Straddling can be a fun element of live poker, but many players don’t fully understand what a straddle really does. For those of you who play exclusively online, the concept of a straddle in poker may be completely foreign to you. So what is it? Simply an additional blind bet placed before the cards are dealt, and typically (but not exclusively) twice the size of the big blind.
What is the effect of a straddle on the rest of the hand? It turns out a poker straddle has both mathematical and psychological effects that go way beyond the extra dead money placed in the preflop pot. And it also provides another decision for a poker player in games in which a straddle is permitted: Should I straddle?
In what follows, we first explain precisely what a straddle is, then address whether straddling is a good idea. And if you prefer a video summary of the key ideas in addition to the text, please enjoy the following:
What Is A Poker Straddle?
A straddle in poker acts like a third, oversized blind, placed before the cards are dealt. Like the big blind, a straddle is “live,” so that if one or more players call this blind bet, the straddler has the option to raise the callers once the action is on them. This distinguishes a straddle from a blind raise, which does not have the option to raise when called.
While the straddle is basically never seen in online poker, it is quite common in live games. And given the nature of poker players, there are a number of different types of straddle, with different conventions for how they impact the preflop action. We will restrict our attention to the more common ones that you’re likely to find in a casino.
The Classic UTG Straddle
An UTG straddle occurs when the under-the-gun (UTG) player (the player to the direct left of the big blind) puts out 2x the big blind before the cards are dealt. The betting action begins with the player on the immediate left of the straddler, and proceeds around the table in the normal way, such that the straddler is last to act.
In this $2/$5 hand, the UTG player puts out $10 before the cards are dealt and action starts on their left. If the pot is raised, action goes around like normal and the straddler acts immediately after the big blind. If the pot is limped to the straddler, the straddler can decide to check or raise. If they raise, action continues in order around the table.
Note that even in this simplest case of the UTG straddle, different casinos and card rooms have different rules about the amount of the straddle. Twice the big blind is the most usual, particularly in $2/$5 games. At $1/$2, the UTG straddle is often set at an even $5, presumably because a single red chip speeds the game for dealers and players alike. Other variants include allowing any straddle size from a 2x minimum up to some cap. (We have witnessed a cap as high as $25 in a $1/$2 game on the Las Vegas Strip.)
The Mississippi Straddle
Another common straddle, particularly in higher-stakes no-limit hold’em and pot-limit Omaha, is the Mississippi straddle. This gives the button the first option to straddle for 2x the big blind, and if the button chooses not to straddle, the option is given to the player on their right. The process continues until either someone elects to straddle, or UTG declines and the hand plays out as normal. If a Mississippi straddle is put on by anyone, the player to the left of the straddle acts first.
If we consider the case where the button puts on a Mississippi straddle, the small blind would act first, followed by the big blind and then the remainder of the table in the usual manner. (There is one possible exception that we address in the next section.) Similar to the UTG straddle, if the action reaches the straddler without anyone raising, the straddler has the option to check or raise.
If you appreciate the importance of position in no-limit hold’em, it has likely occurred to you that a Mississippi straddle on the button is a very different beast to the UTG version described above. Rather than UTG straddling and being in one of the worst positions at the table, a Mississippi straddle on the button puts you in the best position both preflop and postflop.
If you’ve played any live poker at all, you may have spotted a serious drawback with the Mississippi straddle. It slows the game down. A lot. You only need one player watching the ballgame and another getting a drink spilled on them by an inept cocktail server, and sequentially asking if anyone is putting on the Mississippi straddle can easily take a full minute. For this reason, many low-stakes casino games have a simpler solution.
The Button Straddle
The button straddle is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a Mississippi straddle. This may reflect the fact that, particularly in a game with lots of gamble, if the Mississippi straddle is allowed it will frequently be taken up by the button. To avoid the potentially lengthy process of asking each player in turn if they want to straddle, many casinos have decided that a UTG straddle and a button straddle constitute sufficient additional features for their no-limit hold’em games.
But as is so often the case, there is still room for different procedural rules to be applied. Specifically, and in addition to house rules on straddle size, the action following a button straddle can proceed in one of two ways.
The most common rule is that the player in the small blind acts first. This is the simplest approach, since it allows the preflop hand to follow normal sequential play. It’s precisely the convention used in our previous example in which the button put on a Mississippi straddle. However, this option puts both blinds in such disadvantageous positions, that they have to play insanely tightly. The preflop advantage of acting after the other players is wiped out, while the postflop disadvantage is maintained.
To ameliorate this problem, some casinos use the “skip blinds” straddle rule. For players who have never witnessed this, it invariably causes confusion. It works as follows:
Rather than the action starting with the small blind, both blinds are skipped. Thus UTG is first to act. But here’s the confusing part. If a player before the button raises the straddle, the action proceeds around the table as normal until it reaches the button. The button can fold, call or raise, and the action proceeds to the small blind.
However, if the button straddle is simply called, or if everyone folds to the button, the action “passes through” the button and onto the blinds. The straddler simply waits as the small blind followed by the big blind make their decisions. Only then does the button with “last action” get to act. If the blinds call, for example, the button has the option to check or raise, as in our previous examples.
Once you’ve been involved in hands run like this a few times, it does become more natural. But in low-stakes games filled with recreational players, this rule variant invariably causes more problems than it solves. The option to straddle is supposed to add a fun element to the game. People are rarely having fun when they are struggling to follow complicated rules.
Should I Straddle In No-Limit Hold’em?
But why would someone want to straddle? What are the benefits? First recall what the straddle is really doing. By putting out an additional oversized blind before the cards are dealt, the straddler is essentially changing the size of the game, so for a $2/$5 game the blinds are now $2/$5/$10 for this hand. In other words, we are now playing a $5/$10 game, but with lower effective stack sizes than normal.
Consequently, a player who started the hand with $500 would have 100 big blinds at $2/$5, but when the straddle is on and the blinds are effectively $2/$5/$10, that $500 stack is now only 50 big blinds. That drop in stack depth has a profound impact on preflop and postflop strategy!
The table below shows the impact of the poker straddle on effective stacks, through examples characteristic of entry-level games on the Las Vegas Strip. For a couple of different stakes and effective stacks in dollars, the last two columns of this table show the impact of the straddle on stack depth in big blinds.
|Stakes||Eff Stacks||Straddle||BB (No Straddle)||BB (Straddle)|
Many $1/$2 games set $100 as the minimum buy-in and you’ll often see players sitting at the poker table with this amount. The effective stacks are thus already depressed, but even a $4 straddle takes them to the short-stacked realm seen more commonly in Los Angeles. The typical cap in $1/$2 Las Vegas games is $300, shown in the second row of the table. Here a $5 straddle moves the game from fairly deep-stacked, to a situation well below the canonical 100bb featured in most poker training material.
The final two columns were inspired by the $1/$3 game at the Wynn, which features a $500 cap on the buy-in (with $300 buy-ins being common) and a $6 straddle. Part of the popularity of this game is that the higher cap allows it to play deep, and better players use strategies that incorporate greater stack depth. The table indicates that the strategy should be revised when the straddle is on. Such adjustments are covered throughout our training material, and are a critical element of creating a preflop plan when playing no-limit hold’em.
Is there any benefit to the straddler in reducing the effective stacks in this way? One can conceive of such situations, but they are exceptions rather than rules. For example, in a game playing 200bb deep, a player with a solid 100bb strategy who falls apart when deeper might employ a straddle as a cunning tactic. It is, however, somewhat rare to find a live, low-stakes cash game in which everyone is sitting so deep.
Realistically, the straddle is typically the sign of a gambler; someone who wants to play for fun and who likes to throw chips around more liberally. Such players are unlikely to be considering the impact the straddle has on effective stacks.
There are, however, three scenarios in which I think straddling can be a good idea. Let’s address them in turn.
Straddle to attack
If you are at the kind of table where you can straddle, get a bunch of callers, and then attack them with a big raise when the action comes back to you, a straddle can be excellent. This gives you a chance to pick up a bunch of easy money. However, in many games the straddle creates a bizarre dynamic where people want to fold less often, which can dramatically reduce how often they fold when you attack.
Button straddle to neutralize
Suppose that there are a couple of strong players in the game on your direct left. This is a difficult situation, since typically you don’t want good players acting after you. The button is the one hand per orbit that you have postflop position on both of them, but why not grab preflop position too by putting on a button straddle? Provided house rules demand the blinds act first, the button straddle will cause solid players to fold all but their premium hands preflop. This removes them from your pot and leaves you in prime position to play a hand against the weaker opposition. You have effectively neutralized your most troublesome competition, at least for one hand. It may still be a good idea to get a seat or table change, however.
Straddle to make the game fun?
I never like being the sore thumb at a poker table. If the table is doing a round of straddles, just go along with it. Keep the game lively, keep everyone smiling, and just throw your straddle out there. Sure a straddle is a –EV play, but pitching away two big blinds to keep the game running and happy is typically a good idea.
Even the “fun” argument for the poker straddle has a downside, however. Consider the following situation. You’re playing in a typical Las Vegas $1/$2 game on a Tuesday afternoon. The table is a mix of tourists and locals. The two players on your immediate left both play very tight and predictably.
This is a great situation for you. With two tight players on your left, you can open up your range significantly from both the cut-off and hijack. These nits will invariably get out of the way, essentially giving you three buttons per orbit. You do not want to disrupt such a profitable game dynamic.
Under these conditions, straddling the button because it is “fun” is about the most counter-productive action you could take. Sure it’s conceivable it might cause a couple of other players in the game to gamble it up a bit and create the appearance of a fun atmosphere. But critically, the two players who will not have fun, particularly if house rules compel the blinds to act after the button straddle, are the two nits on your left. Indeed one common outcome is they will simply get up and leave.
Final Thoughts On The Poker Straddle
The above discussion hopefully illustrates that there is a lot more to the straddle in poker than initially meets the eye. Viewed by many as a device to loosen up a table by creating a fun atmosphere, digging into the details reveals a far more nuanced and complex set of implications.
Fundamentally, putting an oversized blind into the pot without looking at your cards is a losing play. This is particularly true for the UTG straddle, which requires you to both commit money blind, then attempt to play the hand with poor position.
That said, there will be times when your opponents put on the straddle in no-limit hold’em and other flop games. For social reasons, you may decide it is advantageous to join in when a “round of straddles” is called. When this occurs, you as a studied poker player will at least have the tools to make the most of the situation. Look at the stacks at the table and calculate how they have been depressed in terms of big blinds by the straddle. Place that information in the context of the game dynamics and the tendencies of your opponents. Consider how the new stack depth impacts your preflop ranges and postflop betting lines.
Provided everyone is making a straddle bet, and the table is happy with this development, you are likely to do as well as anyone in the modified environment. The one unavoidable downside is that the most-skilled player at the table typically prefers deeper stacks to push that skill edge postflop. But if you sling out that oversized blind with an attitude that says “yeah, let’s have fun,” while simultaneously developing a mathematically-sound plan, you’ll be both popular and profitable at the table.
Same as always, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to let me know. Otherwise, good luck and happy grinding!