Now that we’ve laid out a foundation when it comes to the importance of position, let’s break down how, why, and when to make a pre-flop raise.
Let’s assume we’re at a nine-handed table of no-limit hold’em. Three players fold and you look down at [As][Qh] in middle position. No doubt about it, this is a hand worthy of an opening raise. When you are the first player to enter the pot you should almost always come in with a raise. Not only does it give you control of the hand, but it forces your opponents to react to you, and in turn, define their starting hand a bit.
The next question to ask is, “How much should I raise?” Conventional wisdom puts the proper pre-flop raise size somewhere in the neighborhood of three times the big blind. However, depending on the dynamics at your table, that may be too little or too much.
A well-sized pre-flop raise will thin the field by forcing most players to fold, while encouraging one or maybe two players to call. In other words, you want to reduce the number of opponents post-flop, while maintaining some action. With a hand like [As][Qh], you would not mind one caller, but you want to avoid having three, four or more callers. Against one opponent, the Ace-Queen is a favorite a majority of the time, but against multiple opponents, its percentage to win shrinks up dramatically.
Let’s look at the [As][Qh] hand in a few pre-flop matchups:
[As][Qh] vs [Kc][Jc]: The Ace-Queen is a 58.6% favorite over the King-Jack
[As][Qh] vs. [Kc][Jc] vs [7h][8h]: Now, with three hands in the mix, the Ace-Queen is only 36.8% to win. The King-Jack has actually improved to 35.1%. The Seven-Eight suited, remarkably, has 28.1% equity pre-flop.
[As][Qh] vs. [Kc][Jc] vs. [3h][3d]: Throw in a small pair and now, believe it or not, the King-Jack is actually the favorite to win at 35.3%. The Ace-Queen’s percentage to win has dropped to 33.8%; meanwhile, the pocket pair of Threes has a 30.8% shot.
Even pocket aces lose equity when they go up against more than one hand:
[As][Ah] vs. [Kc][Qd]: The Aces are an 86.3% favorite to win.
[As][Ah] vs. [Kc][Qd] vs. [9h][Th]: Adding in a third opponent, the Aces drop to a 68.3% favorite. The King-Queen is in the worst shape with 11.6% equity, while the Nine-Ten is 20% to win.
So how do you know the right amount? Observe your opponents. After joining a game, sit back for a few hands and watch. How much of a raise is getting the job done? Is three times the big blind enough to get a pot heads-up or is it inviting in multiple callers? Are bets sized at four times the big blind causing everyone fold? In a mobile or online game pre-flop raise sizes will typically fall on the lower end of the 2.5 to 5 big blind range and in a live game it will trend a bit higher.
While it’s always nice to be the first one in the pot, it will not always be the case. Especially in low-limit games or at a table of beginners, a few players may have already limped in when the action comes around to you. Your best move here depends a lot on the type of hand you are holding.
With hands like suited connectors and small suited Aces, it’s perfectly fine to limp in behind and see a cheap flop, especially if you are in late position or the blinds. Suited connectors and suited Aces play well in multi-way pots due to their ability to make straights and flushes. Picking up that big draw requires the right kind of flop, though, so it is wise to get in for the minimum. If you call from the button with [6d][7d] behind three limpers and the flop falls [As][Js][9h], there is no reason to put another chip into the pot. But if the flop is something like [Jd][4d][3h], you are in business and could win a huge pot if you hit your draw.
But what if you pick up a premium hand behind a few limpers. What is the play now? Remember, no matter how amazing your starting hand looks, it is always best to thin the field. Let’s say two players limp in and you look down at [As][Ks] in the cutoff. Limping in behind would be a terrible choice here, because it gathers no information. After you limp from the cutoff, you may see limps from the button, a call from the small blind, and a check from the big blind. In that scenario, what do you know about your opponents’ holdings? Absolutely nothing, and you are facing five opponents. How do you like your Ace-King suited now? Rather than limp, this is a perfect spot for an isolation raise—a slightly larger-than-normal raise designed to either win the pot right away, or get to the flop heads-up by scaring away most of your opponents.
When making an isolation raise, I like to take my standard raise for that particular table and add one big blind to it for each player that has already limped into the pot. In this case, if I typically opened for 2.5 times the big blind, I would increase it to 4.5 times the big blind with the [As][Ks]. Now there is not only pressure on the button and the blinds, who are still left to act, but the players who limped in will be forced to define their hands a bit. Ace-rag might give up here, but pairs, other big aces, and higher suited connectors are likely to call. By making an isolation raise, you are not only increasing your own equity in the pot by forcing worse hands to fold; you are also able to narrow the range of hands that the callers may have as you go to the flop.
Of course, there’s another scenario to consider—what if someone has already raised and you look down at a playable hand? Or what if there has already been a raise and a call? Stay tuned for Part 4, where we’ll cover how to react to an opponent’s pre-flop raise, a little something called the “gap concept” and spots where a reraise (or “three-bet”) could be the best move.