We’ve all been there.
You haven’t had a playable hand for a while, then you wake up with ace-ten off-suit (ATo) in the hijack position and it folds to you. You put in a raise, as you’re supposed to do.
But the button 3-bets (re-raises) you a bunch. Furthermore, it always seems like the person doing the 3-betting is one of the more respected (read “feared”) players at the table.
It’s miserable, isn’t it? If you had KK, you’d smile and shove a 4-bet down their throat. But if you wait to get kings to raise, for fear that you’ll get 3-bet, you’ll have a very boring poker session.
Fold? Call? 4-bet?
Today’s topic is 3-bets, and we’ll be focusing on misery and profit.
First, let’s confirm our vocabulary. A “3-bet” (or “three-bet”) is generally defined as the next raise after the first raise in a betting round. Suppose you’re in a tournament and the blinds are 50 and 100. The under-the-gun (UTG) player opens to 250. Two people fold and then the next player makes it 600. That’s a “3-bet.” Note it wasn’t three times the previous bet. But we treat the blind as the first bet, the first raise as the second bet, and the next raise, however big it is, as the third bet (thus “3-bet”).
Back to the hand. We’ve raised with ATo and gotten 3-bet by the button. It folds back to us.
Honestly, there aren’t a lot of great options. If we routinely fold here, we encourage the button to 3-bet us more. If we call, we get to play a marginal hand in a bloated pot out-of-position (OP) against a tough player. Blech. We could 4-bet, but we’d be bluffing. That is, we certainly don’t have a hand that justifies a 4-bet under normal circumstances, and if we get called (or re-raised) we are in truly awful shape.
But the rules of the game require that we fold, call, or re-raise. Pick exactly one.
As always, stack sizes play an enormous role. Deeper stacks favor the in-position (IP) player, so the deeper we are, the more we should be inclined simply to fold and pick another battle later. The one exception here is pocket pairs. That’s because if you flop a set you can take your opponent on an expensive trip to value-town. If the stacks are deep enough, it’s fine to call and go set-mining. Conversely, the example hand (ATo) is a terrible candidate for calling because it does so very poorly against legitimate 3-bet ranges. If you flop an ace, you may have a very expensive second-best hand, or the villain easily gets away from their queens, which were way best preflop.
A good guideline: if you have a hand that is marginal and/or flops awkwardly (think suited connectors and hands such as AT), just fold. Maybe your opponent will pick up on that, maybe not. But cross that bridge when you come to it.
Very specifically, do not call and play fit-or-fold on the flop (except for the set-mining mentioned above); this is what the villain is hoping for. Mostly you will miss the flop (most hold’em hands miss most flops), you will check, they will bet, and you will fold. They win 7–8 (or more) BBs from you, even if their cards were a bus pass and a gym membership card.
It’s crucial to have an idea of how frequently the 3-bettor is making that move. If it’s the first 3-bet you’ve seen them make in 90 minutes, then fold without a second thought. Many recreational players have a 3-bet range largely consisting of pocket queens and better, and AK. There is no reason to bash your head against such a brick wall of value. But if your opponent is making their third 3-bet in two button orbits, either they’re having a stellar run of cards, or their values aren’t so tight. It may well be that they’ve discovered opponents will call their 3-bets and then play fit-or-fold on the flop. They’re probably not raising as weak as bus-pass-gym-membership suited (BGs), but it’s likely they don’t need QQ or better to do it, either.
Now comes the tough decision. Calling is a weak choice; you’ve promised them you don’t have a premium hand, you’re OP, and they’re used to this dynamic. If you don’t smash the flop (it’s unlikely you will) you’ll be facing serious pressure from the flop on.
You 4-bet. Make it big enough that they can’t easily call you. There are two conditions that make a 4-bet more attractive:
If your 4-bet will get all the chips in the middle. If a “normal” 4-bet (say, 3x the 3-bet) would get close to the felt, then just rip it all in. That wipes out your opponent’s positional advantage, and ensures you can’t be pressured out of the pot.
It’s better if you have some cards that you’d prefer the villain not to have. The first obvious card is an ace since that removes some of their AA and AK combinations.
Good candidates for 4-bet bluffs are hands such as AQo and an ace with a suited wheel card (e.g. A4s). AQo has good removal of high cards and the suited wheel hands have decent playability if you’re forced to play the hand OP (hope you don’t).
If it’s miserable to be 3-bet by an IP opponent, then certainly we should be doing the 3-betting ourselves, right? Nothing is more profitable at poker than putting your opponents to miserable decisions.
Here are some tips for increasing your 3-betting frequency:
When you’re new to this “light 3-betting” game, do it from IP at first. That is, pick a spot where you will have position on the initial raiser, assuming you go to the flop heads-up.
Pick hands that are awkward to play as calls, and benefit from momentum. Hands such as AJo and KQo make good choices.
Look for raisers who make the fatal “call the 3-bet then fit-or-fold the flop” mistake. They are the most attractive targets for your new lighter 3-bets.
The cut-off (one spot to the right of the button) is the perfect location for a 3-bet. It almost always knocks the button out, meaning you’ve advanced to poker nirvana. And it ensures the button doesn’t “squeeze” you by 3-betting after a raise and you just call.
When you make the 3-bet, turn up the pressure on the initial raiser. In a cash game, I’d say at least 3x the initial raise. In a tournament you can shade that down some.
Plan to c-bet (continuation-bet) the flop nearly 100% of the time. This is the second half of the plan required to profit from the fit-or-fold player. It doesn’t matter if you hit the flop or not, as long as your opponent folds.
Remember how I said those 3-bets often seem to come from the more feared players at the table? Make yourself one of them. You be the one the rest of the table is muttering about, because you’re constantly putting pressure on folks from IP. 3-betting can be profitable or miserable. Put yourself in a position to profit from your opponents’ misery.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.