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Optimal 3-bet/4-bet/5-bet strategies in NLHE 6-max – Part 1

1.1 Presenting the problem

Against weak low limit opposition, we can get away with playing an almost completely value-based game. We 3-bet/4-bet/5-bet mainly for value, and it’s not a big mistake to assume our opponents are doing the same. If we reraise as a bluff, we usually limit ourselves to the occasional 3-bet bluff. A value-based style with little bluffing works well at small stakes because our opponents use more or less the same strategy, and many of them execute it poorly. Of course, every now and then we run into aggressive players who are capable of reraising as a bluff, but there are plenty of fish that will pay off our straightforward game, even if we bluff much less than is game theoretically optimal.

But let’s say our Hero has built a bankroll by patiently grinding the low limits, and now he wants to take a stab at $200NL. He will now experience a lot more 3-betting, especially if he’s out of position.

For example:

Example 1.1.1: We get 3-bet out of position

$200NL
6-handed

Hero ($200) raises to $7 with J T from UTG, it’s folded to the button ($200) who 3-bets to $24, the blinds fold, and Hero folds.

Straightforward, and although Hero expects to get bluffed some of the time, he really doesn’t have any choice but to fold. It’s correct that his hand can no longer be played for value, but as we shall see later, it’s possible to turn it into a 4-bet bluff.

At any rate, Hero plays on. The players behind him keep 3-betting him frequently when he is out of position, and Hero keeps folding weak hands to 3-bets. After a while, this hand occurs:

Example 1.1.2: We get 3-bet out of position (again)

$200NL
6-handed

Hero ($200) raises to $7 with A J in MP, it’s folded to button ($200) who 3-bets to $24, the blinds fold, and Hero folds.

This is getting frustrating. Hero has a decent hand, but it’s not strong enough to defend against a 3-bet from out of position, so Hero folds. But he is starting to feel exploited. If only he could get dealt a good hand and punish these bastards!

What an inexperienced player now might do (as his frustration builds up more and more), is to make up his mind to fight back against the loose 3-bettors. But he doesn’t quite know what to do, and therefore he will often use poor strategies, and the wrong types of hands!.

Let’s look at two common (and sub-optimal) ways to defend against 3-betting, out of position with 100 BB stacks:

Example 1.1.3: We get 3-bet out of position (again) and we call

$200NL
6-handed

Hero ($200) raises til $7 with K Q in MP, button ($200) 3-bets to $24. Hero thinks for a bit, decides that this hand is too good to fold, but too weak to 4-bet, so he calls.

Flop: 944 ($51)
Hero ($176) checks, button ($176) bets $30, Hero folds.

Hero is frustrated, but he doesn’t see what else he could have done out of position with a hand of this type. Too strong to fold (at least in Hero’s mind) against a loose 3-bettor, but not strong enough to 4-bet. Or? Hmmmmm …. Hero contemplates his next move, and soon another 3-bet pot occurs:

Example 1.1.4: We get 3-bet out of position (again) and we 4-bet for value (or at least that’s what we think we are doing)

$200NL
6-handed

Hero ($200) raises to $7 with A J from UTG, MP ($200) 3-bets to $24. Hero decides to fight fire with fire, and he 4-bets pot to $75. Button 5-bets all-in, Hero calls. MP has K K . Hero screams in agony.

Flop: Q T 7 ($403)

Turn: Q T 7 Q ($403)

River: Q T 7 Q 4 ($403)

Hero tears his clothing and sprinkles ashes over his head. Damn!!

What happened throughout this sequence of hands?
OK, I made up this story, but it illustrates several of the problems an ABC low limit player faces when he moves up to tougher games. He will get 3-bet left and right, so he will have to fold a lot out of position (which is correct). He realizes he has to fight back to avoid getting run over (also correct), but he’s not quite sure how to do it. So his attempts to counter the aggression are often poorly executed, frustrating and tilt-inducing.

For example, Hero might start calling 3-bets out of position with hands he feels are too good to fold, but not strong enough to 4-bet for value. This leads to many miserable experiences like Example 1.3. Or he might start 4-betting medium/weak hands without a clear understanding of whether he is doing it for value (planning to call a 5-bet), or if he is bluffing (planning to fold to a 5-bet).

What our inexperienced Hero might not realize, is that his opponents’ loose 3-betting doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to splash around with lots of weak hands in 4-bet and 5-bet pots. When two good and aggressive NLHE-players engage in 3-bet/4-bet/5-bet warfare preflop, this is what usually happens:

Both players operate with wide ranges, and all ranges have a significant percentage of bluffs in them, especially at the early stage (raising and 3-betting)
Both players are willing to fold most of their bluffs (but not all of them), when their opponent reraises them back

This results in ranges that start loose, but get more and more (but never completely) weighted towards value. And it’s usually plain wrong to assume you can 4-bet a medium hand like AJs for value against a loose 3-bettor, and expect to be a favorite when he 5-bets all-in. Yes, AJs is a decent hand against the range that 3-bet you, but it’s crushed by the range that 5-bets you, and it’s your opponent who decides when the 5th bet goes in (and that rarely happens unless he has the goods).

Therefore, if you decide on a frustrated whim to “take a stand” against an aggressive and competent 3-bettor with a hand like AJs, you will discover that in some mysterious way he almost always manages to come up with a better hand when you get all-in preflop.

This has lead many an inexperienced NLHE player to lose his stack, since these players:

Don’t understand the roles different types of hands have in different types of ranges. First and foremost: Do I have a value hand that wants to get all-in, or do I have a bluff hand that I will fold to further aggression?
Aren’t willing to fold hands that are strong at the early stages, but turn into weak hands when Villain keeps reraising

Let’s look at Example 1.4 again. Hero open-raised AJs (correctly), and he got 3-bet. He then decided that his AJs was a good hand against Villain’s 3-bet range (debatable, but not a big mistake), so he 4-bet for value (wrong!), planning to call a 5-bet all-in. Playing AJs for value after a 3-bet and going all-in with it was a big mistake. The 4-bet in itself was not a big mistake, since Villain has a lot of bluffs in his 3-betting range, and he will fold most of them to a 4-bet. So it’s not a problem to 4-bet AJs as a bluff against a range full of 3-bet bluffs. But when Villain comes over the top with an all-in 5-bet, our AJs crumbles to dust (if Villain knows what he is doing).

But our inexperienced Hero did not realize what had just happened when he got 5-bet, and he stuck with his plan of playing AJs for value against what he perceived to be a wide and weak range. The problem is that the range he faces after a 5-bet from a competent player isn’t wide and weak, it’s very narrow and very strong.

Note what the real mistake was in this hand. 4-betting AJs against a wide range was not a big mistake in isolation, and neither was calling a 5-bet getting 2: 1. But the combination of 4-betting AJs + planning to always call a 5-bet, now that was a big mistake against a competent opponent. It caused Hero to invest his remaining 96.5bb stack as a huge underdog. The problem was, as mentioned previously, that his opponent controlled when the 5th bet went in, and Villain made sure he had a hand.

Our goal for this article is to give Hero a set of tools he can use to comfortably counter preflop aggression when he is sitting as the raiser out of position. We’ll base our work on Hero’s opening ranges, and based on these, we can deduce defensive strategies against positional 3-bets. And we will use game theory to design these strategies in such a way that the 3-bettor can not exploit Hero in these scenarios. Our work on Hero’s game theory optimal defensive strategies also gives us a set of optimal 3-betting strategies for his opponent, so we kill two birds with one stone.

We have here talked mostly about the ills of getting 3-bet when sitting out of position, and this is what I feel inexperienced players find hardest to deal with. But the mirror image of this scenario, with us being the 3-bettor in position, is also worth discussing. These are easier scenarios to play, but we will benefit a lot from understanding optimal 3-bet/4-bet/5-bet dynamics also from this perspective. We’ll learn how to construct optimal 3-betting ranges, based on the raiser’s opening range, and we’ll learn how to play against a 4-bet.

Regardless of whether we’re the raiser or the 3-bettor, we want to understand which hands we can (re)raise for value, and which hands we (re)raise as bluffs. And above all else, we want it to be 100% clear which of these two things we are doing before we engage in a 3-bet/4-bet/5-bet war preflop.

1.2 Our model and overall philosophy

In this article we’ll design so-called optimal strategy pairs for the raiser and the 3-bettor in the following scenario:

– The raiser opens some range
– A player behind him 3-bets
– The raiser 4-bets or folds
– The 3-bettor 5-bets, or folds to a 4-bet Continue reading Optimal 3-bet/4-bet/5-bet strategies in NLHE 6-max – Part 1