My preferred method of working with MTT students is to begin with a hand history from a recent tournament in which they went deep. This allows me to identify their most obvious leaks, which in turn acts as a starting point for our work together. I have learned one shocking yet powerful lesson from this approach.
Every beginner-to-intermediate level student that I have ever coached has exactly the same leak, and it is costing them a significant slice of tournament ROI.
If your initial reaction to this claim is one of skepticism, I don’t blame you in the least. It does sound a little too good to be true, that I can suggest one strategic modification to any student’s play, which has an immediate pay-off. But in going over my notes for the last fifteen years of such work, I could not find a single exception.
So what is this magic bullet?
In the absence of instruction, MTT players fail to 3-bet shove anywhere close to the optimal frequency.
Why Do Players 3-Bet Shove At Too Low A Frequency?
I think it’s useful to start this discussion by trying to understand why 3-bet frequencies are invariably too low within the pool of otherwise competent players.
Let’s profile a typical break-even MTT player who plays something like $150 buy-ins live and $15 buy-ins online. In order to generate a 0% ROI, they need to be better than the majority of the players in their pool. In practice, this likely means they have studied open-raising ranges and have adopted tight ones.
But what about 3-betting?
There is a fairly natural assumption about 3-betting that is actually a bit of a trap. If our open-raise range is narrow, our 3-bet range should be narrower still, right?
Wrong. Every aspect of MTT play is determined by the stack depth at which the hand is played. The only factors that can trump stack depth are opponents deviating wildly from optimal play and strong ICM considerations. Let’s leave those aside and focus in more detail on stack depth.
You may have heard the advice that, in essentially all MTT situations, it’s much better to make an all-in bet than to call one. In fact, one can argue this is true in general. Whenever we call, we are relying purely on our hand equity. When we bet all in, we add the possibility of winning the pot uncontested. In some sense, being the shover gives us more than our “fair share” of the pot, since our opponent may relinquish their equity by folding.
The result of this is that the fold equity inherent in a 3-bet shove in principle allows that 3-betting range to be quite wide; much wider, for example, than a standard open-raising range in many stages of a tournament. The clever part, of course, is knowing when to 3-bet shove and with what precise range.
The 3-Bet-Shove Zone
Part of becoming proficient at MTTs, particularly when multi-tabling online, is being constantly aware of the stack distribution at the table. This dictates your opportunities and actions. In the context of 3-bet shoving, we are looking for effective stacks between about 10-25bb. Poker authors differ slightly on those bounds, but they are representative.
What is so special about this depth?
Let’s consider a simple but common example. Assume a structure that uses a big-blind ante, so that the preflop pot is 2.5bb before any action. A player opens for a raise of 2.5bb. What is the minimum 3-bet size that will generate fold equity?
Many players have learned that, when shoved on, one is basically compelled to call when offered 2-to-1 odds or better. This simply reflects generic range versus range equities. We can exploit the fact that a pot raise always offers the caller 2-to-1. With the above set up, a pot raise is 3 x 2.5 + 2.5 = 10bb (“three times the bet plus the trail”). This is the bare minimum at which we might expect to see some folds. In practice many players regard the lower bound of the 3-bet-shove stack depth as a little higher, around 12-13bb.
For the upper bound, we can use a simple heuristic. If your 3-bet shove is no more than 10x the open when you’re in position, or 12x when out of position, deeper analysis reveals it’s likely efficient. Larger shoves get us into an area where we’re typically called only when crushed. Thus facing a 2.5x open, we could efficiently jam up to about 25bb when in position.
If you’re going to extend beyond these values, I’d recommend only doing so on the upper end, and even then exercising care. For example, if you suddenly find yourself facing a 4x open, you may conclude that a 40bb (10x) jam is perfectly reasonable with a wide range. It’s possible that such a move is best, but there are a couple of other factors to consider.
First, at that depth you have a viable option of 3-betting an amount less than all in. This opens you up to getting 4-bet jammed on, so range construction is tricky. But a small 3-bet in such a spot with your monsters along with some combos with good blocker potential like A5s may have a higher EV than simply giving villain the pile. The details of such an analysis are beyond the scope of this article.
Second, never forget that most MTT players are pretty bad. If an opponent has been making standard 2.5x opens and suddenly rolls out the 4x, that’s a bet-sizing tell that may be screaming: “Do not jam unless you’re beating in aggregate the exact hands JJ and AK”. Yes, I know that sounds silly, but I see this fairly regularly. These players are happy to stay at 2.5x with hands they love (exclusively QQ+), and they’ll maintain that sizing with pairs TT and down that they open. But if they see AK or JJ, then panic apparently sets in, and they bring out the 4x. They ain’t folding if you jam, but they’d really rather just steal the blinds and antes and move on.
Exploiting Opponents: The Raise/Fold-To-Raise/Call Ratio
To wind up this article, let’s focus on the heart of exploitative poker and identifying opponents whose day you can spoil with ease.
One fundamental reason that the 3-bet shove is so effective at the correct stack depth is that many MTT players are basically begging you to run the play on them with their wide opening range. Why?
They understand that in the later stages of tournaments, it is necessary to attack the blinds and antes, else one gets blinded off into oblivion. However, there are two problems with this partial understanding of late-stage MTT play.
First, in the reshove zone, it’s not actually true. If you’re sitting in late position and both the blinds have classic reshove stacks around 20bb, you need to play a tight range, at least if the blinds have the faintest idea what they’re doing.
In practice, many players open too wide in this zone, and then seriously compound their mistake by overfolding when they are shoved on. In other words, their raise/fold-to-raise/call ratio is so high that they present a savvy opponent with an auto-profit spot.
If you identify such an opponent – and they are common – you simply adopt an aggressive strategy and attack their overly-wide opens by 3-bet jamming freely. With 2.5bb dead money in the pot, and another ~2.5bb added to the pot by the opener, a 3-bet jam off a 20bb stack has the potential to increase that stack by a massive 25% without any kind of fight.
One way of looking at this is that a well-timed 3-bet shove gains you twice as much as stealing the blinds and antes. It’s therefore still something of a puzzle that, while blind stealing is common in MTTs, the more powerful 3-bet shove is basically ignored by many players, excepting those times when they “have it”.
You need to be the player ready to unleash the 3-bet shove with a wide range when the stacks set up right. Once you look for these spots, you’ll likely be amazed by how frequently they present themselves. More importantly, taking advantage of these opportunities is how you win MTTs.
If you would like to delve into the quantitative details of this topic, and actually construct 3-bet-shove ranges, I highly recommend Ben Hayles’ crash course: MTT 3-Bet Shoves. Or break out a tool like HoldemResources Calculator and study the problem yourself.