In my previous article, I offered a theoretical analysis of factors to consider when you have the opportunity to re-raise, or three-bet, an opponent before the flop in no-limit hold ’em (though many of these same factors will be relevant in other games as well, no-limit hold ’em is the one I know best and will discuss here). I advise reading or re-reading that article before continuing this one, which will consist of a series of examples in which I demonstrate how to put all of these factors together to arrive at a decision to fold, call, or three-bet when facing a raise.
Scenario 1: Early Position, Deep Stacks
You are UTG+1 in a nine-handed $5/$10 game in which all players have $2000 stacks. The UTG player opens to $40. Consider your action with each of the following hands: AA, AKo, AQs, KQo, JTs, 65s.
Is your hand strong enough to call? An UTG raise shows considerable strength, and although you have position on the original raiser, your generally poor position will be a liability with such deep stacks should other players call behind you. You need a very strong hand to put money into the pot in this situation. AA, AKo, and AQs are premium hands, and with deep stacks, JTs can practically be considered premium as well. With these, I’d say your choice is between calling or raising. Barring extenuating circumstances, I would not call with KQo or 65s, which means the choice with those is between folding or raising.
What will the Stack-to-Pot Ratio (SPR) be if your three-bet is called? In a heads up pot, it will be practically 20, though odds are good that other players will call behind you and muddy the waters. It’s important to note, though, that even if you raise to $120 and UTG calls, you’ll still have a relatively high SPR of almost 8. This means that even hands like JTs that prefer a high SPR will play well in a three-bet pot.
Will you dominate your opponent’s calling range? Your UTG+1 raise will show extreme strength, which means you should expect only strong hands to call you. KQo and even AQs probably will not dominate many calling hands, and JTs and 65s certainly won’t. AKo could, and of course Aces definitely will!
Do you mind playing a multi-way pot? AKo and KQo suffer the most from inviting multiple players into the pot, while JTs holds its equity well even when others call behind. AA is a tricky case, because while the value of holding an over-pair diminishes in multi-way pots, the value of holding a set increases. A similar argument applies to AQs: you’ll have a lower EV with a pair of Aces or Queens, but a higher EV with a straight or flush. 65s can be deceptive: although it may seem quite similar to JTs, it has considerably less value. The straights and flushes that it makes are weaker, and with a high SPR and/or a five-way flop, that matters more than you might think. It is also far less likely than JT to win the pot when it makes two pair.
Conclusion: Although AA doesn’t absolutely hate a multi-way pot, there’s also a lot of immediate value when a three-bet is called, not to mention the possibility of a four-bet, and re-raising should be the default play. AKo is a weaker hand, but still strong enough to raise for value. Because this hand suffers so much from calls behind, I advise re-raising it.
With JTs and AQs, the decision is close, but I lean towards calling. Neither is quite strong enough to have a lot of immediate value when a three-bet is called, and unlike AKo, these hands don’t gain as much from driving out players behind.
KQo I would simply fold. It’s not strong enough to raise for value, and unlike JTs, it’s a poor bluff because it has little chance of drawing out when a better hand calls.
I lean towards folding 65s, but there’s a case for raising it. In many ways, it functions better as a bluff than an off-suit broadway hand like KQ, and the implied odds in a three-bet pot can actually be quite good should you get a flop like T66 or 432 that could correctly be perceived as bad for much of your three-betting range.
Scenario 2: Early Position, Shallow Stacks
Now we’ll consider the same situation with much shallower stacks. You are UTG+1 in a nine-handed $5/$10 game in which all players have $300 stacks. The UTG player opens to $30. Consider your action with each of the following hands: AA, AKo, AQs, KQo, JTs, 65s.
Is your hand strong enough to call? AA, AKo, and AQs remain strong enough to call, and KQo and 65s remain too weak. Without a lot of money behind, though, JTs is no longer strong enough to call.
What will the Stack-to-Pot Ratio (SPR) be if your three-bet is called? If you were to raise to $80 and get called by UTG, the SPR would be less than 1.5, meaning that neither of you will require a lot of equity to stack off, and you need to prioritize playing big cards that can easily flop a lot of equity. Even in a heads up, single-raised pot, you’ll have an SPR of only about 4 (this is part of the reason I assumed smaller raise sizes in this shallow-stacked scenario), which still means that you should prioritize making one strong pair.
This makes three-betting less of a priority for your strongest hands, because even in a single-raised pot, your AA or AK can expect weaker hands to stack off to your overpair or top pair, top kicker.
Will you dominate your opponent’s calling range? With AA and AKo, probably, not to mention that these hands are strong enough to commit $300 pre-flop should it come to that. It’s close for AQs, but the rest of these hands almost certainly will not.
Do you mind playing a multi-way pot? With shallower stacks, players behind you should be less inclined to call, as their position is worth less. You and/or UTG can often comfortably commit, even in a multi-way pot, with a single strong pair, which means it will be harder for a player behind you to leverage his position for fold equity, but there’s also not enough money behind for him to try to out-flop an overpair.
Conclusion: I’d fold the 65s, the JTs, and the KQo. Note that it’s not a coincidence that we’re folding more often here than in the previous example, as having position on the original raiser is not as valuable with shallow stacks.
I’d call with AQs and AA, both of which hold their equity well should the pot go multi-way. Unlike in the previous example, AA doesn’t suffer so much from inviting others into the pot.
AKo, however, still has a lot to gain from folds, and I would generally raise with it. I’d also raise slightly weaker overpairs such as QQ that stand to lose a lot more than AA does when multiple players see a flop.
Scenario 3: Deep Stacked, Defending Against a Steal
You are SB in a $5/$10 game in which all players have $2000 stacks. The Button opens to $40. Consider your action with each of the following hands: AA, AQs, KQo, JTs, 65s, 88.
Is your hand strong enough to call? All of these hands can expect to have a lot of equity against a late position raise, and with the exception of 65s, none should be terribly difficult to play from out of position. 65s is the only I’d consider a dicey call, and even that could be correct against the right sort of opponent.
What will the Stack-to-Pot Ratio (SPR) be if your three-bet is called? Out of position with deep stacks, I’d advise a large raise of perhaps $150. That would give you a stack-to-pot ratio of approximately 6 if your raise is called. For hands like AA, AQs, and KQo that will often flop one strong pair, that’s a lot better than an SPR of 30, which is what you’d get if you called. It’s a little shallow for the suited connectors, but still provides some leverage for applying pressure with draws.
The only hand that really has a hard time at this SPR is the 88. You’re too shallow to play exclusively for set value after putting in $150 pre-flop, but too deep to consistently stack off unimproved.
Will you dominate your opponent’s calling range? AA and AQs certainly will, and even KQo may to some degree, especially as many of the hands that dominate it are likely to four-bet. 88 should have some equity advantage when called, but realizing that equity from out of position can be difficult. JTs and 65s probably won’t.
Do you mind playing a multi-way pot? A call from the SB will offer appealing odds for the BB to call with a wide variety of hands and perhaps even to squeeze. None of your calling hands can be too happy about a BB call, though the Aces wouldn’t mind inducing a squeeze. KQo and AQs have the most to lose to a BB call. With 88, you’re less likely to win unimproved if the BB calls, but should you flop a set, you should have higher EV with a third player in the pot.
Conclusion: Three-betting any or all of these hands is defensible. AA and AQs are clear value raises and hands that will play reasonably well even if the three-bet is called. Although JTs would be a defensible calls you’ll probably want to play this hand as the aggressor should you flop a draw anyway, and it benefits a lot from pre-flop fold equity, so I like raising it at this depth. I prefer raising 65s to calling with it, as it too benefits a lot from fold equity, though folding it could also be OK. 88 and KQo play least well in three-bet pots, so it’s easiest to find calls with those, though raising can also be good.
Scenario 4: Short Stacked, Defending Against a Steal
You are SB in a $5/$10 game in which all players have $300 stacks. The Button opens to $30. Consider your action with each of the following hands: AA, AQs, KQo, JTs, 65s, 88.
Is your hand strong enough to call? With shallow stacks, the size of your cards matters more, and suitedness and connectedness matter less. It’s hard to show a profit calling with 65s here, but all of the other hands should have enough immediate equity against a button opening range.
What will the Stack-to-Pot Ratio (SPR) be if your three-bet is called? From out of position, it’s tempting to make a slightly larger re-raise than we did when in position with shallow stacks. If you raise to $90, though, you may find that your opponent often responds by shoving or folding rather than calling. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it should affect your range. Against such a response, you don’t need to worry about how your hand plays post-flop, because you won’t often see a flop with money behind.
Whether you raise to $80 or $90, though, you’ll have an SPR between 1 and 2 should your opponent call. That means that you need to prioritize hands that can easily flop a strong pair or strong draw, which most of your hands do well but 65s does not.
Will you dominate your opponent’s calling range? Honestly, with such shallow stacks, domination isn’t a huge concern. You’ll be hard pressed to fold any pair in a three-bet pot, and the implied odds for either player who flops a dominating top pair are negligible. You do, however, need to be concerned about how much equity you’ll have if you call a four-bet shove, or how much equity you’ll lose if you fold to one (with a hand that would have profitably called the original raise). All of these hands are too strong to three-bet and fold to a three-bet, with the exception of 65s, which is too weak to three-bet in the first place.
Do you mind playing a multi-way pot? With such shallow stacks, AA has little to lose by inviting the BB in, as he’ll far more often flop a hand that pays off AA than one that can beat it. AQs, KQo, and 88, however, lose a lot when they fail to push out the BB, particularly because they would otherwise be able to either to take the pot immediately or realize 100% of their equity against the button opener (there are not many situations where you should three-bet these hands and then not see a showdown). JTs would certainly prefer the BB to fold, but it plays better than many of these hands in a multi-way pot.
Conclusion: You should almost certainly three-bet the AQs and the 88 with the intention of getting your money in pre-flop or on most flops. KQo should probably do the same, but against tighter players, calling may be better. What you should not do is raise it with the intention of folding to a 4-bet.
JTs isn’t a great hand for raising and getting it in, but should have a good bit of equity against a button open, so calling is probably best. 65s is too weak to play at all with these stacks. Although you should have some hands that 3-bet and fold to a shove, those should be hands that either will flop more equity or block your opponent’s shoving range (but, ideally, not his folding range).
Just calling with AA is quite appealing with these stacks. You’re happy to invite a BB call or raise, you can happily get your money in on almost any flop, you don’t need to worry about building a pot, and you have little to gain from pre-flop fold equity.
Hopefully this series of articles helps to get you thinking more holistically about your options when facing a pre-flop raise and how factors such as position and stack depth should influence your decision. As you can see, there’s usually some judgment required, and some decisions are close. The most important thing is to recognize that you have a decision at all, rather than automatically labeling some cards as “raising hands” or “calling hands”.