Cardsharp Mailbag: Raising Preflop To Guarantee Position

No Limit Texas Holdem, Reader Questions

January 9, 2009

I try to answer reader questions as they come in, but for the last few months I’ve been really bad about it.  Hopefully over the next week or so I’ll be able to fix that and clear out the backlog.  Here goes!

Hi Wayne,

I found your site the other day and thanks, it has been very thought
provoking. I will be employing some of the insights I gathered to my game.

It would be great to hear your thoughts on the concept of “buying the
button”, eg raising in whole or part out of position to get position,
particularly pre-flop. Given the increase in EV that having position
entails, there would seem to be a method for valuing this benefit, in terms
of the bet/raise you should be willing to make to obtain, and whereby the
inputs to this valuation would obviously include absolute position (relative
to the cut-off). But what other inputs are specific to this valuation?
What would the formula be? An interesting concept that has not yet been
explored very rigorously, from what I have seen.

Cheers, Todd

This is an interesting question, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it before responding.  The short answer is that I don’t have the type of formula he’s looking for, and indeed I’m not sure anyone does.

The long answer is that I think this is sort of the wrong question. Or perhaps it’s one that views the situation in the wrong way.  In either case, I think an explanation of the role of the preflop raise is in order, both from the perspective of the raiser and from the perspective of a would-be caller.

The goal of any gambling activity is to get into situations where you make positive expectation wagers, and avoid situations where you make negative expectation ones.  Poker is no different.  NL holdem, however, is somewhat of an unusual game because of the small size of the blinds in a typical structure.  What this means is that when two players enter the pot for a raised bet, they’re putting in almost all the money in the pot themselves, or in other words there’s very little overlay from outside sources.  And as we know, money is conserved.  As a result when two players play preflop in a raised pot, it’s almost always true that one of them has a positive expectation, and one of them has a negative expectation.  This is in stark contrast to many limit games, where it’s easy for both players to be in a positive expectation situations because of blind/ante money.

So we have a situation where almost every time there’s action in a no limit holdem game, someone’s getting the best of it and someone’s getting the worst of it.  Or put another way, when to people enter the pot most likely someone’s making a mistake.  This is why you will sometimes see comments from knowledgable NL players about it being an actionless game (at least without antes) – as fewer mistakes are made, there’s less action.

The goal obviously is to as often as possible be the guy on the good side of the equation.  And in order to do that, you need to understand where the edges come from in no limit holdem.  Fundamentally I believe there are three edges worth thinking about preflop:

  • better cards
  • position
  • being a better postflop player

The nature and size of these edges is not the same.  better cards really come in three categories – dominating cards, cards that aren’t necessarily dominating but that play well because they made a lot of big hands, and junk.  The first category represents pretty much big pairs and AK under typical circumstances.  The second category contains all the other cards I recommended playing in the original preflop article.  The last category contains trashy hands like Q7o.  As far as the size of edges they provide, playing dominating cards is probably the biggest preflop edge you can have in holdem – if you have AA and your opponent has K9o and you’re playing for a raise, things look good for you regardless of position and to some degree regardless of relative skill.

However, only a small number of hands give you this strong card-based advantage over your opponent.  For example, say you held a 8h7h out of position against a Kc9d and the hand was played for a raise.  You have cards that play better, yes, but they’re unlikely to overcome the positional disadvantage.  The K9 is actually probably going to make money here on average.  Your hand just isn’t good enough to overcome the positional advantage.   This leads us to a list of the possible edges, in order of size (biggest first):

  1. dominating cards
  2. position
  3. postflop skill
  4. minor differences in card quality (ie. good hands that aren’t dominating vs. trash)

Now the later positions of this list aren’t set in stone and there is some interaction between them.  If someone were a truly horrible postflop player, they might not be able to use position effectively, for example.  But I believe in a typical mid limit or higher game this is the order of the edges.

What does this imply for postflop strategy?  Simple: if you knew your opponent had cards that didn’t dominate you, you should play behind them in postition with any two cards when they enter the pot for a raise.  That may seem shocking, but remember there’s an assertion here that’s contrary to fact.  In reality when your opponents raise you don’t know if they might hold dominating cards.

Let’s turn this around another way, and ask why raising preflop causes your opponents to fold (and thus give you position against any previous limpers or the blinds).  The reason is because you are threatening them with the posibility of one of those monster hands.  If they knew you didn’t have one of those, they’d be eager to play behind you with a much wider range (although they’d still probably avoid total junk as it’s often easily dominated even by fairly random hands).  So the key to any preflop raising strategy is to plausibly threaten your opponents with a big hand.  In order to do that, you need to raise with a mix of big and small hands that contains enough big hands that they can’t discount the possibility you may hold one of the monsters. This goes back to why I said Todd was asking the wrong question.  Because it’s not a matter of your expectation on this hand from raising vs. not, but rather the expectation from raising the full assortment of hands you might play in a given situation.

As your position improves, the ratio between dominating hands and merely hands that play well in your range changes.  When you raise up front, you have to face a lot of people behind you.  Some of those people will have hands that play pretty well, so you need a range with lots of dominating hands to put them to a difficult decision about whether to play.  In later position, there are fewer people behind you and it’s more likely that none of them holds anything but junk.  In that situation you don’t need as credible a threat and can raise a wider range.  By the time you get to the button, that range is quite wide and includes a lot of ‘junk’ hands if it’s just you and the blinds.

I don’t know if this really answers the original question.  But I wanted to get everyone in the right frame of mind about how preflop strategy works.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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