I believe that 3-betting preflop from the blinds is a critical tactic to defeat loose raisers and blind steal attempts. I make this play far more frequently than most live $2-$5 and $5-$10 players do. In fact, when confronted with a loose or steal raise in the blinds, I probably 3-bet at least 20 percent of the time.
First, let me clarify what I mean by a loose or steal raise. This is a raise made with at least 25 percent of all hands. Often it’s even more hands than that. These raises typically come in one of three flavors.
- An extremely loose player who just likes to raise a ton of hands open-raises.
- An aggressive, pro-like player in the cutoff or button raises one or more limpers.
- Someone open-raises from the button or perhaps the cutoff.
If one of these three conditions applies, there’s a good chance that this raise is one that is 3-bettable. But before you act, there’s a final litmus test the situation has to pass. Ask yourself, “Does he ever limp here?”
It’s a powerful question. Does he limp here sometimes? If the answer is yes, then it’s time to tap the brakes. When players limp sometimes and raise sometimes, it means that they are reserving the raise for their stronger hands. If you are looking to attack a raise, it’s a bad thing if a player limps—because this time he chose not to limp, which means he’s marked with a stronger hand.
Now a little bit of limping shouldn’t deter you. But a lot should. Here’s what I mean.
Say two players have limped for $5, and an aggressive pro-like player makes it $30 on the button. You’ve seen him limp in this spot once in a blue moon—he might do it with a hand like 8-5 suited just to see a flop. But, in general, you would expect this player to raise the button. This situation passes the litmus test. Ok, he limps occasionally, but basically he’s raising here.
Here’s another one. A player opens the button for $30 in a $5-$10 game. Ask yourself if this player ever would limp the button. If so, then this raise represents uncommon strength for a button raise. But most decent players don’t really limp the button—or they might do it once in a while with A-A. Against these players, you’ve passed the litmus test, and the 3-bet is on.
So what hands should you 3-bet? I like to 3-bet small pocket pairs. These hands don’t play very well when you flat-call a steal raise. Your opponent has a wide and weak range, so it’s hard to count on getting a set paid. And they are difficult to try to nurse to showdown if you miss a set. They’re okay hands to 3-bet, however, because if you get called, you can at least still flop a set and win a monster pot. They are also okay hands to 5-bet shove with if your opponent might 4-bet bluff you—though that dynamic rarely manifests in a live no-limit game.
I like to 3-bet big-medium and big-little suited hands like K-8 suited and A-3 suited. These hands are good because the big card blocks some of the premium hands your opponent could be holding. Also, if called, they give you a chance to flop a flush draw to bluff with.
They also give you a chance to hit an overcard against a medium pair. In $2-$5 and $5-$10 games, it’s often actually easier to figure out if your bad kicker top pair is good or not in a 3-bet pot. Your opponents are less likely to try to bluff at you if you show some weakness, because they are worried that you are trapping, and they don’t want to burn most of a stack on an unsuccessful bluff. Typically if they try to bluff an ace- or king-high flop, they’ll fire once and then give up. When you 3-bet preflop and then start checking and calling an ace- or king-high flop, many opponents will worry that you flopped top set. These doubts cause most players at the level to play these flop textures passively and straightforwardly against a preflop 3-bet.
I also 3-bet sometimes with suited connectors, though these hands also work well if you call. Since suited connectors are the ideal no-limit hold’em bluffing hands (because they hit so many flops with equity), it’s fine to start the bluffing early with a preflop 3-bet.
Obviously, I also 3-bet premium hands like 9-9 or better and A-J and K-Q or better against these steal raises.
Typically I don’t 3-bet the medium-strength high-card hands like K-T, Q-J, J-T, and the like (suited or offsuit). These hands play well after a call, since they give you a good chance to flop top pair, catch your opponent with a second-best hand, and win a medium-sized pot.
Ok, now you’ve 3-bet all these hands like 9-7 suited and K-6 suited and A-T offsuit. Your opponent calls. Now what?
Don’t panic. First, ask yourself if the call was expected or unexpected. Do you think your opponent usually call? Or do you think he folds a lot?
If you think he folds a lot, then you are up against a strong range. You should frequently check the flop, play cautiously with moderate-strength hands, and don’t be afraid to check-fold your missed hands. If this sounds weak or passive to you, remember that your opponent will frequently fold to the 3-bet. So the preflop reraise play works successfully as a bluff by itself. When the bluff fails, at least you get a free shot to see a flop. There’s no requirement to continue bluffing into what is now a stronger range.
If you expected that he would call, then it’s a different story. You are still up against what is mostly a weak, steal-type range. Against many players, you can plow through the hand with flop and turn barrels. Your opponents are playing too many hands, and they may not realize exactly how many hands you are 3-betting against them. They may be too quick to give you credit for hands like A-A or K-K—or they may give you easy credit for holding top pair on an ace- or king-high flop.
So, say the flop comes K-9-3. Against a player who I expected to call the preflop 3-bet, my Plan A would be to bet flop and then, if called, bet turn. I’m relying on my opponent to beat himself by folding too large a percentage of his hands by the turn.
If you 3-bet with a big-little hand like A-4 suited and flop top pair, against typical $1-$2 and $2-$5 players you can typically muddle your way through the hand and figure out whether your kicker is good or not. The key observation is that players at this level who have pocket pairs like J-J on an A-7-5 flop will typically be trying to get the pair to showdown and not turning it into a bluff. So you can open with a check and see if he checks back. Or you can open with a half-pot flop bet. If called, you can check the turn and expect that an opponent with a pair smaller than an ace will check it back.
In general, I will call one bet, but not two, with top pair/no kicker in these pots. So say I 3-bet A-4 and get called by a player I expected to fold frequently. (I.e., because he didn’t fold, he likely has a strong range.) The flop comes A-7-5.
I check. If he bets, I will call and check the turn. If he bets the turn, I will fold. If he checks it through, I will check again on the river. I’ll fold to a large bet but consider calling a small bet.
If the flop checks through (as it often will on a flop like this), then I’ll check the turn and play the same game. If he bets, I’ll call and check the river. If he makes a big river bet, I’ll fold.
This works fairly well, since players are unlikely to turn a hand like Q-Q into a bluff. They’re also fairly likely to give you credit for an ace when you call the first time. At least, they are worried enough about your hand that they are not comfortable launching what is now a large bet (due to the 3-bet pot) at you as a bluff.
I hope that gives you a feeling for how I approach this situation. Of course it’s poker, and nothing is assured. But if you 3-bet aggressively against steal-raises and gather practice playing in the big pots that result, you will have a big leg up on the rest of the players at your level.