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Head Games: Advanced Strategies From The Blinds In Tournaments

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Nov 01, 2023

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The Pros: Pedro Garagnani and Greg Raymer

Craig Tapscott: How often should we three-bet from the big blind? And what are the variables to do so? 

Pedro Garagnani: This is a tricky question and probably the spot where people diverge the most in tournaments. Three-betting from the big blind is one of the hardest spots in tournament poker because the range composition varies greatly depending on stack sizes and the moment.

For example, you have 50 big blinds in the big blind and face a raise from the button. Early in the tournament you should three-bet hands like 9-9 and A-Q offsuit for value and add bluffs to complement that value range, such as A-5 offsuit, K-6 offsuit, 10-8 offsuit type hands.

At a final table or money bubble however, when you’re 50 big blinds deep against the button but the average stack is 30 big blinds, we should only stack off preflop with A-K and Q-Q, and sometimes only K-K+. So, you should bluff less and only use good A-Kx blockers to do so because we don’t have many value combos to be too liberal in our bluffing frequency.

In these high-pressure spots, it’s important to develop a feel for which players might be overreacting and adjust accordingly. People tend to underdo it also because playing post-flop in a bloated pot with a polarized range against a condensed range is possibly the hardest scenario in no-limit hold’em. It’s a very weird spot, with strange bet sizings on different boards. I would recommend studying this spot for a while with a solver.

Speaking of frequencies, a solver would three-bet non-all-in around 15 percent of the time. However, it is tough to select the right combos as a human being and most people rarely cross the 10 percent frequency.

The first thing to note while three-betting from the big blind is stack size, as it affects range composition and three-bet sizing. As a good rule of thumb, never three-bet more than a quarter of the effective stack size. That’s a good starting point, because as with 60 big blinds you should be three-betting between 9-11 big blinds; you should never do that with a 30- or 25-big blind stack. 

Personally, I would say that people that do it liberally tend to do better than those who three-bet less often, as they develop a better feel for what hands they should be doing that with and will get more value from their good hands. If you don’t three-bet enough from the big blind, it is easy to spot it and easy to adjust against your strategy. People will just fold to you when you have good hands.

Greg Raymer: We could write an entire book on just this one play. First, we need to look at the entire situation. Has there been a raise and everyone else has folded, or is the pot still multiway? How deep is the effective stack? What is our opinion of the playing style of the raiser, the range of hands we put them on, and what do we think their opinion is of us and how we play? All my comments assume that we have a hand we should not fold. And, of course, most of our hands should probably be folded here.

If it just the two of us, I am much more likely to call than raise. Of our playable hands, many of them cannot correctly continue if we get four-bet. For example, I usually don’t want to three-bet a strong but non-premium hand such as K-Q or A-10, as I would probably fold those hands if they four-bet. I also don’t want to fold out their weaker dominated hands in such a spot. Why three-bet with K-Q if they are going to fold hands like K-10 or Q-J, and four-bet with hands like J-J or 10-10? 

If there are multiple players, I am more likely to three-bet, as I am now squeezing these players against one another, creating dead money, and increasing my equity in the pot. If I think they might not be strong, I’m more likely to three-bet with my very best hands (hands that welcome a four-bet), and my very worst hands (hands that happily fold to a four-bet) like J-9 offsuit.

Stack depth is another huge factor. If the effective stack is small enough that a three-bet will be all-in, I am more likely to reraise if I think I have the best hand, even when called, or if I think I have enough fold equity. If the stacks are extremely deep, and I have a strong enough hand, I can three-bet for value, and try to grow the pot now while I figure to be ahead. 

Since I am going to be out of position, I have to be careful about three-betting when that is going to create an awkward SPR (stack-to-pot ratio). If a three-bet would create an SPR of three, and I am holding A-J, I am in a very tough spot whenever I miss the flop.

Finally, and very importantly – how do we expect them to play post-flop? If we think they will always c-bet the flop, and we can read them well, I am much, much more likely to flat call preflop. Anytime you face an opponent whom you have an easier time putting on a narrow range post-flop, you prefer to keep the pots small preflop. That gives you the chance to get away cheap when they out-flop you, and still win the maximum when you have them beat. 

Just be careful to not over-value your ability to do this. Just because the player is weak, does not equate to them being easy to read. Nor is it easier to read stronger players. This is a very player-specific thing.

Craig Tapscott: In a blind vs. blind situation, should the small blind try to check-raise flop or turn versus a big blind? Does this play exploit more active players?

Pedro Garagnani: The small blind definitely should check-raise against the big blind flop or turn, be it in a limped pot or a raised pot as the caller or raiser. As this is a spot that doesn’t occur very often, I would say you shouldn’t worry about it a lot.
Use your knowledge of other spots like check-raising as the big blind or check-raising as the preflop raiser out of position in these spots and keep the aggression up. You won’t be making many mistakes being aggressive in wide-range scenarios.

Greg Raymer: Of course. There is no generalized scenario where I would argue you should never go for a check-raise. As with every poker question, it depends. We need to consider all the factors of our current situation. 

The most important factors are the effective stack size, and your perceptions of the opponent. If a check-raise is going to be all-in, you should often check. This way, you will be the player going all-in, and putting maximum pressure on your opponent. If the stacks are very deep, then you can go for the check-raise to either build a pot, or to exert greater fold equity on the other player. If you think you have the best hand, and they tend to bluff a lot, or value bet too thin, you would preferably take a passive line and check-call most of the time.

It is also important to consider who has the betting lead. If the big blind put in the last raise preflop, you should be checking almost all flops. You then decide whether to fold, call, or check-raise. If you put in the last raise preflop, it is expected you will frequently c-bet. Thus, if you check the flop, this will look suspicious, and the big blind will often check back. However, if you had the lead preflop, bet the flop, and they called, the turn might be a great time to check-raise for value. 

For example, if you have hit the flop solidly, you should c-bet the flop, since they expect you to do so whether you hit or not. After they call, you can check a lot of turns. This will make you look weak. If they have a good enough hand, they will bet the turn for value, and you can check-raise for value. If they are weak, on a draw, or were floating the flop, they will often bluff the turn, and now you can check-raise to deny them a free river card (or to get more value from their draws).

Any time you are heads-up, there is great value in getting creative. Once you know the opponent well enough, you want to take maximum advantage of their tendencies and mistakes.

Craig Tapscott: How often should the big blind raise a c-bet on the flop? This seems like a strong play, but is it possible to do it too much?

Pedro Garagnani: The big blind should be check-raising very aggressively on the flop against a small c-bet. Most aggressive players tend to reach 15 percent or even more in this playing mode. It is a strong play, but nowadays it is more common to face a check-raise in a variety of boards and stack sizes.

It is possible to overdo it, but it’s still a very profitable strategy to be really aggressive, and to study this spot as much as you can. Because calling from the big blind and facing a small continuation bet on the flop is a very usual scenario. 

In the end, remember to keep the aggression up. It’s stressful and challenging, but to be a top player nowadays you need to be more aggressive, on average, than your opponents.

Greg Raymer: I think this question presumes a heads-up pot, where you have defended your big blind against a preflop raise. In these scenarios, you are going to check most flops, and they are going to c-bet most flops. And most of the time, both your check and their bet are the correct decision. Of course, keep in mind that if your hand has little value, and you don’t think a bluff will work often enough, check-folding is going to be your best line.

As for all situations, you need to pay attention to the effective stack size, and your opponent’s tendencies and tells. A check-raise is almost always a very strong play. And it can only be overdone if your opponent is properly adjusting to it. However, if they are going to c-bet 100 percent of the time, and then fold a large percentage of the time when you check-raise, there is no reason to stop doing it. Only if you think they will start to adjust should you give them a break.

You also need to keep in mind how not only how they react to the check-raise, but how they react when you call. Some players will c-bet almost every flop, and then, if you call, they will also bet almost every turn. And some will continue like this and bet almost every river. Against such an opponent, when your hand is strong enough, you don’t want to check-raise and get them to fold. You would rather induce further bets. If they are unlikely to bet the turn unless they think they are ahead, now you can call (float) a lot of flops. Then you check the turn. If they bet, you can fold your weak hands. If they check back, you’ve been given a green light to bluff the river.

Again, we are heads-up. You need to make massive adjustments depending upon whom you are playing against. There is no limit to how creative and exploitative you can be. As long as you are thoughtful about it. Have fun and play smart! ♠

Pedro Garagnani is one of the best online competitors in the world, and proved it by winning the PocketFives Online Player of the Year award in 2021. The Brazilian pro has been tearing up the live arena ever since, however, with nearly $2.4 million in cashes. Garagnani made a big final table at this summer’s WSOP and then followed it up with a win at the Triton London high roller series for $459,000 and a win at the WSOP Circuit stop for a gold ring and another $253,925. You can find him on Twitter/X @pedrogaragnani.

Greg Raymer banked $5 million for winning the 2004 World Series of Poker main event. The North Carolina resident has more than $8 million in tournament cashes overall, including the record for the most wins on the Heartland Poker Tour, with five. The Card Player columnist and former patent attorney is also the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies and is a private coach for poker players looking to improve their game. You can reach him at greg@fossilmanpoker.com, or on Twitter/X @FossilMan