Joel Wald on the Straddle

The Top 5 Reasons Why Straddles Make Poker Games Worse

This is a guest post by poker coach Joel Wald. The article was first published on his site PTO Poker. You can learn more about him and his coaching services here.

Have you ever been at a poker table where you were peer pressured into playing with a mandatory straddle? A straddle is essentially a double big-blind that the under-the-gun player posts while having the right to act last preflop. Straddles usually come into play with a seemingly benign question:

Everyone in for a Round of Straddles?

Nine times out of ten, the real agenda behind this question is to add a straddle permanently after it gains momentum during the orbit. Many action players love introducing a straddle because it adds more dead money and effectively doubles the stakes of the game. This one, seemingly innocuous change in the game structure typically triggers a series of additional major changes in the poker game, and it can be very expensive if you don’t make the right adjustments.

The following video explains the top five ways that straddles usually hurt the overall quality of poker games:

Reason #5: Straddles Reduce Poker Action in Many Games

This reason alone often defeats the whole point of the straddle. The straddle is suggested to generate more action because two-blind poker can be a bit slow at times. But adding the straddle often has the reverse effect: Now that the betting increments are doubled, many players play tighter because of the increased dollar amounts. It’s one thing to fire that river bluff for the amount you are emotionally used to bluffing, for example $500. But what happens when the situation arises in a straddled game and calls for a $1000 bluff? Some players chicken out and now just check. In many cases, hands that would have been 3-bet preflop in an ordinary structure are just being flatted in a straddled game, and hands that players used to raise are now being limped. This overall conservative shift by most players is not at all what was originally intended, but we see this more often than not when a straddle is added.

Reason #4: Proper Strategy is Tighter With a Straddle

Poker theory does not support the passive limping and flat-calling that we see from a lot of players once a straddle is introduced. However, the players that tighten up are actually on to something: Poker theory supports tighter play once a straddle is added (more information about poker strategy can be found in these videos). The reason for this is because now there is an extra player left to act behind you who has a vested interest in the hand and is getting good pot odds. This means that your opening range from a given position should really play as though it is one position earlier. With casino poker only offering 25-30 hands per hour (many of which you are forced to fold), having to tighten up to play correctly is an undesirable consequence of the straddle and makes games less fun overall.

Reason #3: Straddles Make Playing From the Small Blind Even Worse

Let’s be honest here: Small-blind play is always an uphill battle even without a straddle. Being in the worst position post-flop combined while not closing the action preflop means that even the best poker players are always losing money from the small blind on average. But what happens when a straddle is added? The uphill battle becomes nearly hopeless. Now the small blind has two players left to act behind them. The small blind is supposed to play 3-bet or fold in straddled games, but 3-betting does not solve the problem of two players being able to wake up with stronger hands in your blind spot, not to mention contending with the original openers and callers. The small blind is in the worst sandwich possible in straddled games and is forced to play even tighter which again diminishes the overall poker experience.

Reason #2: With a straddle, Stacks Get Shorter = Less Edges Available

It’s easy to focus on how a straddle seems to double the size of pots but forget its more important effect: Straddles cut the number of big blinds that everyone owns in half. Straddles are like built-in poker inflation: Your money only buys half of the big blinds it used to in a given game. For example, a player that buys into a $5/10 game for $1,000 owns 100 big blinds, but with a $20 straddle in play, they now only own 50 big blinds. This shift towards shorter-stacked play greatly condenses the overall game-tree and removes a lot of the post-flop richness that is present with deeper-stacked play. For example, if a player is holding a big card hand like AKo or AQo at 100 big blinds and faces a 3-bet, many options are in play ranging from 4-betting to calling to even sometimes folding depending on the opponent’s range. Once we enter 50 big blind territory or less, these hands can often just jam all-in (especially AKo from any position) and they aren’t ever really making much of a mistake.

Granted, there is still a little room to play at 50 big blinds when dealing with other starting hands, but it’s a slippery slope: As we get shorter-stacked from here (especially if stacks are cut in half again with other blind bets), we begin to approach the rote strategy of push-fold charts where poker might as well be automated for us. What happens to a poker game when any of nine different short-stacked players who are dealt TT-AA, AK or AQ can brainlessly jam all-in preflop without much of an EV consequence? We end up seeing a preflop all-in in almost half of all hands. Now the game is really just about who is dealt the best cards preflop and who can get the luckiest with coin flips. The game begins to approximate the later stages of tournaments where variance is highest and where edges begin to shrink because there are less decision points. Some players do like the gamble factor to be higher, but most cash game NLHE players enjoy the strategic depth and creativity involved in the game. A lot of that dissipates as we move towards shorter-stacked play. Ideally stacks get deeper as the straddled game continues, but sometimes games break or players leave before that makes a real impact.

Reason #1: Players Feel Peer-Pressured and Have Less Fun

And here we arrive at the biggest problem with mandatory straddles in the current poker climate. Because it is a disadvantage to straddle for any individual player (because of posting dead money from out of position), there is usually a push to get everyone at the table to straddle to equalize this. More often than not, there are at least a few players at the table who were not financially or emotionally prepared for the stakes to effectively double. When this happens, these players are left with an unsatisfactory choice: Speak up against the straddle and sound like the “weak link” or the “party-pooper” or submit to the straddle peer pressure and play a game they never wanted to play in the first place. Of course, getting up from the game is also an option, but this can be a hassle due to long waitlists to get a on a new table. It also doesn’t typically sit well to come to an activity for fun and be all but forced out of it.

Straddled games also create major financial gaps in poker stakes at various card rooms which can be tough for players to navigate. For example, trying to move up from an unstraddled $2/5 game to a staddled $5/10 game can be a jarring experience for many players. It’s almost like the stakes are quadrupling on them in between stake levels rather than merely doubling. This can make the shot-taking process especially stressful because it feels like there isn’t a good intermediate step in between the two levels. It can also be difficult to know how to plan for a given game financially when it’s unclear whether it will be the straddled version or not. Most players wish they could simply experience a poker game as it is advertised.

One of the most exciting aspects of being a poker player is being the captain of your own ship and not having someone like a boss telling you what to do. As soon as a forceful table captain assumes this boss role and begins forcing other players into their agenda, the poker experience becomes less enjoyable. Any time poker becomes like a high-school peer-pressuring activity, whatever event is leading to that cannot be good for the game. Mandatory straddles (when not truly consented to by the whole table) are no different and increase the risk of poker players no longer coming back.

Exceptions: Times When Straddles Do Make Sense

Straddles do have their place in poker under specific circumstances. They can enhance the game when players are already deep-stacked enough and all players at the able agree without reservation. And of course, any player who wants to straddle for themselves without forcing the rest of the group to follow certainly has that right. Ultimately, poker will continue to grow and attract new players as long as the environment is friendly, accepting, and does not force those new players into doing things that they do not want to do. A high action, exciting game certainly helps too, but that is often created in spite of a mandatory straddle, not because of it.

Are you struggling with playing in straddled poker games? Or are you more concerned with improving your overall poker experience? Contact Joel Wald today at joel@pto-poker.com or book a free 30-minute Zoom call to discuss how PTO Poker can help you achieve your poker goals!

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