 2-5 no limit game, a player can conceivably straddle for $100 and then bet any amount $5 or larger on the flop, turn and river.
But first things first. The blinds can not straddle; at least not anywhere I think I’ve played. Never seen it but that doesn’t make it absolute. But for the most part, it’s best to believe the blinds can’t straddle.
The SECOND thing you need to know (and believe) is that despite players saying ‘straddling is a losing play’ or ‘straddling is just plain dumb,’ there ARE times when you are hurting your profitability by NOT straddling.
The THIRD thing you need to know about straddling is that the house rules. Some casinos allow straddles and some don’t. Don’t argue with the floor about changing their rule either, you’ll lose and probably look like an ass.
Some casinos put restrictions/conditions on me, the straddler:
- is my straddle voluntary or forced?
- how much can I straddle?
- from what position can I straddle
- who has the first opportunity to straddle?
Here’s the rundown of the most common house rules and some general considerations:
- No Straddling Allowed – that’s pretty self-explanatory; most of the casinos in Las Vegas follow this rule and your house game might as well.
- Straddling Allowed only from one position on the table – usually under the gun, sometimes on the button; if under the gun only, use very wisely and selectively; if on the button, use more liberally; generally, if a Las Vegas casino allows straddling, it’s UTG only; most East Coast casinos I’ve played in allow straddling UTG only, but times are changing.
- Straddling Allowed any position (Mississippi Option) – generally, if the casino allows this, the button has the priority to straddle first and the option works counterclockwise, away from the blinds, with UTG having the last option; this is the way the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica ran most of their games when I was there last; if you find yourself in this type of game, consider straddling only on the button and the cut-off unless four-handed, UTG can be right; sometimes, sometimes! you can re-straddle the straddle, and that can be restraddled, and that can be restraddled all the way down the table; I’ve never seen it but I know it exists and sometimes happens, especially in Mississippi PLO games during the Poker Open.
- Straddling Allowed Any Position (Indiana Option) – I’ve only seen Caesars Indiana offer this option, but others in the area will probably catch on. I think French Lick offers it as well; UTG has first option to straddle, then priority ‘magically’ goes to the button and works counterclockwise away from the blinds; treat this game just like the Mississippi Option (without the re-straddle option though), but if you attempt to straddle on the button and UTG wants to pull rank, don’t argue; he has first option anyway and you’ll be in great position in most likely a built pot.
- Straddling Allowed but Capped – Most casinos that allow straddling put a cap on it, usually double the big blind. So if you’re in a game where the blinds are $2-$5, you can straddle to $10. It’s this way in Las Vegas, Tunica and most of the East Coast.
- Straddling Allowed but NO Cap – I’ve only seen this in Indiana, not to say it’s not allowed somewhere in Mississippi or California. This option permits the straddler to make the straddle any amount they want to gamble with. In a tiny 1-2 NL game, I’ve seen $20, $50, and even $100 straddles! Most often, everyone folds or someone attacks it all-in with something like AK, AQ and even AJ (I’m not saying it’s right, just that I’ve seen it). If you can straddle with no cap, you really don’t want to go any larger than 3X the big; the stacks in the game hardly ever justify the much LARGER blind raise. I occasionally go 3X in games where the table is full of passive limpers preflop who play tight on the flop (I just hammer the flop when everyone misses or bet players off their draws on the turn).
- Straddling MANDATORY – I’ve seen whole tables agree to change the game to a forced straddle, usually on the button or under the gun. In this case, it’s not really a straddle but more a third blind. Be careful, though. Just because every player is straddling and they tell you that you must DOES NOT mean it’s mandatory. Ask the dealer. Everyone just may be doing it and I’ve seen this happen. If you find yourself on a game where everyone just agrees to straddle, it’s probably best to do it as well. These guys are looking for action, don’t slow them down! The most ‘famous’ forced straddle is the Horseshoe Tunica’s ‘Rock,’ several chips rubber banned together to create a big, inseparable object of desire, usually in their infamous 20-40 limit game. It’s crazy, ‘The Rock’ is like the ring on Lord of the Rings, players go nuts for it. The ‘Rock’ enters the pot and if you win that pot, you put the ‘Rock’ up as the straddle and the action acts to your left, no matter where you are. I don’t get why people love the rock and seem to attack it preflop with raises and reraises, but when you win it, the pot is generally swollen.
Impact on the game
(When considering the impact of a straddle on a game, assume we’re not talking about ‘The Rock,’ that’s a whole other article)
When you straddle, there will be a variety of reactions. Most importantly, there ARE reactions and hopefully you can read and/or anticipate reactions to manipulate the game conditions to your favor.
Most often, when someone (you or anyone else) straddles in a game where the straddle is unfamiliar or new to that group of players, nearly EVERYONE tightens up preflop for the first couple occasions. They know what it is; they just don’t see it often. It’s during this time that players adjust their comfort level to the action. In the early ages of the straddle’s presence, you know you’ll be playing against big cards, usually facing a raise and typically heads up or three-handed.
Then something strange happens. Someone gets crafty, raises preflop and takes the pot down with a hand like 4-6 suited. What? He raised with 4-6! It’s then the first raise loses all value and reraises with top 40 hands become more common. Often, if the game isn’t too aggressive, a lot of players will call the first raise with hands they normally wouldn’t even consider playing for two bets or more. So, you get a lot of big pots multi-way. That’s good and bad for you. If you’re straddling UTG (under the gun), you’ll be out of position with usually crappy cards. You may be ‘priced in’ on some calls with weird draws, flop a vulnerable hand like bottom two pair and have to commit a lot of chips to protect this abnormally large pot, and you may flop a baby flush and get A LOT of action and have no idea where you are.
When the pot gets big, a lot of players want to play hands and draws they may have otherwise folded. Also when the pot is big, any big bet, any attempt to win the pot seems fishy. So if you’re bluffing at a straddled pot, be damn sure to pick your spot. There’s an increased chance you’ll get looked up. Also, if you’ve got a monster hand, balance your feelings to get massively paid off (like a pot or over pot bet) with the likely hood you could value bet (third pot bet) and get called in two or three spots, possibly raised!
Occasionally, when preflop raises aren’t being respected, you’ll often find players trying to win the pot ‘right now’ with massive reraises and all-ins with small and medium pocket pairs. So, it may seem like you’re just pissing away two big blinds. Don’t fret though. Consider you’ll get AA or KK once every 110 hands. When you do, you’ll typically have a ton of dead money in front of you, your preflop raise will probably look like a steal, the chances of significant action in front of you increases as players overplay smaller pocket pairs and hands you dominate (like AQ or AK), and you’ll get a lot in with a good edge. The AA and KK argument for why you should straddle isn’t an end-all and seems short sighted. But . . .
There are several, very powerful reasons to straddle when the conditions are right.
When to use the straddle
Ok, this is going to open some debate. Remember, this is MY opinion.
I straddle most often when it’s allowed on the button AND when the two players to my left (those in the small and big blind) are either tricky or highly skilled. I want them to act first. Why?
My style of play (loose aggressive and trusting my usually accurate reads) works best when I have a lot of information, in position. Without the straddle, I am still apt to call a lot raises with marginal or speculative hands on the button against opponents I can tag or read well. I think I’m right to do so as I’ll have all the information I need for the rest of the betting rounds. If I flop a good draw, I’m in position. If I think he missed and is following up, I’ll make him pay dearly. That’s my game. I’m not here to defend that, my hourly rate over the last 1000 hours justifies it.
But I have some good reasons to justify the cost of the straddle to get skilled opponents out of the hand as early as possible:
With a tricky or skilled opponent on my left in the blind I’ll straddle on the button (90%):
- To keep them from seeing a cheap flop with random cards they’d normally fold; it’s hard to put a good player on a hand, doubly hard if it’s random; would I rather play 2-5 against 2 good opponents and 5 lesser skilled opponents or would I rather invest $10 to get my biggest competition out and play the idiots in a built pot in position
- I know they’ll fold a lot of hands that play poorly out of position or against a raise, fearful of that raise coming from any of the 8-9 hands still left to act. This is important because these hands are typically drawing hands that offer good returns in big multi-way pots
- Simply, I want them to reveal the strength of their hand before I act; there’s nothing worse than getting two Kings in the small and the button straddles
Here are three other good reasons to straddle on the button:
- When there’s tons of limpers, I’ll get to see a flop cheap on the button (with a hand no one can put me on)
- When there’s tons of limpers, sometimes I’ll take a shot at the free money, sometimes with a real hand, sometimes without; they won’t be able to tell the difference
- When I hit a flop hard, I’m likely to take down a big pot
All of that, and simply acting last preflop is worth two big bets to me.
When you believe the conditions are in your favor to straddle on the button, ask yourself this question – is the person on my immediate left tight and/or passive? If so, consider straddling on the cut-off (button plus one). This is an even bigger advantage because most often, you’ll be the last player to act twice a round, while everyone else will only act last once (except the guy on your left, who only acts last when he has a real hand, so like 20% of the time he has the button).
Here’s a situation I think you should ALWAYS straddle: you’ve missed your blinds, want to come back in THIS HAND and you’re in late-mid to late position (button plus three or closer). Instead of posting a dead small and a live big, straddle. When you post the dead small and the big, you’re in for 1.5 blinds while anyone who wants to play only pays 1 blind. That sucks. If you straddle instead, you post 2 bigs (no dead small) and everyone coming in has to put up 2 bigs. That’s fair! AND YOU GET TO ACT LAST. So, you can decide not to straddle, forfeit .5 of a blind and act without all the info. Or you can straddle, pay .5 more, forfeit nothing and get position preflop. Hmmm.
I also ALWAYS straddle when it’s three handed. The benefits of this play would take a long time to explain, but it almost always boils down to ‘position and aggression is everything short handed,’ so just do it. However, if you’re not comfortable with short handed play, get out of there!
And I almost ALWAYS straddle four-handed. I like all the benefits of doing it three-handed. I will consider not straddling if the button starts picking up on what I’m doing and kicks up his aggression.
When NOT to use the straddle
When it is right NOT to straddle? Most of the time, you don’t want to straddle. It will increase your variance significantly and only moderately increases the variance of the average player at your table. How’s that? I’ll let someone else take a crack at explaining the straddle’s impact on your hourly. That’s an article in itself. When done at the right times and in the right spot, it helps your hourly a bunch and allows you to maximize your skill.
When is it right NOT to straddle on the button? I won’t straddle if there’s a lot of preflop raising in the game AND a lot of callers. I typically change my style of play to a tighter, more aggressive style when playing in a loosey-goosey game. In those games my straddle essentially gets lost in the action so I save it to help my hourly.
When is it right NOT to straddle on the button? DO NOT straddle if you don’t play well in awkward situations. Some guys just don’t and be honest with yourself. Straddled pots typically get attacked on the flop and you’ll be forced in to some weird corners. << Is that bet a follow-up? Is that a real hand? Is 10-4, top pair no kicker good here? >>
When is it right NOT to straddle on the button? When there are four or five other talented players at the table, you don’t want to straddle because more often than not, you’ll be in awkward situations against a player or players who play well anyway. You don’t want to bring random cards to war too often if you’re playing against a tough lineup. Yes, they have a hard time putting you on a hand but they’ll play strong enough to compensate for that.
When is it right NOT to straddle on the button? If you’re killing the game already, don’t bother.
Closing / Word of Caution
There’s still so much to be written on the subject. I understand how the straddle impacts me mentally, how and when it helps my hourly and I know how to play against it, but it would take some real effort expressing any of those concepts in a column. And frankly, after 3,273 words on the subject, I’m straddled-out. Chris is always looking for good articles; maybe you’d like to take a shot at one of those topics. Go ahead, you’ll save me the hassle and you’ll get to see your name in print.
I can’t leave you without a warning: when you straddle, you’re loosening up the table AND yourself. Be careful when you start straddling. Don’t allow yourself to get TOO LOOSE and don’t DEFEND your straddle like it was your only roll of toilet paper on a two-week camping trip. The straddle has a magical power. Use it for good, not evil. People will think you’re loose. People will think you’re gambling. Excellent. You’re not though. When you straddle, be sure you’re making the most profitable play you can.
I hope you had one hell of a ride learning about the straddle. Now go out there and appear to ‘gamble.’