Preflop Raising: Theoretical Approaches
Perspectives for Beginners
When raising before the flop, the obvious and immediate question is: how should we size our raise? There are three fundamental ideologies behind preflop raising, primarily founded in opacity, position, and hand strength arguments. If you have not explored these theories yourself, and especially if you are a newer player or somebody making the transition from fixed-limit to no-limit play, this article should prove useful. Overall, this article will be theoretical and explanatory, and is not meant to revolutionize the way anyone thinks about preflop raises. That said, here we will explain the three major arguments:
The Opacity Argument
All preflop raises should be sized identically relative to the pot. In essence, the pot odds offered to the next person to act are always exactly the same, except in the case that the next person to act cannot cover the amount of the raise. The most common implementations of this system are the “4BB + 1BB per limper” system and its cousins.
Usage of this system is extremely common in online play. You will find that the vast majority of players raise this way online, at any stakes and in any type of No-Limit Hold ‘Em cash game. In fact, the vast majority of people on this site employ this system. It is easy, and there does not exist any strong argument that it is bad, so it’s a preferable method.
The Positional Dependency Argument:
Preflop raises should be larger out of position and smaller in position. When out of position, it is particularly difficult to win a multi-way pot, and it is even tougher to play perfectly heads-up. In general, this system employs a shallow gradient, something like a 4-5 BB standard raise under-the-gun and a 3-4 BB standard raise on the button in a full-ring game, with 4 BB in the middle.
Effectively, this system allows for cheaper steals and easier pot control when one has the advantage of position, and maintains a raise size that fairs well when playing out of position. It is common that particularly loose-aggressive players who raise a wide range of hands preflop will employ this system, although many loose-aggressives use the opaque system described above.
The Hand Strength Argument
One should raise more with “big pot hands” and less with “small pot hands.” Because AA tends to play well in large pots, but AQ does not, one’s preflop raises with AA should be larger than with AQ. If a player hopes to play for stacks when flopping a set, he ought to raise large enough with his pocket pair preflop that it is easy to get somebody’s entire stack in postflop because of the bloated size of the pot.
In general, the raise-by-hand strength idea is accompanied by a critical randomization clause. It states that one must vary raise sizes with every hand to some degree, so that the strategy is not exploitable, just in case somebody at the table happens to be very clever and have a lot of history with you. So while AA should be raised larger than AQ on average, sometimes AQ should be raised higher-than-average and AA lower-than-average.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The justification for this system is that it betrays zero information about one’s hole cards, or, in other words, it creates opacity (by eliminating transparency) in one’s preflop raises. It also may discourage people from taking particular note of your presence at the table, which helps in that your opponents play worse when they remember less information about you. If you were instead to have highly variable raise sizes, between 2 and 10 BB for instance, then people would likely notice that and start paying attention. When playing online, given that you sometimes have hundreds or even thousands of hands with the same players, and those players tend to be quite clever on average compared to those found in live games, this is probably the best system to use.
This system discourages action when out of position, and encourages it in position. Like the opacity system above, it also betrays zero information about one’s hole cards. However, the rate of decrease in a player’s raise sizes as position improves may reflect that player’s perception of his or her own skill differential playing in and out of position.
For instance, if a player typically raises to 10 BB under the gun, but only 2.5 BB on the button, he clearly feels much worse about being out of position than somebody who raises to 4 BB under the gun and 3 BB on the button. And this information can be exploited by the cleverest of players. Furthermore, this system works in contrary to a variable raising range across positions. That is, if you tend to raise a lot more hands on the button than under-the-gun (as you should), then you will encourage action with worse hands and discourage action with better hands. Why compel people to call your raise when your average hand is bad, and all you have to work with is position? And why dissuade people from calling your raise when your average hand is good, but you have to play it out of position?
Despite some weaknesses, this system is quite interesting and is probably a useful one if you are a very good, loose-aggressive player at a table full of particularly bad players who have no idea how to react to loose-aggressives. It allows you to steal more cheaply and exercise significant pot control when your opponents understand pot odds and implied odds, but find you hard to read.
This system does betray information about one’s hand and clearly allows opponents to play more perfectly in theory. However, it is a common system, used especially by live-game players, who rarely encounter the same opponents for large numbers of hands, and mostly play with extremely poor players anyway. In fact, it is highly recommended by David Sklansky and Ed Miller in No Limit Hold ‘Em: Theory and Practice.
When your opponents are not very knowledgeable and have played too few hands with you to catch on to your system, this particular method might be a good one. It is mainly useful because it gives you the ability to control the size of the pot very easily post-flop, where your opponents make the most mistakes. If you ever play in a typical live low-stakes no-limit game, you might find that this is an advantageous system to employ.
It is worth reiterating that this system is exploitable, and essentially forces you to adapt some strong “tells” in your betting pattern. So we may ask, what sort of place does it have? We have already established that it can only be used against bad, unobservant opponents. But we know that these types of opponents are also the ones who can generally be manipulated very easily postflop. If that’s the case, can’t we just wait until we’ve already seen a flop to worry about controlling the size of the pot? If our opponents don’t understand pot odds, then what good is raising more or less preflop when we can still make the same-sized bets postflop anyway?
The answer to these questions boils down to the fact that this system is most likely useless, except as a mechanism to “keep your opponents guessing.” Overall, you will most likely have little extra edge when using this system, and you could regain that edge by simply making small or large bets postflop, depending on your hand strength.