The following article aims to talk about the optimal 3-betting strategy in cash games. For the sake of this article, please assume that all examples reference 100bb stack depths. The reason for this is that it makes all of my examples easier to illustrate and it is the most common stack depth in cash games. As stacks get larger/shallower frequencies and sizing obviously changes to some degree.
Polarization vs Merging Your 3-Betting Range
There are two primary concepts you need to understand about 3-betting before we get started:
Polarization: When you polarize your 3-betting range you skew your range to either really strong hands that you want to get allin preflop and weak hands that you will comfortably fold to a 4-bet. The idea behind polarization is that you make your decisions very easy for you preflop and it allows you to not get blown off good hands that you dont nessesarily want to get allin preflop. So for example, AQ, AJ, KQ 99 etc.
Merging: When you merge your 3-betting range you are 3-betting all of your best starting hands. The intention of a merged range maybe to fold or go allin when you get 4-bet. A merged 3-betting range often includes hands like AT, AJ, KQ, AQ, TT, 99, TJs, QJs etc.
When To Merge And When To Polarize
The million dollar question! Whether you should merge or polarize is extremely dependent on your opponents tendencies. As a blanket rule of thumb, if your opponent is likely to call your 3-bet and play a postflop pot you should merge your range. On the flip side, if your opponent is going to fold a large percentage of the time then you should polarize your range.
The reason for this is simple, if your opponent is going to be playing postflop frequently with a wide range of hands, you want to have a good hand that plays well postflop against your opponents range. So for example, if a loose aggressive fish raises preflop and you are say 120 big blinds deep, you will want to 3-bet hands like AJ and KQ 100% of the time. The reason for this is that he will make a big mistake by calling very week hands like KTo or A9o out of position.
Now flip this around, you have a loose aggressive regular who raises preflop with a wide range and also folds frequently to 3-bets. You will want to 3-bet with a polarized range. So for example hands like 57s,T8s, 34s etc. The reason you want to do this is because when your opponent finally calls your 3-bet, he will have hands like AJ and KQ dominated almost always. In essence, we want to call with our preflop hands that dominate his opening range but do not dominate his 3-bet calling range.
Also, when your opponent plays back with a 4-bet, we dont want to have a medium strength hand like AQ or hands as strong as TT or JJ. In this spot our hand seems too strong to fold vs his 4-betting range but too weak to get allin. These spots are almost agonizing and should be avoided. You can avoid these spots but polarizing between hands you are comfortable getting allin and hands you can comfortably fold when 4-bet.
Optimal 3-Betting Frequencies
In standard 6-max games the optimal 3-betting frequency is probably within the range of 6-9%. This obviously depends on the opponents you are facing at the table and how they react to your 3-bets. So for example, if you have a fish who is raising very frequently and calling your 3-bet almost always, you will want to increase your 3-betting range. It may be accetpable and perhaps optimal to have a 3-betting percent of 10-15% in these situations (Although this risks you getting exploited by regulars who know you are widening your range).
Likewise if you are playing a table of tough regs (I dont not reccomend this, other than for the purposes of improving your game), your 3-betting range should be closer to “unexploitable”. IE if you 3-bet too much good players will be able to 4-bet bluff you profitably or own you postflop. Likewise if you 3-bet not enough, you will telegraph the strength of your range and your opponents can easily fold. Where this exact sweet spot is i dont know exactly. I think it is around the 7% mark, but it may be 1 or 2 points higher.
Speaking from experience i feel that when i skew my range to 3-betting more than 7-8%, i always feel that opponents play back at me more. And likewise, if i have my range below 5%, i will get far too many folds when i 3-bet.
I feel that the 6-7.5% range is a good sweet spot for my game. It allows me to get away with a good amount of preflop 3-bet bluffs without my opponents feeling like they can profitably play back at me.
You should of course not 3-bet the exact same ammount from each position. The ammount you should 3-bet from any position should be based on:
- How often your opponent folds.
- How often your opponent 4-bets.
- How often your opponent calls.
Obviously people don’t call/fold/4-bet the same frequencies from every position. I have found that people fold button opens the most often when 3-bet. This is a function of people open raising the most from the button. Therefore players should have a slightly higher percentage 3-bet from the small blind and the big blind.
Personally as a general rule of thumb (Not accounting for in-game adjustments and opponent adjustments), i will skew my 3-betting range somewhat similar to this:
- Small blind/big blind vs button: 3-betting the most.
- Button vs cutoff open: 3-betting the second most.
- Small blind/big blind vs cuttoff: 3-betting the third most.
- Late position vs early position: 3-betting the forth most.
- Early position vs the blinds: 3-betting the least.
How much do i skew these percentages, well its obviously extremely opponent dependent. There may be some opponents i 3-bet their UTG open a ton from the big blind. Likewise there will be opponents i don’t 3bet all that much from the small blind vs their button open. Overall this skew is either + or – a few percentage points.
The skew is a frequency of how often the average player folds. So for example, the average reg may fold his button open 75% of the time when 3-bet from the big blind. As a response to this i will 3-bet maybe 9% of the time with a polarized range and adapt if adjusts to these frequencies.
Likewise, the same player may fold only 55% of the time from the cuttoff vs a big blind 3-bet. In this spot i have some more options. Either:
- Merge my range to include hands like AQ, AJ and KQ.
- Reduce my overall 3-betting frequency from this position and reduce my bluff range.
- Tighten up and just 3-bet premiums and hope he doesn’t notice.
Generally speaking though, against regulars who are aware of your positional 3-betting frequencies (Just about everyone nowadays at nl200+) you will want to be somewhat balanced overall. So the adjustments i just talked about are level 1 kind of adjustments. IE adjusting to their general tendencies. What players often fail to take in to consideration are how their opponents will adapt to their frequencies. So for example, you might have a player who folds 80% to 3-bets when they raise the button, but this player is also aware of your positional stats. So your opponent raises the button and you 3-bet from the small blind with an air hand after seeing that he folds 80% of the time. This player then looks at your stats and sees you have 3-bet from the small blind 11% over a 1000 hand sample and decides to 4-bet bluff you. You snap fold because you assume the guy is a nit and folds often to 3-bets, in essence he owns you.
How To Win The Leveling War
This is where we get in to a never ending cycle of poker depth, leveling and adjusting to your opponents. The i know, he knows, i know argument. This is where you see people raise the button with pocket 8s, the big blind 3-bets pocket 4′s, the button 4-bets and the big blind jams, only to be snapped by pocket 8s.
This is the situation we have got in to in 2012 and it just comes from the acute awareness of peoples ranges and frequencies from various positions. It is essentially what has reduced most previous winning players edges. IE everyone has got better at understanding positional ranges and frequencies.
So what is the answer you ask? Well the answer is either:
- To be balanced to the point where your opponent cant play back at you light. IE to be in that sweet spot range where you are not getting it in too light, not 3-betting too much as a bluff but at the same time don’t have such a strong range that your opponent can fold.
- Get in to variance wars by merging your range. (Not good IMO)
- To turn up with a different range compared to what your opponent thinks your stats show.
How To Mask Your Range
There is no simple way to hide what your preflop range is from your opponents. HUD data does not really lie over a large sample. That being said, you can structure your ranges in a certain way that is counter intuitive to what your opponent would expect.
So what if in a certain spot you have a 6% 3-bet range, relatively tight. But of that 6% it is 5% bluffs and 1% value. This structuring of your range in a certain way is what leads your opponents to play imperfectly against you. For example, most regulars will play tight against a 6% range, but they would be making a fundamental theory of poker error by folding so much against this range. This would also allow your opponents to make big mistakes against you, so say your opponent raises the cutoff and you 3-bet the button. Most opponents will blindly get in tens or jacks in this spot against a 6% 3-betting range, but would that be correct if they knew your value range was QQ+. No it wouldn’t, the correct play in that exact spot is to flat jacks against a range that is mostly bluff heavy with suited gappers and what not. But in reality, no one you will be playing against will know this, and very few people will make the correct poker play. Since it goes against conventional wisdom to call hands out of position like TT or JJ.
Although this is a slightly complex explanation of range weightings, the point is still a very important one. When you show up with hands that your opponent does not expect you profit. So if your opponents get JJ in too light against your allin range you profit. Likewise, if your opponent thinks your 6% range is stronger that it actually is (IE mostly made up of bluff hands), you will profit because they will make far to many big folds preflop against you. For example they fold pocket 9′s when you 3-bet 79s.
You can also apply the same argument with position. There are certain positions where 3-betting looks incredibly strong to a smart opponent. So for example if under the gun raises and you are in the small blind, some players might have a 3-bet range of AK+ QQ+ and no bluff range. If your opponent pegs you on this range, why not throw in a 3bet of 67s every now and then and represent QQ+ ruthlessly postflop. This can be extremly profitable against the right opponent who can read hands and puts you on a tough range. Likewise, when you have AA in this spot why not flat sometimes and raise the flop.
The biggest thing you must remember is that if you can turn up with value hands when your opponent doesn’t expect you to, you profit. On the flip side, when you turn up with a bluff and your opponent never puts you on air and makes a big fold you also profit. The person who profits the most is the person who manipulates their opponents in to making the biggest mistakes against their actual range of hands.