Preflop is the most common and important street to get right.
Having a solid preflop strategy that is well-considered and difficult to exploit is the foundation of any great player. If your preflop game is strong, it will set you up for profitable scenarios postflop and make your future decisions less difficult.
This article will discuss the act of raising first in (RFI), outlining some of the most important things to consider when constructing a preflop RFI strategy such as:
- The ranges of hands suitable to raise first in.
- The most profitable size to use when opening the action.
Before we get to those RFI specific topics, let’s talk about why raising is better than calling preflop.
Prefer watching to reading? Click here for Ryan’s video version.
Why You Should Always Raise First In
Limping is one of the most common preflop mistakes new players make. It is crucial to realize that you should always raise–rather than limp–when opening the preflop action. There are many reasons why limping is laughed at by educated poker players and should be avoided, but two stand out:
- You want to ensure that you get maximum value from your playable holdings by building the pot preflop. If you elect to limp, you fail to do this and will reduce the expected value of your hand.
- If you limp your stronger holdings, you incentivize other players to see a cheap flop. This will lead to multi-way pots where the equity of your hand decreases significantly.
You have probably heard a recreational player moaning after limping their Aces and getting outdrawn by a weak hand. Little do they know, once a certain amount of players enter the pot, their Aces’ equity shrivels up.
For example, in a pot with five other opponents each playing a range of the top 20% of hands, a player with AA is expected to lose over 47% of the time:
There are some rare situations where limping can be justified:
- Certain spots from the small blind after the action has folded around to you.
- Pots where multiple players in front of you have already limped.
Aside from those occasions, you should always raise first in rather than call.
Which Hands Should Be RFI?
As previously mentioned, hand selection and range construction are the first key components to developing a strong RFI strategy. Given that folding yields an expected value (EV) of zero, you want to choose to raise with hands which will have a positive EV.
Below is a chart outlining the RFI ranges for a 6-max table (taken from our free preflop charts), assuming effective stack sizes are 100 big blinds:
55+, A2s+, K9s+, Q9s+, J9s+, T8s+, 98s, 87s, 76s, AJo+, KQo
44+, A2s+, K9s+, Q9s+, J9s+, T8s+, 97s+, 87s, 76s, 65s, 54s, 43s, ATo+, KJo+, QJo
22+, A2s+, K8s+, Q8s+, J8s+, T8s+, 97s+, 86s+, 76s, 65s, 54s, ATo+, KTo+, QTo+, JTo
22+, A2s+, K3s+, Q5s+, J6s+, T6s+, 96s+, 85s+, 75s+, 64s+, 54s, 43s, A2o+, K9o+, Q9o+, J9o+, T9o
22+, A2s+, K2s+, Q4s+, J6s+, T6s+, 95s+, 84s+, 74s+, 63s+, 53s+, 43s, 32s, A2o+, K8o+, Q8o+, J8o+, T8o+, 98o
*The hands in this chart should all yield a positive expected value from a theoretically optimal standpoint, though it should be noted that the bottom of each range will be marginal in its results. You can and should fold the worst hands in these ranges with loose opponents behind or in the blinds.
Notice that the ranges in earlier positions (UTG, MP) will be tighter than those in later positions. This is because those acting earlier in a hand have more opponents posing potentially aggressive actions than those acting later.
(Note: Serious about improving your preflop skills? The Upswing Lab has an extensive preflop game plan covering RFI strategy, 3-betting, facing 3-bets and more!)
These ranges will serve as a great starting point for constructing your own RFI range. That said, you should be encouraged to deviate when doing so will have a higher EV against exploitable opponents.
For example, if the player on your left is extremely tight and over-folds their big blind, you should raise a larger percentage of hands as there is dead money to be taken.
Conversely, if the big blind is aggressively defending by 3-betting your raise, you should consider lowering the percentage of hands which you are opening.
How Do I Choose My Bet Size When Raising First In?
Now that we know what our RFI ranges look like, some thought must be given to the best opening size to use.
As a general rule, the wider the range of hands which you are playing, the smaller your opening size should be. This is because your ratio of strong hands to mediocre hands is lower when playing a wider range. Thus, your range is less value-oriented than it is when playing a narrower range of hands.
Such logic has led to some players employing a variable opening size strategy. In other words, they raise to different sizes depending on their position. For example:
- Raise to your largest preflop size, usually 3.5-4bb, when in the earliest positions (UTG, UTG1)
- Decrease your raise size to around 3bb from the middle positions (MP, LoJack)
- Use your smallest raise size, usually 2-2.5bb, as you reach the latest positions (HJ, CO, BTN)
*The sizes specified in this article are intended for online play. These concepts still apply to live poker, but the sizes will be larger on average.
However, there are numerous problems with a variable opening size strategy.
The Downsides To A Variable Opening Size Strategy
- Large opens lose extra chips when forced out of the pot.
Employing a large open size will lose more money when we get 3-bet and have to fold. You’ll lose an extra 1-1.5bb compared to a smaller opening size. It may not seem like much, but in the long run those losses will add up.
Also, players who have position versus an UTG open are more incentivized to 3-bet if there is a greater amount of dead money in the pot. This causes obvious problems for the UTG raiser, who now faces a strong raise out of position.
- Large opens will deter players with weaker holdings from calling.
As mentioned above, we do not want all players to see a flop for a cheap price. That would dramatically lower the equity of our strong holdings.
But we do want to incentivize opponents with hands worse than our own to call. For example:
Online Cash Game
Hero is UTG and gets dealt
Hero raises to 2.25bb, CO calls, Big Blind calls
Big Blind checks, Hero bets 5bb, CO raises to 18bb, Big Blind goes all-in for 98bb, Hero calls, CO calls
Big Blind shows , CO shows
Hero wins 299bb
Given the relatively cheap price preflop, the Cutoff made what was a -EV call against our QQ with 76s. The Big Blind was then able to call with a speculative 85s because the great pot odds (5-to-1) they were being offered.
Now, replay this scenario with the UTG player opening to 4bb instead of 2.25bb. In all likelihood, the hand would end preflop with both the CO and Big Blind’s hands hitting the muck.
Against a 4bb raise, the CO no longer feels incentivized to call with their marginal holdings. The player in the Big Blind will now have to call 3bb to win a pot of 5.5bb. Not good pot odds (2-to-1), especially against an open from UTG.
You may run into the occasional incident where your hand is outdrawn by a weaker holding that was incentivized to call a small open raise. That said, it is a price worth paying given the huge value offered in the long-term by encouraging players to make -EV decisions with marginal hands.
(Note: Serious about improving your poker game? Check out Doug Polk and Ryan Fee’s comprehensive poker training course: The Upswing Lab!)
- Variable open sizes run the risk of being exploited.
If you were only to open to 4bb with the top of your range, your opponents could simply fold all but their strongest hands and deny you the EV which your strong hands offer.
In other words, as using a large opening size discourages the inclusion of weaker hands into your range, it makes you predictable and more likely to be exploited by your opponents. By employing a fixed opening size from all positions, it allows you to construct a more balanced strategy that will make you a tougher opponent to play against.
All of these problems can be resolved simply by using a smaller opening size of approximately 2.25bb from all positions.
Exceptions To Using The 2.25bb Open Size
There are occasions when you will be playing against opponents where deviating from a fixed 2.25bb opening size will be the most profitable line to take.
For example, if you notice that there is one or several calling stations at your table that seems to call opens irrespective of their size, you can raise a larger amount with your strong value hands until they correctly adjust.
This often applies to live games more so than online, so if you are an online player who is making the transition to live play, don’t be scared to use a larger opening size if it is shown to yield a greater expected value than using a smaller one.
Developing a good RFI strategy is a fundamental requirement for any aspiring poker player. Always remember the rules below to make sure that you open the action like a pro:
- Don’t limp when acting first in.
- Be selective with the hands that you choose to raise. Pick high-equity holdings and those which retain their equity well versus the ranges of your opponents.
- You should widen your opening range in relation to your closeness to the button and the dead blinds in the pot.
- Use a small opening size (approximately 2.25bb) to encourage your opponents to make -EV decisions whilst minimizing your losses when faced with aggression.
- Deviate from a theoretical-informed strategy if you notice that you can more greatly profit from an opponent by taking an exploitative line.
(Note: Want to take your preflop game to the next level? Check out the Upswing Lab, an A-to-Z poker training course created by Doug Polk & Ryan Fee. The Lab is the best and most convenient way to improve your poker game, but don’t take my word for it, see what our members are saying!)