3-betting pre-flop is a powerful move in No Limit Hold’em.
Let’s stop for a moment and consider some of the benefits of 3-betting:
- 3-betting gives the aggressor a chance to win the pot without seeing a flop, taking advantage of the dead money already in the middle.
- A pre-flop 3-bet is an effective way to isolate weak opponents and limit the number of players that see a flop.
- 3-betting inflates the pot, which is particularly useful when the aggressor is holding strong hands.
Due to it’s effectiveness, 3-betting becomes more frequent as stakes get higher and competition gets tougher.
It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to reach a high level of poker without knowing how to react to pre-flop 3-bets.
In this article, I’ll explain the most important things to consider when facing a 3-bet and break down the strategic differences between playing these spots in and out of position.
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Factors to Consider When Facing a 3-Bet
There are many factors to consider when facing a 3-bet, but three rise above the rest in terms of importance:
- The tendencies of the 3-bettor.
- The size of the raise.
- How well our hand realizes it’s equity.
Considering the 3-Bettor’s Tendencies
Poker is a game of exploitation and adjustment, which is why paying attention to the tendencies of our opponents is crucial.
This concept is particularly important when facing pre-flop 3-bets. Let’s consider two extreme player types and discuss the appropriate adjustment when facing a 3-bet from each:
- The NIT is very tight and usually aggressive with only the strongest of hands.
When facing a 3-bet from The NIT, we can exploitatively fold all but the very top of our range. We can continue to make big folds pre-flop with confidence until The NIT adjusts by incorporating bluffs into their 3-bet range.
- The LAGTARD is a loose and aggressive player that 3-bets at a very high frequency.
When The LAGTARD 3-bets us, we can exploitatively continue with a wider range containing both more 4-bets and calls (more on this shortly). It’s important to focus and take meticulous notes on such opponents in order to fully exploit their overly-aggressive style.
Considering the Size of the 3-Bet
Theoretically, the size of the raise is the most important factor to consider when facing a 3-bet as it determines the pot odds we are being offered.
Once we know our pot odds, we can calculate the minimum amount of equity needed to profitably call against our opponent’s range.
Calculating pot odds is simple: divide the bet size by the total size of the pot, plus the bet size again. Written as a formula, it would be:
(Current Pot Size + Bet size)
Multiply the result by 100 to express it as a percentage, which is the raw equity needed to call. For example:
$0.50/$1.00 on PokerStars, $100 Effective Stacks
Hero is dealt in the HiJack
folds to hj, Hero raises to $2.50, Cutoff 3-bets to $8, btn & blinds fold
We must call $5.50 and the current pot is $12. Let’s plug the numbers into the formula:
$5.50 =.31 or 31%
($12 + $5.50)
We must call $5.50 to compete for a post-flop pot of $17.50. This means that our hand must have approximately 31% raw equity or more against our opponent’s range to justify a call.
The larger the 3-bet size, the worse our pot odds will be and the more equity our hand will need to profitably make the call.
Next, we need to use a program such as Poker Equilab to calculate our hand’s equity against the 3-bettor’s range (which we will have to estimate).
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the default pre-flop ranges found in The Poker Lab.
By inputting these ranges into Equilab, we can work out the equity of our range versus that of our opponent and compare it with the raw equity required to profitably call the 3-bet (remember, 31%) in this spot.
In accordance with The Poker Lab ranges, the calculations show that the HiJack’s opening range will have 42.4% raw equity versus the Cutoff’s 3-betting range.
If raw equity was all that mattered when facing 3-bets, the HiJack could defend their entire opening range versus the $8 3-bet from the Cutoff.
Raw equity tells us how often each hand (or range) would win if they were all-in against each other, but that isn’t how poker works. If and when the HiJack calls the 3-bet, there will be post-flop poker to play. That’s where realized equity comes in.
Considering Raw Equity Versus Realized Equity
The relationship between the raw equity of a hand and its profitability in practice is not a linear one.
There are some hands that have a strong correlation between their raw equity and realized equity, but there are a far greater number of hands that either under- or over-realize their raw equity in practice.
To illustrate this point, let’s compare the equities of 22 and AKo:
22 is a 52.7% favorite over AKo. However, despite 22 having the higher amount of raw equity versus AKo – a hand that will frequently be 3-bet – its realized equity is far lower.
In order for a hand to realize it’s equity, it must reach showdown. 22 will rarely get to showdown against an opponent whose post-flop betting frequencies are correct.
Hands that realize their equity poorly should usually hit the muck when facing 3-bets.
Low pocket pairs are the most obvious hands that suffer from poor equity realization. Other examples will be discussed later, but as a general guideline:
- Suited hands realize their equity better than off-suit hands.
- The more connected a hand is, the more equity it realizes.
I’ll dive a little deeper into equity realization towards the end of the article.
Now, let’s talk about the differences between facing a 3-bet in position and out of position.
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Facing a 3-Bet In Position
Having position on your opponents is extremely valuable. Though it is difficult to quantify exactly how valuable it is, a quick look at a large sample size of hands using tracking software will clearly display this point.
If we filter our results by money won/position, we’ll notice that we become more profitable as we get closer to the Button.
Acting last post-flop means we will have the max-amount of information available to us when making our decisions. Our hands do a better job realizing their equity when in position as a result.
When facing a 3-bet in position, we can justifiably call with a wider range of hands to account for our positional advantage. For example:
$1/$2 6-Max on PokerStars
Hero is dealt on the Button
folds to hero, Hero raises to $5, sb folds, Big Blind 3-bets to $18
We have to call $13 more to win a total pot of $24, which comes out to 35.1% raw equity needed.
This time, I used the ranges from The Poker Lab to estimate a 44% Button opening range and a 12.37% Big Blind Vs Button 3-bet range.
So, how should we react to this 3-bet as the player on the button with each specific hand? Let’s start with the calls:
AA-JJ: Though it should not be done often, it can be correct to slow-play the very strongest hands when facing a 3-bet from the Big Blind.
This will be more prevalent at low stakes for a couple of reasons:
- It is uncommon for players at low stakes to flat 4-bets out of position (as facing challenging post-flop situations are often avoided by newcomers).
- Players at low stakes usually have a very low 5-bet frequency.
With the right flop, flatting these premium holdings can allow us to extract a ton of value from the hands in our opponent’s 3-betting range that would have folded to a 4-bet.
TT-66: Middling to high pocket pairs play most effectively as flats versus a 3-bet in position.
On low boards that do not connect heavily with the Big Blind’s 3-bet range, we can comfortably call down when facing continuation bets and barrels.
Also, given our positional advantage, we will more easily be able to get to showdown on seemingly scary boards with middling hands (like 77 or 66).
Strong broadways: Connected and suited broadway combinations (AJ, KQ, KJ, etc) will do well as calls versus 3-bets in position. There is a strong correlation between these hands’ raw equity and realized equity, and it’s fairly obvious why.
Take KQs for example. It is able to make the nuts (straights and flushes) on boards that will connect with our opponent’s range and we will be able to get value as a result.
Hands like these will often serve as effective semi-bluffs on a variety of board textures, which is aided by our positional advantage.
Suited connectors (and one-gappers): Suited connectors like 76s, 87s, 98s and T9s do a fantastic job realizing their equity, as do suited one-gappers like J9s, T8s, etc.
T9s, 98s, 87s and 76s have approximately 41% raw equity versus a big blind 3-betting range, 6% over the 35.1% raw equity required to profitably call. Given that they will realize all, if not more, of their equity, suited connectors definitely should be a part of our flatting range.
There’s a number of reasons why suited connectors realize their equity so well:
- Suited connectors are rarely dominated when facing a 3-bet
- Like the strong suited broadways, suited connectors often make for very effective semi-bluffs after the flop.
- Suited connectors are able to make very strong hands relatively easily.
There are other hands that sorta fit into this category that make good calls as well, such as A5s, Q9s or K9s.
55-22: Low pocket pairs realize their equity quite poorly and should usually look to fold against 3-bets unless the sizing is small or the opponent is weak.
Low pairs do a good job demonstrating the nuanced relationship between raw equity and realized equity; despite 22-55 having over 48% against the big blind’s 3-betting range, it will be hard – even with position – to realize it.
Offsuit hands with big gaps: Hands such as A6o-A9o, K2o-K8o, Q2o-Q7o and J2o-J6o should rarely be used to defend against a 3-bet.
Despite such combinations having a high amount of raw equity, the frequency at which they are dominated makes them very difficult to play.
They have little-to-no potential to make nutted hands, are difficult to use as bluffs and cannot be confidently value bet without two pair or better.
4-Betting When Facing a 3-Bet In Position
Now that we know which hands play well as calls, the next step is to consider which hands play well as 4-bets.
4-betting in position puts the 3-bettor in a very tricky spot and increases the likelihood of them making a mistake.
AA-JJ: Though occasionally flatting these hands can be good, it is best to 4-bet them the vast majority of the time.
These premium pocket pairs play best when there is a small stack-to-pot-ratio and isolated opponents, and 4-betting them will cultivate both of these conditions.
AKs, AKo: Ace-Kang is one of the strongest hands in Hold‘em and should be 4-bet with 100% frequency in the above Button vs Big Blind example.
By 4-betting this AK, we accomplish one of three things:
- We fold out equity from worse hands at the lower end of the 3-bettor’s range.
- We extract value when the 3-bettor calls the 4-bet with weaker hands.
- We face a 5-bet all-in and get to make a profitable call off with AK.
Consider these alongside our positional advantage and it becomes clear why AK is a favorable hand to 4-bet with.
AQs, AQo, TT-99: These near-premium hands should be 4-bet with some frequency against players with a high 3-bet percentage.
Mixing in more thin value-bets like these allow us to bluff more often as well, which punishes the 3-bettor for their over-aggressiveness.
Working Some Bluffs Into Our 4-Bet Range
Now, we have to balance our 4-betting range by adding in some bluffs.
A perfectly balanced range is unexploitable and makes the opposing player indifferent between their options.
It’s impossible for a human (and even most computers) to remain perfectly balanced in poker, but at least considering balance will close off opportunities for our opponent’s to exploit us.
Let’s consider the weaknesses of having an off-balanced 4-betting range:
- If our 4-betting range is too value-heavy, our opponent can exploit us by folding all but their strongest hands when facing 4-bet.
- Conversely, if our 4-betting range contains too many bluffs, our opponent can exploit us by slow-playing their big hands and relentlessly 5-bet bluffing.
But which specific hands should we use as 4-bet bluffs? I’m going to quote a section from my article There’s Big Money in 4-Bet & 5-Bet Pots to answer that question.
You want to 4-bet bluff with hands that are just barely not strong enough to call the 3-bet.
The best hands to use as 4-bet bluffs are suited Aces, particularly suited wheel Ax (like A2 and A3). These hands are great choices for three reasons:
1. Card removal. When we hold an Ace in our hand it becomes less likely that our opponent holds Aces or Ace-King.
2. Good equity against a calling range. Suited Ax will almost always have at least 35% equity against a 4-bet calling range.
3. Solid playability. Suited wheel Ax hands have the ability to flop straight draws, pairs and of course the nut flush draw. This makes it fairly easy to continue on a multitude of boards.
But 4-bet bluffing just suited Ax hands will make us predictable and greatly limit our board coverage post-flop. Thus it’s usually best to add a few more hands into out 4-bet range that meet the parameters above, such as:
- Suited connectors (or gappers) with great playability, like 54s or 75s
- Offsuit broadway hands, like ATo, that block multiple premium hands.
If you want to learn more about 4-betting, check out my full article on the subject, There’s Big Money in 4-Bet & 5-Bet Pots, and test yourself with the quiz at the end.
Facing a 3-Bet Out of Position
Being out of position sucks.
Having to act first and with less information results in our hands realizing less equity.
In the following section, we’ll use ranges from The Poker Lab to estimate a Cutoff opening range and the countering Button 3-bet range to see how we should construct our own ranges.
When out of position, we have to be much more careful when selecting hands for our 3-bet flatting range, which should be narrower than our flatting range when in position.
This means calling with fewer suited connectors, suited gappers and offsuit broadway hands.
As always, be ready to adjust these ranges based on the 3-bet sizing and 3-bettor’s tendencies.
4-Betting Out of Position
A major strategic difference between facing a 3-bet in position and out of position is the utility of the 4-bet.
Because the value of position is reduced when stack-to-pot ratios are smaller, we can consider 4-betting a wider range when out of position in order to mitigate our positional disadvantage.
When doing this, it is important to use hands that play well in situations where stack-to-pot ratios are small. Mid-to-high pocket pairs are the most obvious example of this.
Hands like JJ and TT often play best as flats when facing a 3-bet in position, but 4-betting becomes a lot more attractive when out of position (especially against a loose opponent).
As for other hands, use the same perimeters we used when facing a 4-bet in position, but tighten them up a little to account for our positional disadvantage.
Remember to construct a range that is balanced with both value bets and bluffs that maintain their equity well (such as A5s-A2s, 76s).
Make ’em Think Twice Before 3-Betting
Knowing how to appropriately react to 3-bets is a crucial aspect of poker. Without a well constructed, well-balanced continue range, our opponents can make our lives very difficult by 3-betting relentlessly against our opens.
Remember the three most important things to consider when facing a 3-bet:
- The tendencies of the 3-bettor.
- The size of the raise.
- Our hand’s ability to realize its equity.
Facing 3-bets is a complex aspect of poker that leads to many marginal situations without clear cut solutions.
That said, the ability to turn a marginal spot into a profitable one is what separates a good poker player from a great one.
(Note: Learn how to absolutely dominate 3-bet pots with The Poker Lab! We just released a nearly 6-hour long learning module on how to play against 3-bets that makes this article look like child’s play. Click HERE or below for more details.)
How to Play Against 3-Bets In & Out of Position (Video)
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