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Head Games: Strategic Preflop and Continuation Bet Sizing in Tournament Play By Craig Tapscott

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: May 14, 2014


The Pros: Annette Obrestad, Ryan Hall, and Trevor Pope

Craig Tapscott: What is your thinking on how you determine your preflop bet sizing and why?

Annette Obrestad: My preflop bet sizing is really only determined by one thing, and that’s how deep we are playing. Early in tourneys when everyone has 100 times or more big blinds (BBs) I tend to open 2.5 times and gradually move down to 2 times. Obviously, if there are limpers the sizing will have to be bigger as you never want to raise and price everyone in. It’s always going to be easier to play a pot heads-up. For each limper I add one BB to whatever my standard raise has been so far.

My thoughts are that three-bet sizing is far more important to be aware of than open raises. Sizing here will depend on a lot: effective stacks, your image, your opponents opening range, what you think he perceives your range to be, and how you think he’ll respond. I will personally adjust how much I raise based on my read in these situations and there will never be a right or wrong amount to reraise to as long as you can back it up with good reasoning.

Ryan Hall: The first thing I should mention about preflop bet sizing is that it should always be consistent for each level you play. If your opening size is three times big blind for level one, it should remain that way throughout the level. Don’t be the person that gives away bet-sizing tells based on the strength of your hand. Later in the tournament, I usually just min-raise. A min-raise will always give you a chance to take down a pot that is greater in size than the bet you’re putting out, which is nice. People are also more likely to attack you with reraises once antes hit, so you really don’t want to be betting more than you have to preflop.

When you’re three-betting, you need to take into consideration the effective stack size. If you’re dealing with an effective stack size of 25 BBs, you don’t need to make a very big three-bet (especially in position), because your opponent will often shove or fold (not wanting to play out of position). However, if you’re deeper stacked and out of position, you’re going to want to three-bet less often. But when you do, you’re going to have to make it far larger, because you’ll need to charge your opponent preflop, as they will have positional advantage. Positional advantage also becomes stronger as you become deeper stacked, so keep this in mind, as well.

Trevor Pope: My preflop sizing varies according to the stage of the tournament and the players at the table. I probably fluctuate my bet sizing preflop more than most people, because I like to see how people react to different stuff. My standard preflop sizing in tournaments is 2.5 times until the blinds are above 200-400. After 300-600 and later, I usually switch it to 2 times-to-2.2 times. I do this because players usually have a deeper stack at the beginning of a tournament and have a much shallower stack later in tournaments, so they can’t afford to call as much, so I don’t need to risk as much.
I don’t really vary my sizing on players behind in position; I vary it more on the people who are in the blinds. Because the majority of the time I am raising, I am raising with a weak holding to steal the blinds. Although if I start to notice that someone will always three-bet a two-times raise and never three-bet a 2.5 times raise, I will of course increase my size to get my raise through more frequently.

The ideal situation is to have tight players in the blinds, because then you can confidently raise away with any two cards and don’t have to worry about seeing many flops. When a pot is not three-bet, the BB will be the most likely to defend, because he is priced in. And in my opinion, players in the BB should be defending to raises much more often and getting to the flop more. But instead people are folding to min-raises with poor hands when the price they are getting laid is incredible, which is why raising preflop to steal the blinds is so profitable. 

Craig Tapscott: What factors decide bet sizing for a continuation bet (c-bet) on the flop?

Annette Obrestad: Assuming the pot gets heads-up, the first thing I look at is, of course, what my equity in the hand is and that will decide how I proceed. If I’ve raised with pocket twos and the flop is JSpade Suit 7Heart Suit 6Heart Suit I will probably not try very hard to win the hand, as I’m very unlikely to ever win the hand at showdown. I might fire one if I’m playing against a weak opponent, but on a board like that, many players will even call your c-bets with overcards planning to make moves on later streets. I am just not comfortable barreling with a hand that weak. If you change my holding to something like KSpade Suit QHeart Suit, I will absolutely be making a stab knowing that I can keep betting and continuing with the hand on any nine, Q, K, A or heart. As well as maybe betting on a 2, 3, or 4 to set up a three-barrel. My bet sizing will also vary a lot. On a board like this against a random opponent that I don’t have a strong read on, I will bet what I would do if I had a hand I was value betting. That way it looks like I’m protecting as well as trying to get value, so generally in the ballpark of 50-to-75 percent pot on all streets.

The best tip I can give is to ask questions before c-betting: Is my opponent good enough to put me on an accurate range and play accordingly when I bet this flop? If no, play exploitably and bet larger or smaller depending on how it hits his range and what you have. If yes, then ask what is my equity? The better equity the more willing you should be to build a pot. Will this player play back without a value hand? If yes, be careful betting medium strength hands that you think might be good, but can’t handle much heat. Keep your range more polarized. If no, bet most of your range if you think you know how he’ll play his different holdings.

Finally, ask what is the stack-to-pot ratio? If you’re able to get it all-in betting three streets, make sure that you don’t end up on the river with one-third pot left, as this will get you in tricky spots when you’re considering bluffing. Try to leave yourself with 50-to-100 percent pot to have more options, even if this means your flop or turn bets are smaller.

Keep in mind to try to think about every situation you encounter in a logical way. The only way to get really good at poker is creating a game plan that works for you. That’s the beauty of the game.

Ryan Hall: My advice is to have set amounts when you c-bet, and this should be a percentage of the pot dependent on the situation. It should be the least amount that will generally give you a good chance to take the pot down. If there’s a very dry flop, say A-8-4 rainbow, you can c-bet 40 percent or even less and have a good chance to win the pot. Of course, you must bet this amount with your strong hands like A-K or else you are giving off bet-sizing tells. If the flop is 10Heart Suit 9Heart Suit 7Spade Suit, you’re going to want to c-bet a higher percentage, perhaps 60 percent of the pot. If you only bet 35 percent of the pot on a flop like this, it won’t really be believable that you have a hand, because why aren’t you protecting it and charging draws? Also, because of the connectedness of this flop, you’re going to want to c-bet less often. Sometimes, when a horrible flop comes down for your hand, it’s alright to just check/fold. Just don’t do it the majority of times you miss, or else you will be an A-B-C player and those are very, very easy to exploit.

Trevor Pope: I vary my c-bets a lot due to the fact that certain board textures miss and hit my opponent’s range more than other boards. For example, if I raise 9Spade Suit 8Spade Suit in the cutoff to 250 at 50-100 level and the BB defends and the flop comes 7-7-2. The odds of that board connecting with the BB’s calling range are very slim. So instead of betting my normal half-pot bet of 250 on the flop, I can bet smaller like 150-to-200 since he should be folding to my bet so often. On the other side of things, if I raise 9Spade Suit 8Spade Suit and the flop is K-5-4 and my opponent checks, there is a better chance my opponent connected with that board in some way. So I want to make my hand seem stronger. I would bet 250-to-300 to hopefully get more folds when I am bluffing, or get more value when I have a good hand.

A mistake I see players make is c-betting flops with ace-high or king-high, when they can just check for pot control because they will most likely get to the river with the best hand. For example if I raise A-J in middle position and the big blind defends A-3 and the flop comes K-K-4. Most people are losing value on their hand and turning it into a bluff by betting. What happens is players bet the flop with A-J, and then the turn comes an 8. The caller with A-3 checks, and the A-J usually checks (or should) and then the river comes a 2. Now the BB bets and A-J folds when he will probably have the best hand a large amount of the time.

My advice is instead, if the A-J checks the flop, it gives the BB a chance to bluff the turn. Then we can call confidently with our A-J and then the player usually shuts down with his bluffs, since he assumes we will call the river. Now when we get to the river we have extracted an extra bet out of our opponent. Just make sure you are checking K-x type hands on that flop as well to balance when you check with ace-high hands or else good players will start to punish you and adjust properly.  ♠

Annette Obrestad is the 2007 World Series of Poker Europe main event champion. She has combined cashes of online and live totaling more than $6 million.

Ryan Hall has more than $2.5 million on online tournament cashes. He is an instructor at

Trevor Pope won the 2013 WSOP Event #2 NL 8-handed for $553,000. He has combined online and live cashes totaling more than $1 million.