You’re enjoying your first time in a real poker room. You’ve played for several orbits of the button and are feeling like you’re getting the hang of things. Then, suddenly, when you’re four seats left of the button, expecting to be second to act, the player to your right puts out some chips even before picking up his cards, the dealer says, “Straddle,” and points to you, apparently expecting you to do something.
Your mind reels, wondering if your legs are long enough to straddle whatever it is the dealer expects you to straddle, and whether it will look pornographic if you do it. What the hell is going on here?
The “straddle bet” is one of the most confusing subjects to try to explain to new players. The essential concept is that it’s an optional blind bet (i.e., one made before the cards are dealt). But the number of variations on that basic idea is dauntingly large, and bewildering to every new player. You can hit five Vegas poker rooms in a day, and find that they all have different rules for straddles.
Let’s start by describing the basic elements of what we might call the “classic” straddle:
- It occurs in “flop” games or the versions of poker in which there are community cards used by all players to make their hands — mainly hold’em and Omaha.
- The option to place a straddle bet belongs to the player who would otherwise be first to act, which is the seat to the immediate left of the big blind.
- The straddle bet, if it is to be done, must be either put out or verbally announced before the cards are dealt, or at least before the player has looked at his cards. (The former way is easier to enforce, but some casinos allow the latter.)
- The size of the straddle bet is double the big blind, and effectively acts as a voluntary third blind, by which I mean that it sets a new “limp-in” level. In a $1/$2 no-limit hold’em game, the straddle would be $4. Subsequent players in turn then must either call that $4, raise, or fold. In essence, for one hand the straddle transforms the game from $1/$2 no-limit to $1/$2/$4 no-limit.
- Because the straddler put his money in without having seen his cards, he is given another chance to act after having looked at them, just as the two players in the blinds get. His options are the same as those that the big blind has when there is no straddle: check, fold, or raise, depending on what action has gone before.
- After the flop, everything proceeds in the normal fashion; the fact that there was a preflop straddle has no further effect on how the hand is played.
All of that is not too hard to deal with. You just think of the straddle as an optional third blind, and everything makes perfect sense.
But poker players are never content to just leave well enough alone. They’re always tinkering, coming up with new variations to keep from getting bored, and to try to find a new strategic edge. So we started seeing mutations of the basic elements listed above.
In no-limit games, some people reasoned that the “no-limit” concept should apply to all bets, including the straddle. As a result, you now sometimes see house rules that allow the straddle to be any amount, up to and including an all-in blind bet. Some action-hungry players love this. Other more conservative players think it ruins the game, turning a contest of skill into a crapshoot when the game has a few players who take advantage of this leeway.
By the way, if you ask me, I’m delighted to have a game in which we have players routinely putting in all their chips in the dark, and I get to decide whether to call after looking at my cards. That is an enormous advantage in my favor — a far larger mathematical edge than I could get in most games. Besides, action like that doesn’t tend to go on for very long. The players doing it either burn through all the money in their pocket, or they get lucky, accumulate a huge stack, and decide to either cash out or start playing more cautiously.
But things got even more confusing when poker rooms started introducing variations on who can straddle. Very rarely, you’ll find a game in which a straddle is allowed from any position, but the most common variant these days is the “button straddle.” The game can’t have more than one straddle, so usually the button straddle, if in play, takes precedence over the under-the-gun straddle, and the dealer pushes the latter bet back to the player before passing out the cards.
Unfortunately, giving the straddle option to the player on the button wreaks havoc on the usual order of play, if the straddler is to have the last option to raise, as he does when the straddle is from first position. Casinos have devised several ways of handling this anomaly:
- In some places, the use of the button straddle option means that action starts with the under-the-gun player, proceeds clockwise as usual, but then skips the button, jumps to the two blinds, then back to the button for his move. Of course, if the button chooses to raise, then action goes around the table again.
- In other places, the button straddle rearranges the order of play from the get-go, and the small blind is the first to act, followed by the big blind, then around the table to the button.
- Finally, you will rarely encounter a game with even more complicated rules, such as having the order of action between the button and the blinds change depending on how many raises have been made in the meantime. It gets horribly complicated and confusing to everyone. Don’t worry about these obscure variants; they’re usually found only in high-stakes, action-crazy games.
I’ll save for another day a discussion of whether and when you might want to straddle for tactical advantage. For now, if you’re aware of the traditional procedure and the most commonly found modern variants on that classic, as explained above, you’ll be in a position to avoid the confusion and frustration that new players otherwise tend to experience when first encountering the poker oddity called the straddle.
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.