While watching this year’s World Series of Poker Championship Event final table, I noticed something that has become commonplace, the practice of min-raising. It wasn’t like I was noticing a new phenomenon, however, as it has been something that has been trending in big-stack poker tournaments for some time. What was a bit of a surprise to me was the conclusion that I’ve come to: that min-raising has become, completely opposite of what its original usage was, a conservative move.
The concept of min-raising – putting only 2/2.5 times the big blind into the pot or, on later streets, only raising said pot by a minimum bet – isn’t a new practice. It was used by the legendary Poker Hall of Famer Stu Ungar when he won his third World Series of Poker Championship Event in 1997 (and, in reality, throughout his career), but it really didn’t catch on until the 2000s. It wasn’t until another member of the Poker Hall of Fame, recent inductee Daniel Negreanu, brought about his “small ball” approach that the concept seemed to gain any traction. Nowadays, the min-raise is something you’ll see in both tournaments and cash game play.
Both Ungar and Negreanu originally used the min-raise to allow them to play pots with a wide array of holdings (Gus Hansen can also potentially fall in this category). The “establishment” at the time was utilizing the then-conservative approach of betting 3-4 times the big blind in an effort to push out lesser hands and potentially take down pots pre-flop with no resistance. With Ungar and then Negreanu’s approach, they could mix it up to play post-flop and, while occasionally connecting with boards with raggedy content, they could also mask their big hands by employing the min-raise strategy.
There are a few reasons that the min-raise approach has become a conservative play, especially in larger tournaments. First, once everybody begins to employ something, it isn’t the radical move that it once was considered. Second, keeping the pots small (especially in tournament poker) is a way to gradually chip up rather than going for the “big kill” approach that used to be popular in the game. New World Champion Martin Jacobson utilized the min-raise excellently to allow him to gradually move up the leaderboard at the WSOP Championship Event to his eventual victory.
Third, the players of today are much more sophisticated than those in the past. Although they may come along with a min-raise to see a flop (or make the original min-raise), players today are going to err on the side of self-preservation – staying in the tournament – than calling off “big kill” bets or raises. Today’s players, while working to win a particular tournament, are also looking at maintaining a “fighting stack” so that they can stay relevant in a tournament and maintain their chances at victory. In the past players – especially if they had big pocket pairs – would attempt to power their opponents out pre-flop rather than allowing opponents to come along for cheap.
Thus, the min-raise becomes a great option to not only be involved and chip up but also to protect a smaller stack.
What was intriguing about the way the min-raise was used at the WSOP Championship Event was in the situations where it was utilized. There were instances where players with those big pairs would only make the min-raise in an attempt to draw in their opposition. There were just as many occasions where the players, with a big pair, would only make the call to mask their holdings (as accurately pointed out by Antonio Esfandiari’s commentary during the final table). Even after the flop and players connecting strongly with the board, the players would still continue on with the min-bets and raises and not go wild (it was also interesting that the players, after noticing the min-raise trend, didn’t try to mix it up by going with a different approach).
The strategies of poker are constantly evolving. As was pointed out earlier, there was a day when the “big bet” of 3-5 times the pot was the rule. Now it appears as though the min-raise is the mouvement du jour for poker players. What is always interesting about developments in the game are these new facets and how they are combated on the green baize. As long as there are changes, there will always be challenges in the world of poker.