SNG Strategy: The Early Stage
The basis for playing successfully when the blinds are low is to focus on starting hand selection.
As already mentioned in the introduction, we have to play very tight and cautiously in the beginning. We should basically stick to hands such as:
- Premium hands: QQ, KK, AA,
- Medium pairs: 99, TT, JJ
- and high cards: AK, AQ
Although there are, of course, certain situations where speculative hands can also be played profitably.
Hands that require a lot of help from the board and are therefore rather speculative are:
- Small pairs: 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88
- Suited connectors: 45s, 56s, 67s, 78s, 89s, T9s, JTs, QJs, KQs
These hands should only be played in late position and in unraised pots, since in SNGs the blinds are pretty high in relation to the stacks right from the start. This leads to bad implied odds which are not enough to justify calling a raise with such hands.
But the blinds in the first levels are too small compared to the average stack in order to steal them, so the stealing hand range should not be all that loose. With hands like A2 to A9, QJ, etc., we can quickly find ourselves in very marginal situations that are difficult to play in case our steal-raise is called.
So I would like to explicitly point out again that hands like JTo, QTo, QJo, KTo, KJo should NOT be played, at least in the first blind levels, as we run into trouble with these hands too often and in the long run we will win small pots and lose big ones.
If you're going to play, play aggressively
If we want to play a hand, we should generally play it very aggressively. The advantage of playing aggressively is simply that we can take down the pot immediately by betting or raising. No one has ever done that with a call (with the exception of the river, of course).
With all premium hands (QQ, KK, AA, AKs) we should be willing to go all-in before the flop. We should always raise or re-raise pre-flop when we are holding one of these hands. It's not necessary to try to play "tricky". Many of the players at the low and medium limits are so bad and loose that we really don't have to do anything more than play solid ABC poker.
Medium pairs like TT or JJ are difficult to play, but they should nevertheless be played aggressively. But against a raise or re-raise these hands can be folded confidently.
Size of the Raise
Size of the raise: When deciding how much to raise before the flop, we should roughly stick to the four-times-plus-limper rule. This means we should raise four times the big blind and add one big blind for each limper. A re-raise should be three times the raise of the opponent.
The size of the raise should generally always be the same, regardless of whether we have AA in early position or KTs as a blind steal on the button, because otherwise good players will be able to read us too quickly.
Now that we have defined which hands should be played before the flop, we have to discuss a few very important points that significantly influence our post-flop play:
- Strength of our own hand:
- top pair (top kicker, weak kicker, no kicker)
- strong draw (straight/flush combinations draw, pair/draw, plain draw)
- strong made hand (top two pair, set, straight, flush, full house)
The main question here is:
Is our hand strong enough to play a big pot on this kind of flop? Or should we keep the pot rather small because the board is too dangerous for our hand?
- Given the structure of the board we should be able to answer the following questions:
- Do we have to protect a made hand from draws?
- Do we have a (good) draw and can we play it aggressively as a semi-bluff?
- Does the board contain cards that make a bluff credible?
- As always position also plays a very important role:
- Do we make use of our position in form of semi-bluffs or pure bluffs?
- Do we make use our position to get as much money in the pot as possible so that we get paid off on our good hands?
- Depending on our opponents, we have to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Is the opponent passive and is he more likely to call than to bet himself? Does this player only raise when he is holding a strong hand?
- Or is he an aggressive player who takes the initiative himself, (semi-)bluffs and sometimes even raises when his hand isn't particularly strong?
- The size of the bets:
- Do we even want to bet the flop at all?
- How much do we bet?
- Do we raise an opponent's bet?
- If so, how much should we raise?
- Reacting to a raise:
- How should we react to a check-raise or a raise behind us?
- Should we call a raise?
- Should we re-raise?
To answer these questions, let's take another look at a well-known concept that is an important part of post-flop play:
The continuation bet
We only hit the flop with one of our unpaired hole cards every third time. For now it doesn't really matter whether it is top, middle or bottom pair. However, our opponents also only hit the flop once in every three hands. We should take advantage of this, as long as we were the pre-flop aggressor, and should generally do so with a continuation bet.
There are only few situations where we shouldn't make a continuation bet. Our position at the table is the decisive factor when we have to decide whether or not to make a continuation bet.
In position against one or two opponents, we should make a continuation bet in 90% of cases. The exceptions here would be extremely draw-heavy boards where we haven't hit anything ourselves
- and don't see any chance at all of improving our hand, or
- we are up against a player who calls (even several) bets with all possible hands and we therefore don't have any fold equity.
Out of position
Here it gets a little trickier and we should take a closer look the structure of the board. Our opponents are also familiar with the concept of the continuation bet which means that they will often take advantage of their position and raise or call us more often than they would out of position.
Bad boards for a continuation bet are:
- Flops with flush and straight draws
- Flops with three high cards
Size of the continuation bet
The size of the continuation bet should always depend on the structure of the board and not on the strength of our hand. It should be between 2/3 and 3/4 of the current pot.
On flops that contain a pair we should generally bet less than on a flop with a flush draw. The basic rule is:
The more dangerous the board, the higher the continuation bet.
To get a feeling for the different types of situations, take a look at the 5 examples below that illustrate how to play different starting hands in the early stage of a SNG:
Example 1: Top hands like AA and KK
Before the flop we raise to 5BBs after one of the players limped in front of us in order to protect our own hand and to get heads-up if possible. After two players call, we see a very draw-heavy flop.
Because of this dangerous board, we have to make a continuation bet (a higher one in this case), in order to protect what is probably the best hand. After one of the two players calls again, there is a high probability that he is holding either a flush draw, a straight draw or less often even a straight or a set.
No draw arrives on the turn, but this doesn't mean that our hand no longer has to be protected. Since we are already pot-committed in case our opponent check-raises, we can't fold any more and have to pay off his slow played set.
- Example 2: Suited connectors in unraised pots
After several players have called in front of us, we can limp into the pot in position with this speculative hand. The flop gives us a flush draw which, however, should not be played aggressively, because too many opponents are still in the hand and the flush draw is presumably our only chance to win the pot.
Then we hit our flush on the turn. We should not play this made hand slow, instead we should raise aggressively in order to build the pot and to protect our own hand, since an opponent could draw to a better hand if he has a high diamond, a set or 2 pair in his hand. The all-in push on the river is then just a formality, since we are called often enough by worse hands (in this example by an ace). By checking behind we would give away value unnecessarily.
- Example 3: Playing AK
We raise pre-flop to four BBs and flop top pair top kicker on a paired board. In most cases we are ahead on this board and should try to generate as much value as possible.
So we bet and in this case our opponent responds with an all-in that we call. Of course, our opponent could have had a better hand like trips, but that was rather unlikely because of our pre-flop raise and the structure of the board.
We simply have to take these kinds of (small) risks even in the early stage of a SNG in order to create a good starting situation for the later levels. Just waiting for the nuts before we push all of our chips into the middle is the wrong approach in SNGs.
- Example 4: Playing draws aggressively
We flop an OESD with a backdoor flush draw, but we are out of position. We should still bet with our draw since we will win the pot on the flop often enough and we can still improve our hand in case we are called.
In this case a player calls us. We also get a flush draw on the turn in addition to our straight draw. We continue our aggression at this point in order to put pressure on our opponent and he eventually gives up his hand.
- Example 5: Playing a high pair
We make the standard raise to four BBs and get three callers. The flop is relatively safe for us and because the pot is already big, we don't want to fold our hand. We make our standard continuation bet and one of the opponents calls us. We are then pot-committed on the turn so that the all-in is merely a formality.