Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Preflop Raising Hands

This was prompted by an email I got from another blogger last week about how I would play a certain hand at a certain point in an mtt. Actually it was the same hand, dealt to Hero twice at two different spots in a large mtt, one getting kinda late in the tournament and then one well into the money positions. And in giving my response, I started thinking about how I tend to play certain hands differently at different times in a tournament, or from different positions at the table, or depending on the different actions in front of me in the hand.

For example, say it's early in a tournament and I am dealt A9o in middle position. I am probably going to raise 3x the big blind if the action folds to me before the flop. But if there is a raise ahead of me, I typically won't even consider reraising and instead will sail that shit into the muck as fast as you can say "shazam!" And even if there is a limper ahead of me, I will usually fold the A9o from middle position unless a whole bunch of other limpers come in along with me.

Similarly, say I am dealt a hand like 99 and I am in the cutoff seat. If the action folds to me, surely I will again raise a standard amount with the hand. If there is a preflop raise in front of me, I will typically not fold as I would the A9o hand above, but rather I am likely to call if the stacks are any kind of good size so as to make set mining (or potentially flopping an overpair) profitable. I might even fold the 99 to a preflop raise if we are on the final table bubble of a tournament and I put a lot of value on the jump in the cash payouts for the final tablists of that particular tournament. At other times on the tournament bubble, I might be very apt to reraise allin with the 99, figuring I am likely racing or dominating if I do get called, and most likely that my opponent will fold his two high cards and avoid taking a large beat with the cash payout positions so close to being reached.

There are countless examples of starting hands which I may fold, call or raise in a tournament depending on the circumstances -- again, usually the chip stacks involved, my position, and where in the tournamentwe currently are. And this got me wondering if there are any hands which I basically always raise with preflop, including reraising if the action comes back around to me. And the answer is, pretty much, yes. I think there are three hands that I nearly always raise or reraise with before the flop in nlh tournaments. Of course there are always exceptions to everything, which I will discuss in a minute, but for the most part with the following three hands I will be putting in a raise of whatever the current bet is before the flop, pretty much regardless of my position, and pretty much regardless of where in the tournament we're at.

The first hand I basically always raise with is KK. Pocket Kings is obviously a great hand, but we all know how magnetically these things tend to attract the killer Ace on the flop. The last thing I ever want to do is take an action preflop that permits or encourages one or more players holding the A9 or AJ hands I mentioned above from sticking around in the hand and seeing a flop. On very rare occasions I may limp from utg with KK, but even that is a move I don't like very much, because invariably some donkey with Ax limps as well around back and suddenly when the Ace flops I have no clue where I'm at. Whereas, I love limping utg preflop with pocket Aces, because in that situation even if no one raises behind me there is no hand out there I am particularly concerned about allowing to see a cheap flop. But with KK, I don't like to limp generally, even under the gun, and if anyone raises in front of me -- even a pretty rockish player -- I am generally going to reraise. KK is ahead of all but one starting hand, and it is in good shape against anyone without an Ace, so I want to get more money into the pot even against a preflop raiser, a typical one of which is likely to have what, AK-A7 or any pocket pair? KK crushes that range, and to the extent that I can maybe get the A7 guy to fold, that is all goodness for me and my pocket Kings. More than that, sometimes the other guy has JJ or QQ or AK and is more than happy to reraise and get it allin preflop, which again is a great outcome for me. So with KK, I basically always raise the current bet, even if it's been raised already in front of me, and that really doesn't change at any point in a tournament. On occasion late in a large mtt I might slow-play KK to try to double-up with it if I have been folding a lot and am afraid that a bet or raise might scare everyone else off, but generally speaking I don't even do that nearly as much as some other people might. It's almost 100% accurate to say that I always raise or reraise with KK before the flop. And as I've discussed before, I do not fold KK preflop. I never have and I don't know that I ever will. Maybe if Beth Shak is already allin and is dancing around yelling "I got it!" to her husband. But that's about it.

The next hand I pretty much always tend to raise or reraise with preflop is AK. A lot of people play AK a lot of different ways, and I'm not here to say which way is "right", or which way is the most profitable. Probably, like most things, the most profitable way to play AK is going to be different for each individual, depending on how strong they are at reading their opponents, what their image is, and how good they are at extracting chips from their opponents when they do flop a TPTK or better hand. But for me, I am hugely profitable over time with AK in tournaments, and the way I tend to play it preflop is to raise, or to reraise around the size of the pot if it's already been raised ahead of me. Now, are there exceptions to this? Unlike KK, sure there are. I have folded AK before the flop several times in the thousands of mtt's I have played in my day, but never without a raise in front of me, and never with only one raise in front of me either. I will pretty much always raise into an unopened pot from any position at any point in a tournament with AK, unless I am trying to trap an aggressive short stack behind me who I just know is going to push allin over the top of me with any Ace or any two high cards if I just limp. If the pot has been raised in front of me, or if there are one or more limpers, again I am pretty much always going to reraise it up, as I mentioned usually around the full size of the pot. The bottom line is, AK is a very strong hand, and the way I play I figure I am just about always getting the best of it if I put in more money before the flop when I hold Big Slick. Of course if the other guy has KK or especially AA, I'm in trouble there (and that happens to me more than you could believe), but other than those two hands, I believe with my post-flop skill I am getting the best of putting any additional money into the pot with AK even when it's been raised up in front of me.

So when do I fold AK before the flop? Basically, only when I know someone has AA or KK. Even if I knew the other guy had QQ or JJ I would not fold AK before the flop if there is any significant amount of chips already in the pot, because I figure that I will get away from it with a minimal loss if I miss the flop given the way I play AK after the first three board cards are out, and if I hit the flop I will do whatever it takes to convince the guy with QQ that I might have missed and I'll be able to extract from him to a nice degree. No, the only time generally speaking that I fold AK before the flop is if I am sure someone else has AA or KK in the hand. And in order to be sure of that, I either have to be playing against the tightest rock in the world -- for some guys, any preflop reraise pretty much always means Aces or Kings -- or I'm going to need to see some sickass action in front of me, from stacks that are large enough not to be pushing to try to double with some less than premium holding. So, for example, I recently folded AK preflop when I raised it up from utg, then the guy in 3rd position reraised me the size of the pot, and then someone in middle position pushed allin on a huge re-reraise of about 60 big blinds maybe 15 minutes in to a large mtt. I figured, I'm here raising under the gun, about as strong as I can look at this point in the tournament, and someone just to my left reraised me. He's got to have a big pair, or maybe another AK, or I suppose AQs if he's a massive donkey. But once the third guy pushes allin on the massive overbet re-reraise, what am I gonna put that guy on that is behind AK? AJ? No -- I didn't say this was a blonkament. KQ? Not. He could have QQ there, but in practice in my experience about 9 times out of 10 that guy flips up Kings or Aces. He might not have pocket Aces, but when he doesn't, he's usually going to show me pocket Kings. And this early in an mtt, with me only in there for one raise of three times the big blind, why risk my tournament life? But that's the kind of action it takes for me to lay down AK preflop -- like I've said, I need to be pretty much sure that someone else at the table has Aces or Kings.

The last hand that I like to nearly always raise or reraise with preflop is pocket Queens. Once you get to JJ and the lower pocket pairs, they are just too beatable by the bigger pairs, and too vulnerable to the two-high-card hands for me to treat them like I have to raise with them. But with QQ, in most situations in a tournament, I am going to raise or reraise with it. Now this one comes with all the same caveats as the AK discussion above -- show me someone who obviously has AA, KK or AK at the table, and I am likely to fold. I've probably folded QQ preflop a hundred times in my life, and it's not something I find particularly difficult to do if there is huge action up front. As easy as it is to be sure that someone has AA or KK if they're going crazy before the flop, throw AK into their range and you can sometimes be more or less absolutely sure they've got one of those three hands. Anyone putting in a third or fourth raise before the flop in no-limit holdem, me and my QQ are gone. But against anybody who has just put in one raise, I am going to reraise them the size of the pot with the Ladies pretty much every time. Sure, sometimes they reraise me and I am forced to fold, or worse yet, to call and then be racing against AK or run into Aces or Kings. But the bottom line is that, in most of the mtt's I play online, an initial raiser's range before the flop at any point early in a tournament has many hands that QQ is ahead of, many of them far ahead of, and as I've said there's only three hands I have any fear of when reraising with QQ. And as the tournaments progress, the tables get shorter, the Ms generally get shorter, and the end result is that preflop raiser's hand ranges are widening, not shrinking, meaning that my QQ is more likely to be ahead of a preflop raiser's range late in an mtt than it is at the beginning. And I almost never limp preflop with QQ. The only person you're trapping when you limp up front with pocket Queens is yourself, of that I am sure. Now you're letting KJ and K8s come in in addition to AJ and A8s. That is in my experience a bad mistake, and when you lose a big pot after limping in early with QQ, you have no one to blame but yourself.

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