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Renton’s Small Stakes NLHE Ring Strategy: Preflop

Introduction

After reading through the latest gut wrenching 19 hands chart thread, I am going to try an experiment. We don’t have enough people writing interesting and informative articles around here anymore. The stickies are becoming stale and outdated. I commend aok for being one of the only ones who continues to write articles for us, regardless of if he only does it to market his site, placate his ego, and generate affiliate money, whatever. Those details don’t interest me.

What does interest me is the fact that he and his supporters (I guess ‘disciples’ becoming passé and a little insulting so I’ll change it up) are arguing that the 19 hand strategy is meant only for beginners so they can play as simple a game as possible, and that it is only an effective strategy in loose and passive games.

I believe all this is true. It is a good idea for beginners to learn a simple strategy. HOWEVER, I think that most people who are intelligent enough to find FTR are also intelligent enough to learn how to play straight-up, tight-aggressive, positionally-aware poker. I also don’t believe novices of poker are too dumb to make simple adaptations to their game based upon specific table conditions.

This article is a compilation of the concepts I have gotten beaten into me in the last 120k hands I have played since I started playing NLHE ring seriously about 4 months ago. I don’t presume to be a shark. I do, however, presume to be a strong player and am a lifetime winning player. [brag] I have made $12,000 in the past four months (120k hands) of full ring NL on Party Poker, for an average winrate of 4.0ptbb/100. [/brag]

There are tons of people here better than me, and I hope they eat this article alive. More than to help others (and myself) with information, I hope this article becomes a catalyst for other good players to add more content to FTR. I think FTR is an infinitely better forum than Two Plus Two, but one of the aspects of 2P2 that has us beat hands down is their awesome pooh-bah posts. I was having a conversation with a banned FTR member recently about this, and he and I agreed that this was the weakest point of the FTR forum.

Wow, this post is long already and I haven’t even started. Little disclaimer, this post is referring to a 9 or 10 man full ring game, at stakes ranging from 25nl to 200nl (my sphere of expertise begins and ends there and there respectively).

Table Selection

I don’t have much to say about this because I don’t really exercise it. I find it far more convenient, challenging, and fun to simply play at any table and tailor my play to the table texture. Obviously it might be necessary to stay away from the sharks, but at a 10 man table I just don’t see the need to look specifically for fish. I typically just go to the biggest pot-size tables whenever I play.

Preflop Strategy

Preflop strategy should not be unvarying. What you do with two given cards should change dramatically based on stack size, how tight/loose the game is, importantly the position of players who have already acted, and even more importantly, our position at the table. Position is hugely important, even if you are playing against people who are so bad that they don’t respect it. It’s usually more important than your cards. It becomes of utmost importance as stacks get deeper, and as our opponents get stronger.

This isn’t to say that position is important at 1000nl where the play is tough, but unimportant at 25nl where the play sucks. It’s just that the value of winning pots on bluffs and semi-bluffs in position becomes greater as stakes get higher.

Position is a good player’s most important criterion in deciding to play a hand. Here’s my basic strategy. I will break this down twice, once for loose games and once for tighter games. A ‘loose game’ is the AOK 19 hands playing criterion: average table VPIP (voluntary put money into pot preflop) of more than 30% and generally passive play. A ‘tight game’ is avg. VPIP of 20% or so and generally aggressive play. If you play at a big site like Party Poker during peak hours on the weekends, the games will be loose. If you play on the weekday afternoons or at a small site with poor table selection, the games will likely be tight.

When I say raise preflop, I mean a specific amount. At microstakes (10nl/25nl/50nl) I raise to 4x the big blind plus one bb for each limper, and at higher stakes, 3.5bb + 1bb for each limper. You have to raise like a man or you will get in too many multiway pots, which aren’t as profitable under most conditions. When I say reraise preflop, I mean raise 3 to 4 times the original raise. If there is a raise and a caller and you reraise, then it’s usually necessary to raise 4 or more times the raise. No matter how good your hand is preflop, a heads up pot is the most desirable.

Starting hand strategy for loose games, based on position

UTG (1st to act preflop) – I typically raise pocket pairs 99 and up. Some people limp 99 and TT under the gun, I don’t. I think in loose games they have way too much value as overpairs. In order for a pocket pair unimproved to win a pot, you need to isolate one or two players with a raise. As far as unpaired cards go, I like raising AJs+, AQo+, and KQs. If you limp these hands you will have to play a one pair hand out of position in a multiway pot, which is not too fun to do, and not too profitable either. You can limp the other pocket pairs 88 and lower in a loose fishy game. Fold all other hands. As you become a stronger player, limping big suited connectors and suited aces becomes profitable, but they’ll only add to your variance and frustration if you play them as a novice.

MP (2-5th to act preflop) – Raise 99+, AJs+, AQo+, KQs like UTG but add a few more hands. As the chance that you will have position after the flop increases (as you get closer to the button), it becomes more profitable to add in KQo and AJo, and in 5th position I would probably even raise KJs and ATs. Limp all the other pairs. If there is a raise in front from a standard player (for our purposes from now on a “standard player” raises 10% of his hands and has a vpip of 20%), just call with AQs, 99, TT, and JJ, and muck AJ, AQ, and KQ and call with all other pairs. When you are second or third to act with AA, KK, QQ, or AK you should almost always reraise to isolate. The last thing you want is to call his raise and then have three callers behind you. A five way pot with AA sucks, and it is the reason most people get stacked with AA too much.

LP (Cutoff position and cutoff plus one) – Raise all the above mentioned raising hands, regardless of how many people limped. Try to build a pot in position with a strong hand. In the second to last two positions I usually also raise ATo, A8s+, KJo+, and KTs after limpers. Unless they are super passive and limping in middle to early position with dominating hands like AK and KQ, these hands figure to be a favorite against them, and combined with your positional advantage your expected value will be high. These positions are also where you can make use of suited connectors and weak suited aces. Limp behind limpers with suited connectors 54s+ 86s+, T7s+ and all suited aces. Don’t get trapped with these hands after the flop, look for two pair or better before you commit a lot of chips. Only call raises with the hands I outlined to do so in MP. With monster hands AA/KK/QQ it is ok to just call if you are fairly sure that the pot will be heads up after the flop. If you can’t be too sure, then you should still reraise to isolate. AK is an always reraise hand for me. It’s only dominated by two hands, but it loses value if you don’t get a lot of money in preflop.

Button (last to act) – The button is obviously where your hand range should be at its widest. You should be playing 2 to 3 times as many hands from the button than from under the gun. If the pot is limped to you, limp behind with any hand with potential: 43s+, 54o+, 64s+, 97o+, 85s+, all suited aces, all suited kings. Your raise-calling range, raising range, and reraising range should be similar to LP and MP.

There’s one more thing I’d like to touch on: stealing the blinds. In the last two or three positions at a full table, if you are folded to, you should be stealing the blinds with any reasonable hand. If I am folded to in late position I will raise A8o+, A2s+, KTo+, K8s+, 98s+, J9s+, JTo+ and all pairs for the sole purposes of stealing the blinds or taking down the pot on the flop with a continuation bet. Your positional advantage is so large that even if you opponents have a better hand than you, you will still get the best of it whether he calls you or not.

Small blind – Be very wary of playing too many hands from the small blind. Sure it’s only half a bet sometimes, but it’s the worst position at the table to play at. If it’s limped to you, complete the small blind with a reasonable drawing hand, like suited connectors and suited aces and kings. Fold weak offsuit hands like A8 and T7. Your raising range should also be smaller out of the blinds. In a limped pot I will usually raise AK and JJ+ and simply limp the other big broadways and pairs. In a raised pot I will usually call with all pairs, reraise QQ+ and AK and pitch all the other hands. If the raiser is in late position and he is loose I will usually call with suited broadways and reraise with AQ+, AJs+, and TT+. I will add in even more hands if the player seems to be stealing the blinds too much. If you are folded too in the small blind raise any reasonable hand like A9+, KT+, QJ and all pairs. Avoid limping when folded to. Many BB’s will simply raise you with any two cards if you do.

Big blind – Your raise-calling range and reraising range should be similar to the SB. The only big blind difference is in blind vs. blind confrontations. In it important to remember that you will have position after the flop. You should punish the small blind for limping in whenever you have a reasonable hand, and you should call him with a wider range than you would call most raises. Most people raise a wider range from the small blind (when folded to) than they would in other positions, and your range should open up accordingly. See a flop with them in position and destroy them.

Starting hand strategy for tight games

I think it’s important, even for novices, to be able to adjust to tight or loose games. My preflop strategy in a tight game is not much different from a loose game except for a few factors:

-I open (raise first in) with all pocket pairs in all positions. As games get tighter, the ability to take away the pot on the flop with a continuation bet becomes greater. Also, if you elevate the stakes with a small pocket pair by raising preflop, you’ll have a much easier time getting all in with it after the flop, even if you are out of position when you hit your set.

-I steal the blinds more, with even weaker hands than I mentioned before.

-I reraise more preflop, with weaker hands like JJ, AQ, AJs and sometimes with total air. As games get tighter, unimproved AA and KK make less money, so the need to represent them becomes greater.

Preflop adaptations that must occur

Implied odds – Implied odds are the most important thing in NL cash games other than position, so much so that many of your preflop decisions hinge directly on them. When calling a raise with a hand that is very likely to be dominated, you have to analyze your implied odds, which are layman’s terms for “If I call this raise, will I get paid off BIG when I hit?”

When you call a raise with 22, you are likely dominated. In fact, you actually should HOPE you are dominated by a hand like AA because if you call AA’s raise and the flop comes T 8 2 rainbow, you are almost assuredly going to win his stack. And this is where implied odds calculation comes in. When deciding whether to call a raise with a small pair from a player very likely to have you dominated with a better pair, the effective stack left over when you call must be at LEAST 15 times the amount of the raise to be called. The “effective stack” is the smallest stack that is participating in the pot. If the raiser with AA has 200 dollars, and you have 175 dollars, then the effective stack is 175 dollars. If you call a 7 dollar raise with pocket deuces from a player that has 50 dollars in his stack, you will lose a lot of money in the long run because you won’t get paid off well enough when you hit. Implied preflop odds also applied to calling raises with weak unpaired hands, and in that case your odds should be decidedly better, at least 20 to 25 times the size of the bet to be called.

If you are playing in a game where the stacks are mostly short, hands that require implied odds, such as small pairs and suited connectors, will lose most of their value. In short games you should just try to make top pair and a strong kicker and get all in on the flop.

If you are very deepstacked in a game (more than 200bb) then be very unwilling to play big unpaired unsuited cards against other big stacks. The only hands worth getting in deep within deepstack poker are hands that depend on the implied odds offered by deepstack confrontations. Instead call their raises with suited connectors and small pairs and try to win a 400bb pot!

Adjusting to specific players – Your calling range and raising range after certain players have acted should differ depending on the player.

If an ultratight player who almost never raises comes in for a raise UTG, I am mucking AQ, KQ, and even AK without thinking twice. I will, however, be calling his raise with pairs and suited connectors if the stacks are deep. If you flop big you will stack this player every time.

If an ultraloose player who raises way too much raises and I have position, I will call him with any reasonable top pair making hand like QJ or QK and just look for him to bluff all his chips at me when I make top pair vs. his complete bluff. I will also reraise this player from the blinds a lot if I think he is aware enough to lay down hands.

If an ultrapassive player who never raises limps in early position, be less willing to raise him with dominated hands like KT, because these players often limp even hands as strong as AK. These are just a drop in the water of examples that you must adjust to.

Only steal the blinds if they can BE stolen – If there are loose and passive players in the blinds, don’t bother. But on the contrary, if there are tight players in the blinds, open with any two half-decent cards in late position. Your raise with any two cards will show positive expectation.

Well this is already a super long post so I will end it here. Hopefully I or someone better will add an appendage to the article that outlines common postflop situations and decisions. Playing positionally aware poker requires that you play well after the flop, which is where a novice will struggle, learn, and eventually carve out the most edge on his opponents.

gl,

renton

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