MTTs are constantly evolving. New trends emerge, old tricks stop working as the fields learn to adjust, and so on.
But while cash games and sit-and-goes are getting closer and closer to being solved by software and the like, MTTs remain the only format where exploitative play is where the money is.
Sure, MTTs have gotten tougher over the years too. When I started my MTT career around 8 years ago, you didn’t really need any sort of technical expertise because everyone had such glaring leaks to take advantage of. Nowadays the fields are more solid, but they also play very generically. Whenever a new trend emerges, all the regs follow it blindly until something new pops up.
This is where the money is nowadays. You may never get six idiots playing 80% of hands at your table, but you’ll get six generic regulars who all play identical. And boy, is that exploitable.
This article is going to be about open-raise sizing in MTTs — a topic not typically associated with exploitative play, but bare with me. Here are my two goals for your next 10 minutes:
- Teach you everything you need to know about open-raising in MTTs – not just the what, but also the why
- Convince you to think — for an extra moment or two — every time before clicking the raise button
When I’m about to open, I use that extra moment or two to ask myself a question:
How can I exploit my opponents with my open-raise sizings?
I recommend you consider this question throughout this article. By the end, you’ll be able to answer.
Open-Raising in Cash Games vs Tournaments
Let’s start with the basic differences between open-raising in cash games and MTTs.
In MTTs, open-raising small and often is usually best because of the shorter stacks and extra dead money in the pot. In cash games, the deep stacks call for bigger open-raise sizes.
Raising ranges don’t vary much in cash games because the playing conditions are static — there’s no bubble, ICM or final table and the stack sizes are usually around 100 big blinds. Loosening your hijack opening range by just 5 percent would be a relatively large adjustment for a cash game.
In MTTs, however, there are situations that warrant open-folding 6-6, and others that warrant open-raising 7-2o. This is a result of the MTT-specific factors listed above.
In cash games, open-raises of around 3x are common because of the deeper stack-to-pot ratio. (This is also the case in the early levels of an MTT when stacks are 100+ big blinds and there are no antes.) When the stacks get shallower, however, small raise sizes are used to leave more room for post-flop maneuvering.
If your competition is particularly weak, min-raising is a fine opening strategy, but you should be ready to size-up at tough tables. This is because min-raises are easy to exploit at most stack depths, especially by the big blind — there are very few hands they should fold getting around 4-to-1.
I wrote an extensive article series about defending the big blind in MTTs (see: The Ultimate Guide to Big Blind Defense). But for this article’s purposes, let’s circle back to that and discuss why the “raise small and often, especially in late position” strategy still often works like a charm.
(Note: Learn and master No Limit Hold’em the right way — from A-to-Z — in The Upswing Poker Lab. Click here or below to learn more.)
The Math Behind Open-Raising in MTTs
Raising small and often from late position is still often times profitable because it only has to work about half of the time.
Consider: You’re in late position trying to make an automatic profit by raising any two cards. You’re not interested in any kind of post-flop play. In fact, you will open-fold every single flop, even if you hit quads.
In order for this absurd strategy to win a pot, all of the remaining players will have to fold to your open-raise. Believe it or not, such a result is relatively likely because of the antes in play — usually totaling ~1 more big blind. Thus, there’s always ~2.5BB in the pot waiting for someone to collect it. I would strongly recommend memorizing the following (or write it on a post-it note and glue it to your screen).
How often does a button open have to work to return an immediate profit?
- Open to 2BB: 44%
- Open to 2.25BB: 47%
- Open to 2.5BB: 50%
- Open to 3BB: 55%
(These numbers assume the antes add up to exactly 1BB. They may vary slightly depending on the structure and amount of players at the table.)
So, let’s say it folds around to you on the button and you plan on opening to 2BB. The small blind’s strategy will vary – some play a fold or 3-bet only strategy, some flat way too many hands – but as a broad generalization you should expect them to play back with roughly 15% of hands. That means the big blind needs to defend (either by flatting or 3-betting) with at least 48.2% of hands to stop you from automatically profiting by raising with napkins on the button.
This is what a 48.2% range looks like:
Most good players defend more than this, and some mediocre players fall a little short. (If I had to take a wild guess about the entire MTT population’s frequency in this spot, I’d say that they probably defend somewhat close to the 41%.)
This isn’t necessarily bad news — you just can’t raise any two cards and make automatic profit without seeing a flop. You can, however, still profitably raise a wide range of hands.
Understanding how auto-profit math works is an asset for an MTT player. Next time you find yourself in late position against insanely tight players, you should have a pretty good idea on how wide you can raise.
Modern Big Blind Defense is a Wrench in the Gears
Now, let’s look at the same math from the big blind’s perspective.
This is the raw equity the big blind needs in order to defend:
- vs 2BB: 18%
- vs 2.25BB: 22%
- vs 2.5BB: 25%
- vs 3BB: 31%
In other words; when facing 2-2.5x raises, the big blind can profitably defend a wide range of hands. This is explained in more depth in my big blind defense article, but it’s important to have a decent grasp on what kind of numbers we’re looking at.
The big blind’s fantastic price to call is where the fault line appears in our “raise small and often” strategy. When the big blind is a nit, sure, go ahead and attack their blinds relentlessly. Against a competent big blind, however, raising super-wide will lead to many tough post-flop pots in which your range is relatively weak. And that’s going to be very expensive.
Adjusting to Loose Big Blind Defenders
In the 2017 MTT climate, any regular worth their salt is defending their big blind north of 40-50 percent (Doug Polk defends like 90). And rightfully so – if you need 18% raw equity against a min-raise, surely you shouldn’t be folding very much.
There is a simple adjustment you can make against these guys:
Raise to a larger size in late position when the big blind is a loose player.
The conventional wisdom used to advocate the opposite — smaller sizes in late position — but trust me, such advice is outdated.
You can still use a small open size from early position because your range is much tighter, and thus protected. It’s not a disaster when the big blind flats your UTG+1 open with an absurdly wide range. In fact, they’ll likely find themselves in a lot of tough spots.
For example: If you raise in early-mid position with a range like this…:
…most flops are going to be somewhat easy to play. You’re going to have a range advantage on most textures due to the abundance of strong hands in your range. Plus, you will be presented with many good barreling spots against the relatively weak range of your opponent.
Next, consider raising the button with this range:
It will not be easy to play this range against a big blind defender. Anything but a brick runout — like A-2-2 — that doesn’t hit you hard is going to be quite a challenge.
It won’t always be clear which player has a range advantage on which board, and you’re going to end up in a lot of hairy situations since you’re no longer protected by a strong range. Sharp opponents can check-raise and float you relentlessly if you’re playing too straightforwardly.
The author of this article has no problem admitting that I, too, often have no idea how to play 8-4s or J-7o when I have bottom pair and face a check-raise. It’s tough. But it doesn’t have to be all that tough.
(Note: Improve your poker skills — in cash games and tournaments — and make more money with The Lab! Click here or below for more details.)
Let’s go back to that auto-profit example for a second. Here is how often we needed the big blind to fold to make a profit raising any two on the button:
- Open to 2BB: 44%
- Open to 2.25BB: 47%
- Open to 2.5BB: 50%
- Open to 3BB: 55%
If you raise to 2.5BB instead of 2BB, your open only has to get through an extra 6% of the time — a solid regular in the big blind would probably fold at least that much more often.
Consider: When you’re in the big blind and face a 3x raise from another regular on the button, are you going to be cautious and fold speculative hands? (You should.)
Switching your open size from 2BB to 2.5-3BB is an effective way to make your opponents play back at you a lot less. Most players learned how to defend the big blind against min-raises somewhat recently, and it took us about eight years to get there. You’d be hard-pressed to find a player who’s capable of playing back at 3BB raises at the correct frequency, because few people are used to facing such raise sizes.
Yet the difference between these minimum defense frequencies isn’t large at all – you just need to make them fold slightly more. Yet as I write this, most players fold WAY more to 2.5x/3x opens as opposed to min-raises.
Using a larger size also deters the small blind from messing with your opens. They too will play back at you less often – usually less than the 15% we assumed – which makes those opens even more profitable.
When you think about the evolution of the game, it’s logical to think we’re headed towards larger late position raise sizings as a standard. (I’d bet my entire bankroll at even odds that within two years the standard button raise sizing will be at least 2.5x.)
I almost regret writing this article already, because this simple adjustment has pretty much doubled my win-rate over the last six months. At the same time I feel almost embarrassed about not upping my sizings even sooner.
If you watch a training video on any of the big training sites, it’s very uncommon to see an instructor pay much attention to their raising size. They just click the min-raise or whatever sizing they’re used to using, and move on to what happens next. This is perfectly understandable from a video-making perspective, but it’s also dangerous to just mimic their sizings without thinking why that specific sizing may or may not be optimal.
These are the open-raise sizes I usually use by position:
- Early to middle position: ~2,25x. My range is strong, so it needs less protection.
- CO and BTN: 2.5-3x. Depending on stack sizes, the shallower we are the bigger I generally go.
- SB: 3-3.5x. My range is even wider, but I really want to discourage those flats since I am out of position.
…but please don’t just copy that blindly. Instead, when you’re in a spot, THINK.
If both blinds are huge nits, stick with the min-raise and steal that dead money. If the big blind only has 8 big blinds and he’s read our How to Combat Steals with a Tiny Stack article, try a full 3x with your entire opening range to prevent him from realizing his equity.
It always depends, but the above is a solid start.
Bonus Tip: 3-Bet from the Big Blind Often
3-betting from the big blind against late position opens from regulars works incredibly well in today’s games.
Most generic, robot-like MTT grinders have learned the pot odds of defending the big blind, but not how to 3-bet from the big blind. When you see a player flat hands like 8-5o and J-2s, it’s hard to imagine what non-value hands they will 3-bet.
Over the last six months or so, I’ve pumped up my big blind 3-bet percentage against late position opens to almost 20%. Many of the hands I 3-bet would be profitable flats — just not that profitable.
When I flat a hand like K-2s or 5-3s, I rarely win the pot without hitting a pair or a flush draw. But using hands like these as 3-bet bluffs works well because your opponents expect you to flat with them.
It won’t be like this forever, but I suspect flatting a little bit less and 3-betting a little bit more will be a profitable little adjustment well into 2018. Be careful not to go overboard. Choose a few hands that are marginally profitable flats and shift them over to your 3-betting range instead.
As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments box below or on Twitter @chuckbasspoker.
P.S. Would anyone be interested in an entire article on the post-flop barreling spots vs big blind defenders that we touched on here?
Read more from Miikka and UpswingPoker:
- Miikka breaks down 7 Tournament Tips for Running Deep More Often
- Ryan Fee explains the best approach for open-raising in cash games in Explained: My Unexploitable Preflop Opening Strategy
- Make a smooth transition to the live realm with Miikka’s How to Crush Live Tournaments as an Online Player
- Go back to the top of this tournament opening raise article