The majority of hands that you play should start with a preflop raise. Preflop raising is part of the basic strategy that you should learn away from the tables. Throughout this article, you will learn key concepts and guidelines on how to approach preflop raising.
Preflop sizing should become an automated part of your strategy because you don’t want to waste too much of your mental energy every time you wish to raise. It’s straightforward to learn how much to raise preflop but also very easy to screw up if you don’t know what you are doing.
We know how many preflop raising chances we face and having a pre-planned system will help.
And to have proper preflop sizes, you should spend time studying off the tables like you are doing right now.
Picture 1: In most hand tracking software raise first in is labeled as 2Bet. Image is from PokerTracker4
The action of preflop raising has many names. The most technical term is RFI, which stands for raise first in. It is also called opening or open raising since we are opening the pot with a raise. In most hand tracking software, preflop raises are called 2 bets because we are placing a second bet after blinds (which are first). That is why we say that we got 3bet if someone is re-raising your preflop 2bet.
Math behind RFI
Before giving you some advice on preflop raise sizing, let us first look at the math behind RFI. With simple math, we can calculate two variables that can help us find appropriate raise sizing:
Required fold equity
Combined fold probability
One of the factors that we can calculate is required fold equity (RFE). With RFE, we calculate a break-even point, which tells us how much our opponents must fold for our raise to become break-even. RFE ignores all post-flop play options like continuation betting, bluffing, having initiative, making a strong hand, and value betting. Still, it is a good starting point when analyzing a hand.
The other factor is combined fold probability (CFP), which tells us how much our opponents will fold overall. This can be just our estimate since we can’t know for sure how our opponents play. With the help of these two variables, we can make an informed decision about our preflop raising range and sizing.
These are just two variables among many when it comes to preflop choices, but we will focus only on them because they touch our preflop sizing topic.
We will demonstrate how these concepts work with a simple preflop scenario. A hero is playing 0.5/1 CG (Cash game) and wants to know if he can profitably raise ATC (any two cards) on the button when folded to him.
We calculate RFE by dividing our risk (R) with R + potential gain (PG). In our case, the hero is risking 2.5 BB to gain 1.5BB (SB+BB). When we put that in our formula:
Picture 2: RFE = R / R + (PG). Both opponents would need to fold 63% of the time to make our preflop open of 2.5bb instantly profitable.
… we can see that our opponents have to fold 63% of the time for us to break even. To calculate how much our opponents fold, we have to make some assumptions. Let’s say that SB plays 15% of hands and BB 35%. This tells us that SB will fold 85% and BB 65% of the time. By multiplying these two pieces of information, we calculate CFP.
In our case, they will fold, on average, 55% of the time. So we can’t really raise ATC and be profitable. But what if we min raise but our opponents don’t adjust and defend with the same frequency.
Picture 3: This is how to calculate combined fold probability. In our case, we min raise and both opponents fold 55% of the time.
It’s Interesting to see that now we can almost profitably raise ATC. Again this is just one of the factors to consider when developing a preflop strategy. This is just the technical and fundamental math explanation behind RFI.
References: Peter Clarke, The grinders manual(Amazon link)
Don’t change your preflop sizing based on your hand strength.
One of the most comfortable poker reads to pick is if somebody is choosing their preflop sizing based on hand strength. This one should be pretty obvious, but I’m almost shocked how many times I see this leak manifested at poker tables.
Beginners make this mistake all the time trying to “protect” their AK with 4x and on the other hand only min raising pocket threes. This logic of putting more money in with strong hands seems reasonable at first glance but in reality, you are giving up way too much information.
Not only is this read easy to pick, but it’s straightforward to adjust and exploit.
If somebody is signaling strength with his sizing, you should simply play tighter versus bigger bets and attack smaller ones with aggression. Making a quick note on somebody who is raising bigger with strong hands can reap a lot of benefits with proper adjustments. Actually, this is the most common note that I make during my poker sessions.
How to raise versus limps
Most poker hands start with a preflop raise, but if you are playing in games where most hands start with a limp, well, congratulations, you are about to make some money. In low stakes MTTs (Multi-table tournaments) and CG, we face in general a lot of limps. In poker terminology, we call maneuver when we are raising limps an isolation raise. Our main goal is to isolate ourselves with limpers.
Sometimes we will face more than one limper. There are situations where we would want to limp along, but mostly we want to continue with a raise.
A very standard strategy would be to add 1 BB to our normal raise size per limper. To see how that looks in practice, let’s look at an example. We sit OTB and are facing UTG and MP limp. Our standard raise without limpers would be 2.5x, but since there are two, we are going to add 2bbs, making it 4.5.
That is just a bare minimum, and in reality, we should make it even bigger like 5 or 6 x and really punish them. That is because most of the time, we just want them to fold, and by making it bigger, we do generate a little more fold equity.
Remember, just picking the blinds is a great result already, on top of this with a limper, you get the chance to win one extra blind from a limper, which is fantastic.
There are not many hands in No-limit Holdem, that make more than 2.5bb (1.5bb from blinds and 1bb from limper) profit per hand. For example, I make around 3.5bb every time when I get pocket queens.
A lot of poker players suggest that you can 10x iso raise fishy players who never fold. This can be true in some cases, but you should keep in mind how many other players are still there to act. You can 10x iso raise mega whale from BTN but not from let’s say EP. That is because you are kind of signaling your hand strength to other players since the hands that you are mostly 10x are very strong. With that, you kind of force them to play perfectly against you, which is undesirable.
Getting reads and taking notes on your opponents’ limping strategy is very important. Do they always call when they limp or sometimes fold? Are they folding to bigger sizings but calling smaller ones? Do they still call no matter the sizing? Getting answers to these questions and taking notes can potentially win you a lot of extra money in the long run.
How much to raise from the blinds
From the small blind (SB)
We’re going to use a little bit bigger opening sizing versus BB when it’s folded to us in SB. The main reason is that we want to charge BB extra if he wants to play with us in position. In MTTs, we can limp a lot from SB, but when we raise, we should go a little bit bigger than usual. 3.5x should do the job. After all, we are fighting for larger pots in MTTs because of ante.
In CG, we want to use ‘raise only strategy’ from SB because of a rake. The pot gets automatically raked if we limp, so it is kind of disincentivizing to do so. 3x should be the standard play.
From the big blind (BB)
Since we are specifically focusing only on preflop 2bets, we are only going to talk about raising versus limps on the BB. We should raise smaller versus SB limps because we are still going to be able to use a positional advantage if he calls. Standard iso raise against SB is somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 x. When facing limps from players that have a position on us, we should make it extra large. If we would iso raise 4x in the position, we should make it between 5 or 6 x when out of position.
Configure bet slider
Picture 4: Bet slider settings in PartyPoker.
Almost every online poker room gives you the option to set your own preflop sizes. You will find bet-slider options in your poker client settings folder. Usually, you have some pre-set sizings, but you should definitely go and create your own. Having a pre-set sizing can speed up your game and makes it easier for you to multi-table and play more hands.
Picture 5:bet slider in action on PartyPoker.
How much to raise in poker tournaments
In poker tournaments, we want to vary our raising strategy based on our stack size.
The somewhat golden rule is that the deeper you are, the bigger you should raise.
But not all the time. Mostly we should change our opening size based on our effective stack size. Playing an effective stack means that you base your strategy depending on your opponents’ stack size. Because when it comes to picking the size, it really doesn’t matter that we have 100BB if everybody else has only 20BB.
Picture 6: Our preflop raise size depends on effective stack size, and not our stack.
For easier illustration, let’s check an example (Picture 6). We are on the HJ in MTT with 72BB. When making a preflop decision in MTTs, you should always glance at your opponent’s stack size. In our case, we see that our opponents hold between 18 and 31 BB.
Playing an effective stack would, in this situation, mean that we chose a sizing that we would use if we had somewhere between 20 and 30 BB. For preflop sizing purposes, it doesn’t matter if we have almost 40 BB more than others.
For preflop raise size, what matters, is what the effective stack size is.
As a rough guideline, you can use sizings suggested in table 1. These are somewhat standard sizings that most professionals use.
Stack size (in BB)Opening size (in BB)12 – 302×31 – 752.2×75 – 1252.5×125+3xTable 1
In MTTs, especially in the late phase, you have to be versatile when it comes to switching preflop raise sizing.
Blinds change fast; at one point, you have 40 bb, but two levels pass, and you find yourself with 20 BB. You can be chip leading final table but find yourself with a short stack after two lost all-ins. Recognizing the change of conditions should lead you to some adjustments in preflop sizing. Do that properly and you will soon understand how profitable MTTs can be.
It is essential you know how to play as a short stack at the final table. If you didn’t master it yet, then check this guide, it has plenty of information so you will know what the correct play is next time you find yourself short, who knows you might even win a tournament because of it :).
The shorter you are, the smaller you should raise
We will now demonstrate how we can save a little bit with our opens because we will lose less when we face an all-in. In an example that we’re going to check next, you will see how our raise size influences strategy and profitability when short stacked. We’re going to make a case for min raising instead of 2.2x. We’re going to see how can 2,2x in one way actually benefit our opponents.
We created a model (picture 7) of a common SNG/MTT situation where the hero sits in BB and faces CO raise. In the first situation, the villain raises 2x in the second 2.2x. For simplicity purposes, both players have 17 BB. It would be fair to mention that the model runs on the assumption that the hero doesn’t adjust pushing ranges to villains preflop sizing. (Meaning that he would shove wider vs. min rise)
Picture 7: 17bb, hero faces cut-off open.
In our model villain raises 22% (55+,A2s+,K7s+,Q8s+,J9s+,T9s,A9o+,KTo+,QTo+,JTo) and calls with 12% (55+,A7s+,KJs+,ATo+,KQo). It is a little bit unrealistic to expect that villain would be using the same raising and calling range for 2x and 2,2 but for easier illustration we’re gonna assume that he does.
Picture 8: Villain opens 2x and we shove. We can shove many hands, but not as many as if he would open 2.2x (look image below).Picture 9: Villain opens 2.2x on the cutoff and we shove. We can now shove more hands profitably because there is more money in the pot (extra 0.2BB).
You can see that when we face 2.2x, we can push wider for around 3%. That is because of that extra 0.2 BB that villain contributed to a pot, which gives us a little more incentive to fight harder. But not just that, our overall EV per hand increases for around 0.1 BB.
If the opponent would open 2.2x with fewer hands than he does with 2x, we would not gain that extra EV.
When you raise smaller, you can raise more often
When we raise smaller, we give ourselves a better price on our steals. That is because we are risking less to win the same amount with smaller sizes.
On the other hand, we give a better price to our opponents to make the call. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. Our opponents can adjust with more frequent defends and re-raises. When we raise smaller and more prevalent, we will face a little bit more resistance, but we should overall win more because of the increased volume of our opens.
You, as a poker player, have to find that goldilocks sizing that suits your opening range, position, and situation (Deepstack CG, MTT final table, ante or no ante, etc.).
When it comes to preflop sizings in my games, I try to make it as simple as possible. In CG, I almost always 2.5x as an RFI except on small blind where I 3x. I make some adjustments if I play against short stackers (raise smaller) or extremely fishy (raise bigger) opponents.
In MTTs in the early stages, I use 2.5 x and switch to min or 2.2x in later stages. Using prefixed raise sizings allows me to auto-pilot a little bit preflop, and it helps me to keep the focus on more crucial parts of the game.
To sum up, the topic of how much you should raise preflop let’s put the most critical factors in some bullet points:
Your stack size (or effective stack) – The smaller that the average stacks are, the lower you should raise.
Keep your opponents guessing what hand you have – Do not change your bet sizing based on how good your hand is preflop. On micro stakes, you still maybe get away with this, but higher opponents will certainly pick up on this huge tell
Types of opponents that you are facing – Raise smaller and more often vs. nitty opponents. Raise bigger and tighter vs. fishy opponents
From which position you are playing – It is different if you are on small blind, or button, or early position
Adjusting to the situation – Are you playing CG or MTT with ante…