NLHE 6-max: Pre-Flop Play
Thanks to full ring NLHE we're used to playing a lot of unraised pots. With speculative hands we often just limp behind other limpers, hoping to see the flop cheaply with our small pair and hit our set. Or we're holding suited aces or connectors and speculate on a very good draw.
But in shorthanded games we now have considerably fewer opponents that can pay us off. On average, there are also considerably fewer players left when it comes to the flop, and multiway pots are exceptions, at least at the higher limits. For all these reasons, our goal is to build up a pot before the flop if possible. We want to put pressure on the few players at the table. We always want to raise the hands that we play in shorthanded games before the flop. The exceptions are situations where we're playing in the blinds and have marginal hands, and possibly those where our opponents have very small stacks.
The pre-flop raise concept
One fundamental principle of 6-max pre-flop play is the following:
- If we want to play a hand as the first player in the pot we ask ourselves: "Is this hand strong enough to raise in our position?" If we can answer the question with "Yes" then we raise, otherwise we fold.
An extension of the rule is that we do not generally limp along with other players.
- If we want to play a hand and we're not the first player in the pot we ask ourselves: "Is this hand strong enough to raise in our position against one or more limpers?" If we can answer the question with "Yes" then we raise, otherwise we fold.
There are several reasons why it is better to open the pot with a raise rather than with a call.
- We're sure that we're holding the best hand pre-flop because we have a premium hand such as AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT or AK, for example. We raise for value, in other words, in order to increase the value of our hand before the flop and to get money into the pot as long as we're holding the best hand.
- Even though it's not a premium hand, we're sure that our AQ, AJ, AT, 99, 88 etc. is better than the hands of those players who are already in the pot, since they are players who often play very weak hands.
Against these types of player in particular we raise for value again, at the same time trying to push out all other players who may want to enter the pot behind us. Our goal is to isolate a weak player.
- We want to play the hand in position. Our raise pushes out weak hands that would perhaps have entered the pot behind us if we had only limped. In effect we're trying to "buy" the button.
- We want to define our hand in order to make later decisions easier. For example: we raise pre-flop holding , and several players call. The flop comes with and we make a pot-size continuation bet. The players behind us call and a very tight, conservative but good player suddenly raises. We can fold with a clear conscience. We have defined our hand adequately and shown that we still like it despite the dangerous flop, but the other player raises after all the others have called. This is a clear sign that we're beaten.
- We want to build up a pot that is worthwhile playing for. In limped pots, players are very quick to fold their hands if they haven't hit well, but in raised pots this is not the case. Opponents who decided to play their hands against a pre-flop raise don't give up so easily, even if the haven't hit the flop. They either tend to overplay hands such as top pair with weak kicker or they try to bluff in order to protect their "investment". This makes it easier for us to get even more money into an already big pot when we have a monster hand such as a set. Draws are also paid for disproportionately in a bigger pot for the simple reason that there is more money to play for. Players become greedy and hope for big payouts if they hit their draws.
- We disguise the strength of our hand. We make it difficult for our opponents to put us on a hand by raising suited connectors and small pairs just the same as big aces and premium pairs. So our opponents never know whether we're holding an overpair on the board or on a board, for example. Thus, our opponents are more willing to get into a hand with us as soon as they know that we also raise weaker hands, but at the same time it makes things more difficult for them because we are less predictable.
- We maintain an aggressive image. In shorthanded games we very often win small, raised pots on the flop with continuation bets when our opponents haven't hit. From a mathematical point of view, this happens very often: in only 33% of cases we hit a pair on the flop (when we start the hand holding unpaired cards). We goad our opponents into playing a hand against us by raising frequently. They tend to believe us increasingly seldom and we can hope that they try to bluff us when we're holding a good hand.
The size of the pre-flop raise
- Single raise
Our pre-flop raise is always oriented to the size of the pot. We want to find a balance. On the one hand we have to avoid small raises that give speculative hands the chance of seeing the flop cheaply, on the other hand we mustn't raise too much. As we would only get called by really strong hands and the pot would already be very big before the flop. We raise to 3.5 BBs (the equivalent of a pot size bet: 0.5 BBs + 1 BB (the blinds) + call 1 BB (equals a pot of 2.5 BBs) + raise by 2.5 BBs (the previous pot) = raise to 3.5 BBs), and add 1 BB for each player who is already in the hand.
Two players in front of us call, we're on the button holding . We raise to 5.5 BBs. Working this out is simple: 3.5 BBs (=pot bet before the limpers) + 2 BBs (for 2 limpers, the BB not included because this is already taken into account in the pot bet) = 5.5 BBs.
A re-raise should also be oriented to the size of the pot. When we re-raise we normally assume to have the best hand. We are therefore not afraid to make the pot particularly big pre-flop. At the same time we should under no circumstances make a small raise because we would then give speculative hands the chance of seeing more cards cheaply and perhaps of taking a big part of our stack on a nondescript flop. For this reason we make a pot size re-raise. We note the following simple calculation: we raise to three-and-a-half times the size of the previous raise, and add the amount of the previous raise for every player who has called.
UTG raises to 4 BBs pre-flop, a player in middle position calls, we're on the button and raise to 17.5 BBs (our rule of thumb would have made it 18 BBs), thus making it a pot size re-raise.
The calculation: there are 1.5 BBs (blinds) + raise 4 BBs + call 4 BBs in the pot, thus a total of 9.5 BBs. We first call the raise (i.e. 4 BBs), and the pot is then 13.5 BBs. We then raise 13.5 BBs, bringing the total in the pot to 4 BBs + 13.5 BBs = 17.5 BBs.
Simplified: 4 BBs x 3.5 = 14 BBs + 4 BBs (for the caller in MP) = 18 BBs
Now let's look at the hands with which we want to open raise from various positions. For 6-max newcomers we recommend a restriction to a tight range of hands as listed below. With increasing experience, sureness and bankroll every player can and should increase his or her range from the various positions by several hands. We will return to this later.
"Raise" includes all hands that can be played against no,one to two limpers in front of us.
The basic principle is still: no limping!
1. Under the gun (UTG)
We play a very tight game UTG because this position, along with the blinds, is one of the worst. Too often we're in the situation where we have to act first after the flop and run into trouble when we haven't hit the flop and our flop bet is raised behind us. UTG we simply have to make too many difficult decisions. We can however make the game easier by restricting ourselves to a reduced range of starting hands.
AA-22 – we raise every pair. AA-77 often have the potential to be good as an overpair on various low flops, but otherwise we're hoping to hit our set and play for an already-swollen pot if we really do hit. In this way we can easily make lots of money with the best starting hands in no-limit hold'em. Pairs always have the potential to become monsters and thus to produce big pots; we want to exploit this to the fullest.
AKo, AQo, AJo, AKs, AQs, AJs, ATs – big aces also have a lot of potential. In shorthanded games, top pair/top kicker is often good enough to take down big pots. Suitedness increases the value of these aces, even if we are UTG and thus out of position.
KQs – this hand as such has small potential and can always be dominated too easily. When we're out of position, hands such as top pair are very difficult to play. Nevertheless, we raise the hand because it could enable us to flop hands that often give us a nice payout. If we flop a straight on a draw-heavy flop we can hope for a good payout from hands with Ax or Kx that have only flopped top pair or top two pair. In addition, the value of our hand increases even more by having two cards of the same suit because we could now flop very strong draws, for example straight + flush draw or pair + flush draw, etc.
2. Middle Position (MP)
We open raise all the hands we would also play UTG. Here we still play very tight. Additional hands we can play are:
KQo – it would be no mistake to fold this hand if we're not sure of our game. That would however be almost too tight.
AKo, AKs, AA-JJ
- Calling a raise
All pairs TT-22, AQo, AJsIf the player has less than 50% of a buy-in then we also re-raise with TT and 99.
3. Cutoff (CO)
Our game starts opening up here and offers more options. The cutoff is the second-best position at the table. We play a lot of hands with good implied odds here, i.e. hands that have the potential to become very strong and provide good payouts.
We play all the UTG and MP hands, plus the following.
ATo, A9o, A8s, A7s – these aces are easily dominated, but the danger of dominance is reduced because we're raising only the blinds or at most limpers who acted in front of us. Moreover, we often have the best hand and only the button is to act behind us and if the button folds, we have the best position at the table. It will then be possible to play even these weaker aces profitably.
Besides the aces we also raise the following hands
JTo, JTs, J9s
The fact that these hands are suited and/or connected increases our chances of flopping a good draw in position. Draws in no-limit hold'em are played best and most profitably when we are in position. We can play them as a semi-bluff, if the callers have indicated weakness by just checking to us. In addition, we can force players who are not in position to fold, even though they have hit the flop and are holding the better hand, simply because of our own position and a good flop texture. At the same time, when we're in position we get more money into the pot in case we hit, and lastly, as the flop aggressor we can also take a free card on the turn because the callers on the turn very often check to the aggressor (in this case, to us). A good position is worth a lot even if we make our hand, because we can then respond to a bet from an aggressive opponent by raising.
AKo, AKs, AA-JJ
- Calling a raise
Same as MP, plus QJs, JTs – these speculative hands with lots of potential can only be played well in position. We want to see if the UTG or MP raiser likes his hand and whether they give us free cards or the opportunity to bluff. On Broadway flops, JTs and QJs can flop very profitable draws. If the raiser hits the flop with AK, for example, a hand such as could produce a particularly big payout for us if we make our hand on the turn or on the river.
4. Button (BU)
Since we always have the best-possible position when we are on the button we can raise with a wide range of hands. We also try to steal the blinds at least in 30% of cases (when we have the necessary experience, we can do this even more often), because particularly in shorthanded games it's often the case that nobody is dealt a playable hand, or at least not a hand that he or she would play against a raise and/or out of position. On the button hands that could flop a strong draw increase radically in value as well.
We take the range of hands as up to now and add:
All suited aces
98s, 87s, 78s, 76s
AKo, AKs, AA-JJ
If the raise comes from the CO, we also re-raise with TT-99 as well as with AQs and AQo. We can usually assume that a raise from the CO only rarely means a premium hand.
- Calling a raise
5. Small blind (SB)
If there are limpers in front of us, we raise with AKo, AKs, AQo, AQs, AA-TT.
If our opponents fold to us in the SB then we raise all hands that we would raise from the button. Our goal is often to steal the blinds.
AKo, AKs, AA-QQ. Against a raise from the CO or BU we also re-raise when we're holding JJ, TT, AQs, AQo.
- Calling a raise
All pairs, AQs, AJs, KQs – we must be very careful with these hands when we're out of position and hit top pair on the flop. The threat of dominance can become problematic here, especially because we're out of position. The flops we want to see with these hands are those that give us a straight draw + pair, a flush draw + pair, a flush draw + gutshot, etc. If several players in front of us have already called the raise, then we can also call with QJs and JTs because we get good pot odds. But we again have to hit strong draws on the flop in order to be able to continue playing these hands profitably.
- Complete: If there are limpers in front of us and we don't have a hand that we want to raise (see above), then we call with the following hands:
All pairs 99-22
All suited aces AJs to A2s
KQs to K9s
KQo to KTo
QJs to Q9s
QJo to QTo
JTs to J8s
98s, 87s, 76s
6. Big blind (BB)
AKo, AKs, AQo, AQs, AA-TT. If the SB completes, we also raise all hands that we would have raised from the button. This results directly in a profitable situation because we have position on the small blind. The situation is practically a button vs. blind confrontation.
AKo, AKs, AA-QQ. Against a raise from the CO or the BU we also re-raise when we have JJ, TT, AQs, AQo.
- Calling a raise
All pairs, AQs, AJs, KQs. If several players have called in front of us: QJs, JTs.
No limping hold'em?
There are certainly exceptional situations in which we can limp if other players before us have done so as well. Such a situation could occur if, the stacks of the other limpers aren't big enough any more. If these players now want to call our raise with, e.g. , then we won't be able to exert enough pressure on the flop because a lot of players with small stacks cling onto whatever they hit on the flop. If we raise we would lose the chance of bluffing these small stacks out of the pot later. But in general we should exploit the advantages of raising to the fullest.
Expanding the hand range
The above recommendations apply in the first instance to 6-max newcomers and are accordingly tight. We have to realize that most of the money in no-limit hold'em is not won before, but after the flop, and above all in position. The percentage advantage of a pre-flop hand can be negated or even inverted by bad post-flop play and bad position. For this reason, the first thing of importance is to be positionally aware when we're playing. This is the basis for these pre-flop guidelines.
With increasing experience, competence and assuredness in the positional game, all successful no-limit hold'em players should - in fact, must - expand their hand ranges in shorthanded games. This will make their game unpredictable for their opponents and enable them to exploit the many profitable situations that can result from correct positional and post-flop play, even with speculative hands.