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Intro to Preflop Strategy - Part II

In Part 1, we considered the individual merits of preflop hands in a vacuum. In Part 2, we're going to consider how we play those hands to maximize their potential and mask our strategy as effectively as possible.

Playability

An efficient, effective preflop strategy should make it as easy as possible to play after the flop. With that in mind, we need to begin by tackling an age-old debate in some shorthanded circles: limp or raise preflop?

Limping causes some serious problems. First of all, it indicates weakness and encourages our opposition to attack us. Even if we limped with AA-TT, AK, AQ, AJs, and KQs, we would still be indicating weakness a majority of the time. Furthermore, observant players would realize my raises did not indicate as much strength as normal. Second, limping gives feeble hands the opportunity to play cheap or free. It really stinks to lose to 82o, but who can blame the big blind for hitting two pair with that junk if they see the flop for free? Third, and most importantly, raising generates 'initiative'.

The Role of Initiative

If you remember only one thing from this entire lesson, remember the role of initiative in shorthanded poker. The bettor with the upper hand holds a huge head start. In other words, the player whose bet looks natural on the flop (and turn) will win a ton of money as a consequence of that opening. Let's go back to an example to hammer this point home.

Example 1. Button raised. Big blind called. 4.5 small bets in the pot.

Flop is Ac 9h 7s.

The button's hole cards are practically irrelevant. In the normal course of events, the big blind will check, the button will bet, and the big blind must make a decision. What can the big blind play? Obviously, any ace is automatically playable, as well as 97, 99, 77, or T8. But what about a pair of nines or sevens? Will most players check-raise with bottom pair in this situation, especially considering the ace on the board?

The button knows the big blind is somewhat weak. They'd have re-raised preflop with AK, AQ, a big pocket pair, and probably AJ or AT. What does the big blind know? The big blind knows the button has something worthy of being played, but that could be just about anything. In this situation, the big blind will normally fold a non-pair and call or check-raise with a pair, two pair, or a set. With the huge number of hands that the big blind could hold that missed the flop, the button will earn an immediate profit by betting.

If the big blind calls, the button now has a decision to make on the turn if they don't have a hand. Bluff again or take the free card? The answer is dependent on the type of player in the big blind, the 'scariness' of the turn card (scarier = bluff-friendly), and the number of outs the button has if they check. (Of course, the button might actually have made their hand on the turn too.) The button has control of this hand on the turn because they raised preflop.

If the big blind checkraises, the button has a more immediate decision to make. Without a made hand, the chief matter is whether a call is correct with the 7.5 small bets in the pot. With a draw or made hand, the button also has multiple alternatives to earn extra bets or minimize losses. Calldown? Wait to raise the turn or river? Reraise immediately to take a free card? Reraise immediately with a made hand? The big blind has been forced to put in 2 small bets to try to push around the button's hand, but they still can't really know where their opponent stands. Is the button's raise on the turn a semibluff or turn play? Is that 3-bet on the flop a free card play or indicative of legitimate clout?

If the big blind's hand is powerful enough, they won't care so much about not knowing the button's strength. They'll just assume they're ahead until the showdown proves otherwise. But when the big blind holds a marginal hand, they're gonna feel pushed around, constantly guessing. Their positional disadvantage is aggravated by the aggressive strategy of the preflop raiser. Note: Of course, the big blind will try to manipulate the action to minimize the damage of their position, but it will be impossible to eliminate.

3-Betting Versus Cold Calling

The same concept of initiative applies when analyzing whether to 3-bet or cold call preflop in a shorthanded game. Let's say the cutoff raises, and you're holding AJo in the button. You decide you should definitely play your hand. In almost all scenarios, reraising with your AJ is a superior play to cold-calling. The AJ could certainly be ahead already, if the cutoff holds AT, QTs, 98s, or a number of other hands. The AJ only fears AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AK, and AQ. As long as the cutoff doesn't hold one of these premium hands, the 3-bet by the button will put the cutoff in a very precarious spot. For example, let's look at an example where the cutoff holds a medium pocket pair (and fails to flop a set). The 3-bet by the AJ could easily win the pot on the flop.

Example 2. Cutoff raises. Button 3-bets. Only cutoff calls. 7.5 small bets.

Flop is Tc 8h 5d.

Cutoff holds 6h6s. Button holds AcJh.

Can the cutoff handle significant action with third pair and only two outs to improve? The button has 6 outs if the cutoff calls, but that's not terrible considering the button again has free reign to semibluff or take a free card. Let's look at an example where the button only cold calls.

Example 3. Cutoff raises. Button calls. Blinds fold. 5.5 small bets.

Flop is Tc 8h 5d.

Cutoff holds 6h6s. Button holds AcJh.

We're assuming the blinds folded, but that's not an assumption I'd normally like to make. A flop like this is even worse for the button if the big blind calls, since they'd be trapped between the preflop raiser and the big blind (subject therefore to a checkraise if they tried to hit their overcards.)

Even if the blinds fold, how should the button play this hand after the flop? The cutoff might hold a huge hand, top pair, overcards, or a pocket pair. It's a huge risk for the button to raise immediately, but it might be the best play nonetheless. Or, the button could simply cut their losses and fold. It's a guessing game that would be totally unnecessary if the button has simply 3-bet in the first place.

By 3-betting, the button is able to get a better idea of what their isolated opponent holds. Most players won't 4-bet out of position without a very strong hand. If the button has an idea of how the cutoff plays, it'll narrow down the potential hands quite significantly.

Camouflage

You don't have a lot of ways to hide the strength of your hands preflop. After all, if you're voluntarily playing a hand, you've already given away some information. After that, the only decision you have is whether to limp or raise with your hand. Generally, I recommend playing consistently. Raise every time you are first to enter a pot. Reraise every time if you are facing two bets already. The main times you'll vary your plays are when a) the opponents are terrible and wouldn't notice anyways, b) there is already a limper or two before you enter the pot, or c) the opposition's strategy is so unconventional that it is best to see the flop before committing any extra money. In every other case, raising every time will mean your AA looks the same as KQ, T9o, 87s, and 44. The big blind knows you must have something or else you would not have played. Why give any more information away?

There are exceptions to the "raise every time" rule. You might decide to limp some hands UTG in a 6-handed game, or you might limp on the button against very loose blinds in some cases. But my advice is that until you feel very comfortable with standard shorthanded play, there is no reason to optimize your preflop tactics for individual scenarios. Without a full understanding of the implications, limping or limp/reraising could hurt your long-term results and give away valuable evidence.

Synergy

syn.er.gy n. - The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

Let's begin by reviewing two concepts. First, blinds play looser in shorthanded games than typical ring games. The psychology of the average shorthanded player is to expect somebody to try to steal their blinds. Thus, the average shorthanded player defends more often. In 1991, Mason Malmuth published Poker Essays, an excellent collection of poker advice on a variety of games. Malmuth states, "Now suppose you are in a three-handed game...Your opponents expect you to raise, and they are psychologically prepared to mix it up...This means that typical players are going to call or occasionally reraise with a lot of hands that they would normally throw away in a full game."

Second, drawing hands such as suited connectors and small pocket pairs decline appreciably in value. Combining the two concepts, a hand like 87s, when played in a vacuum, is not profitable--even on the button. However, many suited connectors and smaller pocket pairs should still be played, not on their own merits alone, but for the sake of synergy. Raising with vulnerable small-card hands accomplishes three valuable tasks. First, it camouflages your preflop raises. Second, it increases the profit earned for all hands after the flop. Third, it can put your opponent on tilt.

The first concept should be obvious. If I only raise with big cards, an observant player will pick up on my tendencies quickly. I cannot allow a good player to confidently check-raise every time the flop is ragged because they know I'll only play premium, high cards. Furthermore, I want to be able to push my suited connectors after the flop (with good draws or middle pair) to mask my powerful made hands.

Playing weaker hands increases overall profit in a similar fashion. By creating doubt in my opponents' mind, I earn more when I hit a hidden draw (since the flop is ragged), a small set, or two small pair. It is most players' instinct to see a ten high flop and feel relatively comfortable with two overcards or even a pocket pair. Picking up some big pots with small cards will put any inexperienced player off-balance (or on tilt). Meanwhile, there is a complementary advantage when holding AA, KK, QQ, or AK. Often, the biggest payoff of raising with suited connectors occurs many hands later when an opponent makes loose calls against AA or KK, drawing dead to overcards that are in fact not high enough to win. Those extra bets earned on the big hands can help overcome the small losses one might face with otherwise questionable hands.

Of course, I don't suggest taking this concept too far. I've stated in previous articles that if the blinds are tight enough, one should attack with great frequency, raising with as much as 70-80% of all hands. But in shorthanded poker, you are far more likely to face the opposite-loose or maniacal competition bent on making it as hard as possible to steal their blinds as possible (while overlooking the bets given away against legitimate raises.)

Conclusion

I began the lesson by asking, "What are we trying to accomplish with our preflop strategy?" Not surprisingly, we are trying to earn as much money as possible. First and foremost, we accomplish that goal by putting ourselves in position to win the big pots while protecting our stack from big losses. In other words, we normally play only solid starting hands (by shorthanded standards). Secondly, we stay aggressive to gain initiative so that we may earn the pots where neither party has a made hand or good draw. Third, we take advantage of tight players by steal-raising more often than normal. Ideally, we'll steal from the solid, tight players while showing down big hands for big pots against the loose, weak players. But no matter what, we want the initiative on the flop and/or turn so that we decide whether to semibluff, slowplay, or take a free card.

In lesson 5, we'll discuss specific hands, their strengths and weaknesses, and how position or game conditions will affect our preflop standards. Until then, good luck.

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