Betting Pre-Flop

By Tim Ryerson | September 14, 2020

Welcome to the advanced level of the Pokerology course. By now you should have a firm understanding of the key concepts in poker and it’s assumed you have some playing experience under your belt. In the advanced level we’re going to expand upon many of the subjects we’ve already discussed and hopefully elevate your game to new heights. Some of the topics we’ll talk about may already be familiar to you, particularly if you’re an experienced poker player. But there are sure to be parts which will help even the most experienced poker players.

This opening module is focused on “mastering the betting rounds” and we’re going to start with the importance of betting pre-flop. There are many reasons to bet/raise pre-flop in hold’em, and we’ve already discussed some of the key concepts in the intermediate lesson, Betting with Aggression. In this lesson we’ll be expanding upon this theme, and focusing on some of the main reasons to bet and raise pre-flop (remember there are usually even more reasons to fold). Advanced poker players should know exactly why they are betting or raising and what they are trying to accomplish. These reasons are not necessarily presented in order of importance since that order is somewhat fluid based upon:

  • How deep the stacks are.
  • Whether you are playing a tournament or cash game.
  • How many chips you have in relation to the blinds (if playing a tournament).
  • The tendencies of your opponents.
  • Your position.

It’s important that you are aware of the above criteria before raising. Remember, there are many reasons to raise pre-flop, but you should always have a reason for raising, rather than just firing out a bet. Let’s look at some of these reasons:

Raising for Value

This is the most common, straight forward reason to raise. Believing you have the best of it based upon your hand’s value you want to get more money into the pot – pretty simple, right? Not so fast! There are several other considerations to evaluate. Raising pre-flop for value can be somewhat tricky in terms of bet size because you want to accomplish several objectives:

  • You want to get more money in the pot.
  • You probably want to narrow the field.
  • You want your opponents to be drawing incorrectly.

You need to determine what your bet size should be to accomplish the above objectives. I believe you should be consistent in how you bet regardless of your holding so as to make it more difficult for observant opponents to put you on a hand accurately. My recommendation is to raise three times the big blind plus one additional bet for every limper in front of you. Do that every time and no one can get a read on your play. Also, this type of bet should accomplish all three objectives. If you find yourself in a game where this betting formula does not accomplish the above goals make sure you adjust. Different games play differently and I’m not suggesting that three times the big blind is a mandate – maybe you’re in a game that requires four or five times the big blind to consistently accomplish these objectives. You should remain alert and flexible in your thinking for greatest results.

Raising for Image Purposes

This is a deceptive raise with a modest to weak holding that can wind up paying huge dividends, both in money won and image making. Advanced players don’t sit like nits and wait around hoping to be dealt the nuts before venturing forth with a wager. Carpe Diem – they seize the day, or more accurately the situation, and surprise their foes. The beauty of playing a weak holding pre-flop in hold’em is if the board cooperates then your opponents will never put you on a winning hand. An example would be coming in for a raise with suited connectors such as 7s5s and being fortunate enough to hit a flop such as As8d6c giving you an open ended straight draw and, in all likelihood, an opponent who has an Ace and who by your pre-flop aggression believes you have an Ace as well. Now, if a nine or a four comes on the turn your opponent(s) aren’t likely to put you on a straight.

These types of deceptive image building pre-flop raises work best when your current table image is tight. This can happen just because you have had an awful run of cards and have played very few hands. When you do elect to bring it in for a raise with light holdings, they are generally given more respect than they deserve based upon your tight image. Imagine the example above meeting up with a flop of A75! If one of your opponents has an Ace you will get action and he will never see your two pair coming.

If not forced to show down these occasional flyers then you can continue to take these shots on occasion as long as they continue to be profitable. Once you’re forced to show down a holding that will raise an eyebrow or two, then the additional bonus as you tighten up is you should get paid off on your better holdings. Continually shifting gears makes it near impossible for opponents to get a bead on your play.

Raising to Steal the Blinds

Typically this occurs when you are in the cut-off seat or on the button and everyone has folded to you. Many players will automatically raise with almost any holding with the expectation that they will win the blinds. Playing “formula poker” never works well in the long run, so one needs to be more circumspect when sitting in late position. In the case of a game with blinds of $10 and $20, if you enter the pot raising three times the big blind you would be offering the small blind 9-to-5 odds for a call and if he folds, 2.25-to-1 odds for the big blind. Since what you are really betting on is that you don’t expect two random hands to hold much, so you should be able to steal the blinds with the same betting formula of three times the big blind as outlined earlier. Again, make adjustments to your raise size if necessary.

Yes, many times it is the astute play to attempt to steal the blinds but there are considerations that should enter your decision making before automatically letting your larcenous nature take over. Firstly, everyone wakes up with a hand sometime so have some kind of out before just blithely attempting the steal. Secondly, how competent are the two blinds? If you believe you can outplay both of them there may be more money to be made by allowing them in. Certainly, on occasion this can come back to bite you but it is a consideration that advanced players make.

Raising to Semi-Bluff

One might opine that this is closely related to raising to steal the blinds in so far as you’re raising with a modest holding and hoping to win the pot right there. In that regard, yes it is the same. However a semi-bluff raise is a re-raise against a readable, aggressive player. Raising as a semi-bluff works well against an aggressive player who, because of how often he has been raising, must be raising with marginal hands. If you have a hand worth playing, you should re-raise to hopefully clear the field as you believe his reaction to your re-raise will be one of the following:

  • He will fold his lighter holdings – you win.
  • He will move all-in or make a monster re-raise with his premium holdings, which will be easy for you to get away from – nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • He will call with everything in between – you have control over the hand with your superior position. Most often you will be checked to on the flop and a continuation bet will take it down.

Raising to Isolate an Opponent

This play comes up on a regular basis. Let’s imagine that you are sitting on the button with high suited cards, maybe AcKc. A middle position player limps and the cut-off, immediately to your right, makes it three times the big blind to go. This is a hand that doesn’t play that well in a crowd and you decide you should either fold or raise. Your raise here should be in the order of seven or eight times the big blind. Your objective is to get heads-up with the raiser hoping to prevail with your Big Slick. The blinds are two random hands and will need something strong to get involved with a twice raised pot. The original limper should fold for if he had anything worth calling two raises with, he would have raised himself.

While there are no guarantees in poker – isolating an opponent while holding position over him along with Big Slick is a pretty good place to be. Where this play can really pay dividends is when you assess the target of the isolation play to be a weak player with a deep stack. Now if he is going to make a real blunder, you want to be the only eligible recipient of his potential frailties. Some have espoused that greed is an ugly thing – but this is poker and on the green felt greed becomes a virtue not a vice.

Remember to Always Ask Why

As stated in the beginning of this lesson, there are many reasons to raise and one should always have a reason versus just firing out a bet. Being aware of criteria such as position, knowledge of opponents’ tendencies, your current table image and depth of stacks should help you identify what your objective is before proceeding. Inquisitive children constantly ask why? That is how they learn. Advanced players don’t look down at the inquisitive child’s question – they’re astute enough to understand the wisdom in always asking why before proceeding. Have a plan and then execute your plan.