Don’t Let Common Preflop Mistakes Bleed Your Stack Dry
Poker is an easy game to learn but a difficult game to master… Which I love!
Players with well thought out, in-depth strategies are rewarded with easier decisions and a better bottom line. However, the complexity of the game also leads to a ton of opportunities for potential mistakes.
Seeing as how preflop is the most common and important street in poker, I think it would be helpful to lay out 12 common preflop mistakes that beginners (and even some pros) constantly make.
I see players making these preflop mistakes all the time, and almost all of them can be rectified with some simple adjustments.
Prefer watching to reading? Check out Ryan’s video version of this article by clicking here or scrolling to the bottom of the page.
Preflop Mistake #1: Limping
Open-limping is when a player calls the big blind preflop as the first player to enter the pot. This is a very bad strategy to use for a number of reasons.
- You can’t win the pot preflop with an open-limp.
Unlike raising, open-limping is a passive action that does not give you an immediate opportunity to win the pot.. There is dead money from the small blind and big blind, and by calling you make no attempt to claim it for yourself.
- Open-limping makes your opponent’s lives easy.
Open-limping puts the players behind you into a very good spot. With an extra big blind in the pot, they are heavily incentivized to at least call (or worse, raise) and play a pot in position against your weaker range.
As the number of players in the pot increases, your hand’s equity to win the pot decreased. This is not a situation that you should cultivate.
On top of this, your limps will likely face aggression from players acting after you who either want to exploit your perceived weak range, or alternatively have a value hand which they themselves want to raise.
Even if you attempt to balance your limping range to counter this by including strong hands, in doing so those hands will have a lower expected value as a result. You want to squeeze as much value as possible from your strong holdings preflop, and electing to open-limp a hand like Kings for the sake of balance will usually end up backfiring.
Limping behind is a bit of an exception, and can sometimes be justified. It is acceptable to limp behind another player who has limped when you have a hand that is too weak to raise but too strong to fold. Given that you are incentivized to call, it is worth taking the opportunity to limp behind with hands that play well in multiway pots and are capable of making big hands postflop.
Preflop Mistake #2: Lacking Positional Awareness
The second pre-flop mistake I often see is players failing to consider the relationship between position and range. Your position in a hand should influence the range of hands that you are willing to play.
The more players to act behind you, the tighter your range should be. This is because the likelihood of coming up against a strong hand increases with the number of players left to act. Also, you are more likely to play a hand out of position when opening early at the table, making more marginal hands difficult to profit from in these spots.
If you open too wide from early positions, you will not be able to profitably defend your range and can be easily exploited. Conversely, your range should widen as you move closer to the button. Late position players also have the added benefit of positional advantage against the players they will most often play a pot with, the blinds.
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Preflop Mistake #3: Playing Too Passively Against Raises
Playing too passively against opens – often calling and rarely 3-betting – may be the single biggest and most common mistake I see in low stakes game.
It is almost unbelievable how frequent I see players flat opens with strong hands as opposed to 3-betting. Whether it be to trap an opponent or due to a fear of playing large pots, choosing not to 3-bet your stronger holdings is a big mistake for several reasons:
- Flatting opens leaves value on the table
By 3-betting opening raises with strong hands, you will extract more value from your opponents by increasing the size of the pot early.
- 3-betting prevents hands from going multiway
As demonstrated in the Aces example above, the equity of strong hands heavily decreases when there are multiple players in a hand. 3-betting will increase the likelihood of you isolating the original raiser and seeing a flop heads-up.
By doing this, the equity of your hand is preserved and you increase your likelihood of having the best hand at showdown. Take AKo/AKs for example:
In a multi-way pot with four players, AK has only a 30% chance of winning at showdown. But what about a heads up pot?
Against just one player, AK is a solid favorite with 60% equity versus a player who raised and called a 3-bet from MP2. This illustrates the benefit of isolating opening raisers with 3-bets and why passively calling preflop can be problematic.
There are a couple things to be aware of when 3-betting preflop. It is important to make sure your 3-betting range is comprised of more than just value hands. 3-betting only strong hands will make you easy to beat, allowing opponents to fold all but their strongest hands to your 3-bets. By adding some bluffs into your 3-betting range (using hands with good equity versus your opponent’s calling range), you make it difficult for your opponents to counter your strategy.
Also, be sure to keep in mind the relationship between position and strength of range when 3-betting; be wary of how strong the ranges of your opponents are and whether you can 3-bet for value against them or not.
Flatting opens with a wide range can sometimes be reasonable from later positions, especially from the button. More on that in Mistake #7 below.
Preflop Mistake #4: Playing Too Tight in the Big Blind
Many players make the mistake of not calling enough hands in the big blind, in particular versus opens from the small blind. Given that you are last to act preflop and will often be offered very good pot odds to take a flop, you can play much looser than you would from other positions. Let’s look at a specific spot as the big blind facing a small blind raise:
$5/$10 Cash Game, $1,000 Effective Stacks
Hero is in the Big Blind
folds to sb, Small Blind raises to $25, Hero ???
Against this 2.5x open, the big blind is getting 2.3 to 1 on a call, which translates to about 30% raw equity needed to continue. Considering that you will also have a positional advantage against the small blind, you can – and should – defend the big blind at a high frequency.
Preflop Mistake #5: Raising Too Wide (or Too Narrow) of a Range on the Button
The button is an extremely valuable position in poker. You are guaranteed to act last post-flop in any hand, giving you the informational advantage over your opponents. You are also able to put pressure on the blinds when action is folded to you and can often steal the dead money in the. However, a tendency of many players is to either raise too many hands on the button, or alternatively not raise enough.
Given that most modern poker material advocates an aggressive preflop strategy from the blinds, raising too many hands on the button can cause you to be exploitatively 3-bet by players in blinds. Having a leak such as this one can slowly but continuously damage your win rate, so be cautious to not over-raise from the button. This is more of a problem when playing online, as live players are typically less aggressive from the blinds.
Conversely, some players are too tight from the button. Because of the positional advantage you have on the button as well as the incentive to take any dead money in the pot, both opening from the button or 3-betting the original raiser are extremely effective. Failing to capitalize on these circumstances will hinder the amount of money you can make at the tables.
A good percentage of hands to raise is anywhere between 40% and 70% depending upon the tendencies of the players in the blinds. The looser and more likely to 3-bet the blinds are, the tighter you should open. If the blinds are huge nits unwilling to play pots, ramp up the aggression and steal that dead money.
Preflop Mistake #6: Playing Too Tight from the Small Blind When the Action Folds to You
When it folds to you in the small blind, you should be raising often. A lot of players fail to do this due to the unfavorable postflop position of the small blind. However, there are a couple big reasons why it is a valuable strategy:
- You have a good chance of stealing the dead money in the pot (1.5BB), and by using a small opening size (approximately 2.25-2.5BB) you can attempt it for a cheap price. You can do this at a high frequency until the big blind starts to aggressively 3-bet you. Live players will especially benefit from this strategy due to the tight ranges that are common at live tables.
- You decrease the likelihood that you will have to play a hand out of position which will put you at an informational disadvantage.
Many players choose to either limp some hands or play very tight in small blind vs big blind confrontations. These can be reasonable adjustments against specific opponents, but raising often is a more effective baseline strategy.
Preflop Mistake #7: Not Flatting Often Enough on the Button
Many players also have a tendency to fold the button at too high of a frequency. Because of the value of acting last postflop, you can justify taking a flop with a wide range of hands if given the price to do so.
This is especially relevant in regards to live poker, as live players generally do not play so aggressively from the blinds.
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Preflop Mistake #8: Regularly Flatting Opens from the Small Blind
Playing too passively in the small blind specifically is a very easy mistake to make. While it might seem reasonable to call from the small blind because of our improved pot odds, making a habit of calling in this position is bad for a couple key reasons:
- You commit yourself to playing out of position versus an opponent with a stronger perceived range.
- The big blind can exploit a small blind caller by squeezing, as the small blind’s range appears “capped” to medium strength hands.
The player in the small blind should want to 3-bet their entire value range to build a pot and isolate the preflop raiser. By calling, they are basically announcing that they have weak/medium strength holdings. For this reason, you should try and avoid calling in the small blind in most instances, and choose instead to 3-bet where applicable.
When constructing your small blind 3-bet range, be sure to include some lighter hands (like suited connectors) to prevent the big blind exploitatively folding their medium-strength holdings to your 3-bet. Employing this aggressive strategy has a couple of benefits:
- 3-betting puts a lot of pressure on the preflop raiser, particularly if they opened from late position with a wide range of hands that will be difficult to defend against 3-bets.
- Having a well constructed 3-bet range from the blinds will discourage your opponents from going for steals against you.
- 3-betting discourages the big blind from seeing a flop for cheaply, which would lower the equity of your holdings.
Preflop Mistake #9: Overvaluing Offsuit Broadway Hands
As Tony G once famously told a player that he had just knocked out of a tournament: ‘If you read my poker strategy, I tell everyone, “never overplay king-jack.” He also said a few other less appropriate things.
While that is a drastic oversimplification, he has a bit of a point. I far too often see players overvaluing weak, offsuit broadway holdings. This problem is especially dangerous in the middle positions at a table, where players raising before you should have a tighter range and stronger broadway holdings than you.
If you play too many offsuit broadways, you’ll often find yourself with an outkicked top pair as the dealer pushes a chunk of your stack away from you. For this reason, it is more favorable to play a hand like 98s over KJo in these situations. Suited connectors will rarely be dominated and can more easily make nutted hands capable of winning big pots.
Preflop Mistake #10: Calling Extremely Large 3-Bets
This problem is far more prominent in live games, where large opening sizes lead to super large 3-bets that get as big as 18-20BB (compared with the 10-12BB seen online). Calling in these spots may also be an ego-related problem that occurs live when a player does not want to be perceived as weak at the table.
Against these huge 3-bets, you are getting extremely poor pot odds to call. Check out the pot odds calculation against a standard 10BB 3-bet after we opened to 3BB:
We have to call 7BB more to win our raise(3BB) + their 3-bet(10BB) + dead blinds(1.5BB), which comes out to 32.6% equity needed.
Now let’s look at the same calculation against an 18BB 3-bet:
We have to call 15BB more to win our raise(3BB) + their 3-bet(18BB) + dead blinds(1.5BB), which comes out to 40% equity needed.
That’s nearly 8% more equity needed to continue. Couple that with the fact that most live players 3-bet with only the strongest hands and it becomes clear why flatting these spots can be so troublesome.
A good strategy to use against these extremely large 3-bets is to fold all but your very strong hands, and 4-bet only your strongest ones. Also, if you observe a player making the mistake of calling large 3-bets too often, you should consider exploiting that player by implementing the large 3-bet into your game.
Preflop Mistake #11: Having No Plan
The culmination of all these mistakes is that players have a loosely constructed plan, or a not clear idea of what to do preflop at all. The best way to play strong winning poker is to work out preflop strategy ahead of time. Before heading into your next session, make sure you have at least somewhat of an answer for these common preflop spots:
- What hands will you open-raise when it is folded to you from each position?
- What hands will you raise vs limp?
- What will be your continue range when a player in front of you raises?
- Once you open-raise, how will you respond to 3-bets from each position.
Thinking about the potential weaknesses of your preflop strategy and working them out ahead of time will give you a big leg up on the competition.
Preflop Mistake #12: Making a Play for the Sake of “Mixing it up”
Arbitrarily “mixing up” your play is an even worse preflop mistake than having no plan. I see many players do this, and they are often punished later in the hand for their silly preflop decision.
Adjustments are important. We strive to remain balanced while occasionally varying our game to exploit an opponent’s tendencies. We do these things with purpose. We never just call [AA] preflop to mix up our play. You may successfully deceive players who do not expect you to do flat Aces preflop, but that doesn’t make the play good.
What it comes down to is the math. Even though you may trick some players, you aren’t making up for the value you would extract should you simply 3-bet. You make so much money by re-raising [AA] preflop that it is just nearly impossible to recoup that value through deception of flatting.
If we decide to mix up our play it will be because we have considered the options presented to us. We should never make a play just for the sake of doing weird stuff.
12 Common Preflop Pitfalls
It is important to make sure that your preflop game is free from mistakes, as having a solid strategy here will set you up for more favorable opportunities postflop. Below is a quick reminder of all 12 preflop mistakes we just discussed and how to resolve them:
- Limping – Avoid open-limping and raise instead!
- Lacking positional awareness – Always consider the ways in which your opponent’s position impacts their range.
- Playing too passively against raises – Develop a well thought out 3-bet range and be careful not to flat too many opens.
- Playing too tight in the big blind – Take advantage of your great pot odds and see a flop. You just might hit it!
- Raising too wide (or not enough) on the button – Aim to open between 40% and 70% of hands depending on the tendencies of the players in the blinds.
- Playing too tight from the small blind when the action folds to you – Raise a fair number of hands and steal that dead money.
- Not flatting often enough from the button – Take advantage of your position and call with a wide but playable range.
- Regularly flatting opens from the small blind – Punish openers, deny the big blind a cheap flop and prevent squeezes by 3-betting most of your continue range from the small blind.
- Overvaluing offsuit broadway hands – Approach hands like KJo and QJo with caution. Consider how likely it is you are dominated/easily beaten before continuing.
- Calling extremely large 3-bets – Fold all but your strong hands and 4-bet with only your strongest holdings.
- Having no plan – Fix this by thinking through your preflop strategy before your sessions.
- Arbitrarily mixing it up – Always have a have a specific purpose for each play.
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