The Optimal Opening Raise | In a tournament, what is the proper opening raise

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The Optimal Opening Raise

In a tournament, what is the proper opening raise? Most people just make it three big blinds without giving it much thought. That?s probably close to optimal, but my view is that many players can benefit by opening for less than this amount. Dare we say min-raise?

Let?s start with a stylized example. Trivially, if your opponents will respond to your opening raise by either folding or going all-in, then it makes sense to raise the minimum. I think many tournament situations are approximated by this simple case. This argues for raising to two big blinds rather than three or more big blinds, and yet we rarely see top players do this. The standard opening raise among good players seems to be three big blinds. Two notable exceptions are Alan Goerhing (who frequently raises to 2BB) and Daniel Negreanu (who frequently raises to 2.5BB). Interestingly, most players raise the same amount whether there are antes or not, meaning that they offer their opponents drastically different pot odds once antes kick in. I?m convinced that Daniel has it about right. Note the key tradeoff that Daniel is facing when he chooses to open to 2.5BB. The first consideration is the one noted above נyou shouldn?t put in more money than is necessary to achieve your objective (namely, blind and ante theft). Daniel has probably observed that people play against him in very similar ways regardless of whether he raises to 2.5BB or 3BB ? that is, his opponents probably don?t properly adjusted to better pot odds offered by the 2.5BB raise.

To see the disadvantage of a small opening raise for Daniel, note that he is often going to have position against players who choose to play against him. This is true because he will be opening the pot much more liberally from late position and because the big blind will be forced to defend frequently against Daniel, especially in the presence of antes. Daniel is likely to be more skilled than his opponents. If you couple this with the fact that he is likely to have position on them in contested pots, you get the argument for big pre-flop raises. It?s the same argument that drives skilled cash game players to play extremely aggressively with position in early streets נnamely, ?Let me put in more money now, so I can steal it back later.?

There also seems to be a strong psychological element to the use of small pre-flop raises by Negreanu and Goerhing. I think there?s a sense in which they view these small raises as ?sucker bets? for players who do think about pot odds. They are essentially saying, ?Come on. You know you are getting the right price. I dare you to tangle with me.? I took up this ?sucker bet? against Daniel in Tunica. I doubled him up and he won the tournament. With ten players left and blinds of T$4000-$8000 ($1000 antes) he did his standard opening raise to $20000. I was in the big blind and couldn?t resist the 42:12 pot odds that I was being offered with Qc7c. At the time, I was stupidly thinking that I wanted to get in pots with Daniel because I thought he would be fearful of busting 10th and not making the TV table. My plan was to bet out the flop if I missed, check-call if I hit a piece of it, and check-raise all-in if I hit hard (queen-high flop, flush draw, two pair). Well, the flop came Qd4h8h. I check-raised him all-in and he made a great call with QT. The interesting thing is that I never would have played with Qc7c if he offered me pot odds that were just a bit worse. When thinking about optimal opening raises, one thing you must ask yourself is, ?Am I willing to make tough calls pre-flop?? If you?re not, tend towards smaller opening raises (such as 2.5BB). This is another reason why Daniel likes the small raises נwhy force yourself into situations where you have to make tough calls with small edges? If Daniel open-raised to 4BB instead of 2.5BB, then he?d frequently find himself in a scenario where he, say, opens with KJs and then has a player move all-in on him for 8BB more. If he had raised 2.5BB and then had someone come over him for 9.5BB more, he could easily lay his hand down with confidence. By open-raising to 4BB, he is offering himself good odds when re-raised all-in, and he will be forced into situations where he has to gamble as a dog.

The player who makes big open raises often has to contest big all-in pre-flop hands as a dog, because calling the raise and playing as a dog is often preferable to leaving a lot of money dead in the middle. Towards the end of a tournament, I like to craft my pre-flop strategy in such a way that I?m rarely leaving money dead in the middle. Too many times, I?ve lost a stack late in a tournament by opening pots and then being forced to repeatedly lay down hands as opponents re-raised me. There are some players who believe that one should alter one?s standard opening raise with position. Specifically, they believe that you should raise relatively more in late position, especially late in a tournament. At this stage, antes are present and all-in pre-flop moves are common, so making larger raises with position is essentially a commitment device. You are saying, ?Look, I know you might have a better hand than me, but I?m pricing myself into a call.? It can be an effective strategy, so long as you?re willing to call as a big dog. You also have to be willing to put in big pre-flop raises with some really bad hands. To simplify, assume everyone at the table has 12BB. The pot contains 1.5BB in blinds, and 1BB in antes. Assume you?re on the button and the action folds around to you. If you open for 4BB, you are offering yourself 18:8 pot odds if the small blind moves in on you and 17.5: 8 pot odds if the big blind moves in. There are a lot of mediocre-to-bad hands like A4o that you will have to call with when offered these odds. You wouldn?t have had to call if you had opened to 2.5BB. Your opponent, knowing this, will move in on you with fewer hands when facing a 4BB raise. For you to take advantage of this, you will have to often make this 4BB as a steal with complete rags (56o, say) that you can comfortably laydown when re-raised. By raising to 4BB instead of 2.5BB, you will be offered worse odds on the steal (2.5:4 vs. 1:1) but you will be able to steal much more often. To conclude, I believe that, in general, aggressive players are better off with relatively small opening raises, such 2.5BB. I recommend maintaining this standard even when antes are introduced. That said, it serves a player well to think carefully about his situation. You should make relatively large opening raises if your skill level is below that of your opponents. At the extreme (say you?re beginner at a table of world champions), you should craft a strategy that involves simply raising all-in or folding.



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