Why Mississippi/Button Straddles Suck

An open letter to poker room managers everywhere

Dear Sirs and Madams:


I have been seething about this topic for months now; I have reached the point where I must write to you about it. It’s the Mississippi straddle.


[An aside, for non-professional readers]

If you’re not familiar with the term “straddle”, it’s an opportunity for a player not in the blinds to put in another blind bet and have the last action before the flop. In most places, the straddle is double the big blind, so a $1-2 game would have a straddle to $4 (sometimes $5 for convenience), a $2-5 game would have a straddle to $10, etc. In some rooms, the size of the straddle is uncapped - you can straddle for whatever amount you wish.


Straddles give the table an opportunity for one or two players to gamble it up a little bit without stepping over to the higher stakes table. In fact, occasionally the table will agree to a “round of straddles” in which every player straddles for an entire orbit of the button. It can be an exciting detour onto a steeper slope without the risk of an actual double-black-diamond trail.


In the “distant past”, by poker standards, straddles were confined to the under-the-gun (UTG) position - that is, the player to the immediate left of the big blind. 


Enter the Mississippi straddle. I don’t know if this straddle actually originated in Mississippi, but if it did, Mississippi has much to answer for. In such a game, any player at the table can straddle. In most games, the button gets priority, so if she chooses to straddle, it’s hers to take. Thus it often being called the “button straddle” (and also because “button” is easier to spell). 


Now, button straddles work in one of two ways:


  1. The person to the left of the straddle acts first and action comes around “normally”, ending with the straddler, who always has the option to raise when the action reaches her. Or,
  2. The person who would naturally go first acts first. This would be the UTG player unless the UTG player is the straddler, in which case person to the UTG’s left acts first. In most such games, the action skips over the straddler and comes back to her last, unless there’s been a raise in front of her, in which case she acts “in turn”.

    This may sound confusing, but after you do it for 30 minutes, it seems perfectly natural.


In my experience, option 1 is more common, simply because it’s easier for everybody to understand where the action starts and how it proceeds.


With that agonizing preamble, let me proceed to my dispute.


A UTG straddle truly affects just one person - the player who chose to pay the extra blind in exchange for last preflop action. However, a button straddle has a totally different effect. It gives the player who has an enormous edge over the field a bigger edge. They’ve increased the stakes of the game exactly when it’s most beneficial to them. The game is already tilted out of balance toward the person on the button - this just amplifies that effect.


Furthermore, look what happens to the blinds. In a normal game, they have at least the small consolation of acting penultimately and last before the flop. The button straddle destroys that mitigation and forces them to act absolutely first, when they were already facing that disadvantage on all post-flop streets. What should this cause them to do? Seize up and play so tight that they may as well not bother looking at their cards. What does it cause them to do? It varies, of course, but they do seem to tighten up some - the exact opposite of the claims that the button straddle produces action.


Let’s also look at the effect on players to the straddler’s left. Because the rules permit straddles from any position, a player inclined to straddle may take the straddle as many as 4-5 times per orbit. They may do it because they feel that last preflop action is worth the investment; they may do it because they like the gamble; they may do it because it’s Thursday. But whatever, this means that the person to straddler’s left is now UTG 4-5 times per orbit. Now one player at the table is suffering a huge disadvantage relative to all of his opponents, through no fault of his own. [As an aside: if you ever find yourself in such a seat, move. Immediately.]


Finally, there is the knock-on effect. If I am at a table where 2-3 players are taking the button straddle, I take it too; I don’t have a choice, strategically speaking. Imagine a poker game where we’re playing $2-5 when I have the button (the single best opportunity each orbit for me to profit), but $2-5-10 when Bob, Sarah, or Hal have the button. I don’t think I can beat such a game. So if Bob, Sarah, and Hal are taking that extra advantage when it’s offered to them, then add Lee to the list. I don’t want to take what I consider to be an unfair advantage, but that’s a lesser evil than conceding an unfair one, in my book.


Of course, this can spiral out of control if just one or two players choose to take the straddle every chance they get. Imagine Bob and Sarah being the only two at the table who want to straddle. So one of them is always taking it, usually with strong late position. And 7-8 other players are cannon fodder. When I find myself in such a situation, I usually leave - I don’t want to cede that advantage to Bob and Sarah, but I don’t want to be part of such predatory behavior at the table.


Is there a cure for the Mississippi straddle? Indeed, there is.


  1. Go back to permitting UTG straddles only. Such straddles serve an important role in allowing the players to adjust the stakes of the game as their gambling mood ebbs and flows. It’s good for the game and harms no one.
  2. If you as the poker room manager feel obliged to allow Mississippi straddles, use action-starting algorithm #2 above: start the action with the real UTG player, or one to his left if the UTG has straddled. This means that no one player will be consistently harmed by repeat or near-constant straddling by another player. It will take your players perhaps a week to get it all sorted out. They will, as poker players are wont to do, grouse about it, maybe for a good long while. But they will also, as poker players always do, deal with it sooner than later. They’ve been through worse (e.g. cessation of smoking in the room) and survived.


I suspect, Mr/Ms Poker Room Manager, that I know what you’re going to say. You’ll say, “My regular players think button straddles are wonderful; they hassle me until I give it to them. And they shriek in pain if I take it away.” Yes, and if the lions on the Serengeti could talk, they would demand that the game wardens give them motorcycles. Bob and Sarah love playing in a $2-5-10 game when they have good position, but $2-5 when the gazelles, I mean the tourists, have the button. A UTG straddle scratches 80% of the itch that the button straddle does, without the side effects.

 

Healthy poker games survive on a delicate balance of power around the table. The more that power tilts toward one player (or a small handful of players) the more the health of the game, and the poker room in which it’s played, is at risk.


Thanks for your time and attention. I deeply appreciate all the work you do to provide me with a place to play the game I love.


Warmest regards,

Lee Jones

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