The Ultimate Guide to Tournament 3-Betting
Suppose you’re facing a late position raise with a good-but-not-great hand on the button.
You’re also just 25 big blinds deep–you know, that annoying stack size that makes all of your options (calling, folding and 3-betting) feel awkward. Sound familiar?
If these spots drive you crazy sometimes, the good news is you’re not the only one.
Many unseasoned tournament players struggle with short-stacked 3-betting–especially those with a cash game background. When you usually play hundreds of big blinds deep, you’re used to seeing 3-bet sizes between 7 and 10 big blinds.
In tournaments, however, you’ll find yourself grinding with 15-30BB stacks all day long. Consequently, 3-betting correctly with short stacks is one of the most important skills for tournament players.
Let’s begin with an example.
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Short-stack 3-betting example & analysis
You’re deep in a tournament (no ICM considerations), and there are 0.15BB antes in play. You, the cutoff, and the button all have exactly 25BB stacks. The player in the big blind has a 40BB stack.
Cutoff is a solid player who’s expected to open-raise a pretty standard range of something like this:
Cutoff raises to 2.2BBs with the above range. Button folds. We have the following options:
- 3-bet planning to call a shove (3-bet/call)
- 3-bet planning to fold to a shove (3-bet/fold)
Pause for a moment to consider how you would play each of the following five hands, and why:
In thinking about these hands, the first thing to do is figure out which of them we can shove profitably. By running a simple calculation in Hold’em Resources Calculator (HRC)–you should be doing this routinely, by the way, and it only takes about a minute for each hand–we can eliminate some options.
Here’s what we can 3-bet shove against that opening range, assuming that the opener and the big blind are calling our shoves correctly:
Clearly, KJo or A4s lose money by shoving, and this shoving with them is out of the question. But 44, AJs and AA all profit as shoves. Does that mean we should shove with them, though? Not necessarily.
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We don’t want to shove with all hands that profit as shoves because we want to induce with some of our best hands. We also don’t want to “waste” our AA by shoving for 25BB and forcing the opener to fold a hand they may have continued with otherwise. Additionally, 3-betting non-all-in with some hands gives us the option to credibly 3-bet bluff in this spot.
That said, we should definitely shove some hands. Shoving makes more sense with hands that benefit from denying equity and make a decent profit as a shove, but can’t comfortably 3-bet with plans to call a shove.
When considering what to do in short-stacked 3-bet situations, I find it very helpful to consider which hands fit best in the following categories:
SHOVE – Hands that profit as shoves, aren’t strong enough to 3-bet/call a shove, and play poorly against calls in 3-bet pots.
3-BET/CALL SHOVE – Strong hands from our value 3-betting range (usually something like the top 7% of hands).
3-BET/FOLD TO SHOVE – Hands that are just barely not strong enough to shove or 3-bet/call, especially hands with good blockers.
CALL – This range can be anything from 50% in the big blind to 0% in the small blind depending on a lot of factors, but generally you want to call hands that are suited/connected, and have good post-flop playability (unless you’re in the big blind, in which case you can call with a super wide range).
FOLD – Hands that don’t meet any of the above criteria.
Let’s go back and see which categories each of the five hands fall under.
- 3-bet/call with AA – The best hand we can have, and thus the most obvious hand to include in the 3-bet/call category.
- 3-bet/fold with KJo – I think this hand is probably the best 3-bet/fold candidate. As proven by the calculation above, we can’t profitably shove with it. It’s also a little too weak to call when out of position and with awkward stack sizes. It makes for an excellent 3-bet/folding candidate, though, as it has two good blockers and is just below the threshold for calling.
- 3-bet/call, or maybe shove, with AJs – This is the near worst hand we can profitably 3-bet/call with, but we can also shove it and make a big profit. If the villain likes to peel 3-bets wide, I prefer shoving in order to deny equity. Against 4-bet-happy villains I’d rather 3-bet/call to induce bluffs from their worse Ax hands.
- Shove with 44 – This is about as obvious a shove as it gets. Small pairs usually makes for great shoving candidates because 3-bet/calling is terrible (nearly every 4-bet bluff is still flipping against a small pair), and you really want to deny hands like QTs and A8s that ~50% equity. Granted, 44 only makes 0.29BB as a shove and AJs makes 2.31BB, but if I’d have to choose between the two I’d much rather shove 44 because it plays quite terribly post-flop.
- 3-bet fold, or maybe fold, with A4s – We can’t profitably shove and we definitely can’t call, but this hand is a very solid candidate for a 3-bet/fold considering its equity and Ace blocker. Folding is fine, too.
Most of the above hand categories are pretty easy to master. You can learn to 3-bet shove correctly by practicing with poker tools like Hold’em Resources Calculator and ICMizer. Figuring out which hands to 3-bet/call isn’t that hard, either, and the mistakes you’ll make in this category will likely be minor. (It isn’t the end of the world whether you make the cutoff for a 3-bet/calling range AJs or AJo or ATs, as long as you’re not completely out of line.)
3-bet/folding is where things get interesting, and often fairly difficult.
3-bet/folding with short stacks
Mastering 3-bet/folding is essential for aspiring tournament beasts, yet it’s super tough to get the hang of.
Editors Note: 3-bet/folding and 3-bet bluff are used interchangeably in this section. They have the same basic meaning in a short-stack context.
Why it is so tough? Because there are very few ‘rules’. You can’t learn to 3-bet/fold by following some chart because every situation is unique.
What you can do, though, is follow some simple advice for most situations: 3-bet/fold hands that are slightly worse than the ones you would call.
As a general guideline, hands that are just below your calling range function well as 3-bet/folds for the following reasons:
- These hands usually have a blocker or two, which makes it slightly less likely you’ll get 4-bet shoved on.
- If your 3-bet gets called, most of these hands play pretty well post-flop.
- It’s an effective way to stay somewhat balanced. By limiting your 3-bet bluffs to hands just below your calling range, you will rarely end up over- or under-bluffing.
Example: Cutoff raises and you’re on the button with 25BBs. What’s the first hand that comes to mind that you would call with?
I’m guessing it’s something like KQs, KJs or QJs, which are easily strong enough to call with, and have great post-flop playability (you could profitably shove these hands, too, but that’s not the point).
But what about, say, KTo, K9s, or QJo? These hands are probably a bit too weak to call with, which means they are probably good 3-bet/folds.
It’s worth noting that the game has changed rapidly in recent years. People now call 3-bets short-stacked more than they used to. This is why, in general, it’s more important than ever to choose 3-bet bluffs that are at least somewhat playable post-flop, unless the spot is really good (your opponent can’t flat a lot because of ICM, etc.).
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Choosing your opponent
When 3-bet bluffing, you should lean towards targeting players with a loose open-raising range. A player who is opening 50% in the cutoff, for example, is clearly a better candidate for a 3-bet bluff than a player who is opening 15%.
For online players, I strongly recommend using the “raise first” (RFI) stat on your HUD, and a popup to show that stat by position. Some inexperienced players raise roughly the same range from each position, whereas more positionally aware players might raise 50%+ on the button, 35% in the cutoff, but just 10% UTG. Checking position-specific stats is a handy way to see who might be getting out of line.
Let’s consider a few possible 25BB cutoff open-raising ranges and discuss how often our 3-bet bluff might work versus each:
- 23% range (22+, A2s+, K9s+, Q9s+, J9s+, T9s, 98s, 87s, A9o+, KTo+, QTo+, JTo)
This is a relatively tight open-raising range–exactly a range against which you need to be very selective with your bluffs. A range this solid does very well defending against 3-bets with a shallow stack, because roughly a third of it can comfortably get all-in for 25BBs, and there are very few hands that can’t at least call a 3-bet, at least in position.
I’d rather under-bluff than over-bluff against this range, and only use the absolute best 3-bet bluffing hands. These are the spots where understanding basic 3-betting theory and hand selection comes in handy.
- 31% range (22+, A2s+, K8s+, Q9s+, J9s+, T8s+, 97s+, 87s, 76s, A2o+, KTo+, QTo+, JTo)
This isn’t a particularly loose range, either. It’s similar to the first range, but with all offsuit aces and a few suited connectors added.
But a key difference with this range is that nearly all the newly added hands can’t comfortably continue against most 3-bets. This is something that people often fail to realize, but A2o-A8o alone make for 84 combos of hands. Here’s another 84 combo range: 77+, AJs+, AQo+. In other words, adding just those few offsuit aces means our opponent would have to defend with some speculative hands in order to stop us from exploiting them.
- 41% range (22+, A2s+, K7s+, Q8s+, J7s+, T7s+, 97s+, 86s+, 75s+, 65s, 54s, A2o+, K8o+, Q8o+, J8o+, T8o+, 98o)
This is a very wide range, about the widest I can imagine under normal circumstances. It’s also a range that I might open if I thought the button and/or big blind were nits. Against competent players, however, opening this wide would be burning money.
In its entirety, the range includes a whopping 550 combinations! Even if the open-raiser always 4-bet shoves a somewhat loose range, say 13.2% (22+, A8s+, KJs+, QJs, ATo+, KQo), those hands still only make for one-third of her opening range. That means two-thirds of her opening range is unable to get it all-in against a 3-bet, which is something you can exploit. You can get pretty out of line against players like this, and sometimes just go for it with a hand like 96s, which doesn’t even have blockers.
For live players and those who don’t like staring at HUD numbers, a good rule of thumb is to keep an eye on players who open offsuit aces below ATo, hands like J9o, Q8o, and so on. Offsuit hands add up rapidly combination-wise. A question I often ask my students about these spots is this:
If A2o is the worst hand you open in spot X, what percentage of hands do you think you’re opening? Most answer something like 15% or 20%.
But the answer, crazy though it may seem, is roughly 35%. Obviously, this depends on hand selection preferences, but it’s close to that number.
You want to attack players who habitually open any ace from a specific position by 3-betting light, even if they don’t otherwise seem very aggressive. In fact, it’s great news if they are solid players otherwise–opening too many offsuit aces is a glaring leak that many players have, and is one of the easiest ones to exploit. Unless they’re maniacs who respond by 4-bet shoving super aggressively, then there’s little risk in attacking these players.
Lastly, it’s important to read the spot correctly. Seeing a player open the cutoff with A2o doesn’t mean he’s going to do it under different circumstances. A good player will alter their opening ranges based on changing conditions, and sometimes quite dramatically. The trick is to get inside their head and realize when they’re opening looser than normal, without making it obvious that you know.
An example of a very obvious situation would be an opponent opening on a big blind who’s sitting out. Everyone plays looser in these spots, and everyone knows it. If you 3-bet too wide when the big blind is sitting out, you’ll just get jammed on and cost yourself chips.
A less obviously good spot to 3-bet would be when a reg is opening on a fish’s big blind–good players want to play more pots against fish, so they open a little bit wider. But, it’s not immediately obvious that they’re light, because they also need to have a halfway playable hand to play flops with.
Consider stack sizes
I often get asked what the shortest stack they can 3bet/fold with is. As always, the answer is “it depends”–on your opponent, on positions, on tournament conditions, and so on. But a good general rule of thumb is somewhere around 25BBs as a baseline strategy.
With 25BBs stacks, you can still 3-bet/fold a bunch of hands without it being too painful, because the pot odds you’ll be getting against a 4-bet won’t be that great. Importantly, you should add a couple of big blinds to that number when playing out of position, since you need to size up your 3-bets to discourage calls from your in-position opponents. Example:
Poker tournament. Blinds 500/1000/150. 25,000 effective stacks.
Hero is dealt K♠ T♥ in the small blind
Cutoff raises to 2200. btn folds. Hero…
Again, let’s start by seeing if we can shove (we’ll assume cutoff is raising with the same 31% range from the previous section):
But you can pretty comfortably make it something like 6,200, and fold to a shove. If the cutoff shoves, KTo will have close to the correct pot odds to call if the opponent is always shoving hands like A8s and 22 (a big if), but in practice this hand is not strong enough to 3-bet/call. With slightly shorter 20BB stacks, however, the pot odds would be too great with a third of our stack already in.
With more experience, you’ll sometimes see spots for some real shenanigans with even shorter stacks, but that shouldn’t be the norm. If you’re habitually 3-bet/folding with 20BB stacks, then you’re almost certainly leaking money.
With shorter than 20BB stacks, you’ll either get great pot odds to call a 4-bet shove, or end up using hands that would make money as 3-bet shoves. That’s why you need to be careful with sub-22BB hand selection. And in those cases you should usually select slightly more polarizing hands, such as A2o, which has a blocker but is easily dominated my the vast majority of a shoving range.
Poker tournament. Blinds 500/1000/150. 25,000 effective stacks.
Hero is dealt A♠ 2♥ on the button
Cutoff raises to 2200. Hero 3-bets to 5200. blinds fold. Cutoff shoves 24850. hero folds.
Here you’d need 34.5% equity to call, and against a shoving range of 22+,A9s+,KQs,A9o+,KQo you have 31%. So, A2o is a clear fold facing this shove.
But if you swap your hand for, say, A5s, you’re butchering it because you could both just 3-bet/call (you have 37.7% against the same 4-bet shoving range) or 3-bet shove yourself and show a profit:
In a spot like this, you’d want to have a very narrow 3-bet/folding range, perhaps just something like using a mixed strategy with A2o-A5o, in order to balance those JJ+, AK induces.
If you aren’t comfortable with 3-betting as a bluff with ~22BBs, I think it’d be perfectly fine to basically never do so. It can be done profitably, but it should be rare, in contrast to those better spots that arise with slightly deeper stacks. If you’re not an experienced shallow stack 3-bettor, then you should definitely start from 25BB and work your way down to shallower territory as gain experience.
Short-stack 3-betting conclusion
To sum up: I know this is a complex topic, but I hope I’ve made it a little less complex for you. I should say, again, that this area of tournament strategy is best improved through experience, trial and error, and that you shouldn’t feel bad when you attempt a shallow 3-bet/fold and it doesn’t work out. Learn from each situation, and you’ll get there eventually.
It’s also good to keep in mind that playing against a 3-bet with shallow stacks will be annoying with at least half of any reasonable opening range. Just coming to terms with that will make things more difficult for your opponents.
As always, I’m happy to answer questions in the comments box below or on Twitter @chuckbasspoker.
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