Jonathan Little reveals the perfect preflop strategy for live cash games

In an extract from his new book, Jonathan Little on Live No-Limit Cash Games, the top US pro explains how to play perfectly preflop when grinding live cash games 

I recently asked a slew of amateur poker players what questions they have about poker. Most of them were along the lines of, ‘How do I play Jacks?’ The answer to this, and all other generic questions, is, ‘It depends.’ I am not going to outline how to play every specific hand, but I will explain my decision-making process so you can develop a strategy that works in every situation. I’m not going to teach you how to play your cards. I’m going to teach you how to play poker. 

1. Basic pre flop strategy

I will present a preflop and postflop strategy based on 100-to-150 big blind stacks at a nine-handed table. These stacks are the typical buy-in at most small and mid-stakes live cash games around the world.

Realise first that your initial raising range is not terribly important because most of the action in deep-stacked cash games occurs after the flop. There is usually relatively little three and four-betting without premium hands.

There is, however, a lot of initial raising and calling. This means you must work tirelessly to improve your postflop game. But you still need a fundamentally sound preflop game that keeps you out of situations with high reverse implied odds on subsequent streets.

When you are first to act, you should typically make a raise that allows you to easily get your stack in by the river if you make a premium hand. Your initial opening raise should be to around three big blinds. Most players open-raise to between three and five big blinds.

If your opponents will frequently give you action even if you raise to 5BBs, that raise size becomes ideal because it will allow you to get more value from your strong hands and to bluff your opponent off slightly larger pots when he misses the flop. However, be sure you are not missing action, since your opponents will tend to play tighter when you put in a large raise. When you have a hand such as A-K, it is a disaster when someone folds a hand such as A-4 or K-T to a 5BB raise when he would have happily called 3BBs.

Amateurs tend to raise large hoping to force their opponents out because they play poorly postflop and hate getting outdrawn. This causes them to lose lots of value. Do not fall into the habit of raising to the same amount as everyone else at your table. You should win at a huge rate if you learn to play well after the flop in multiway pots. If a 3BB raise frequently gets numerous callers, rejoice because you are in an excellent game. Allowing your opponents to stay in with their junk hands sets them up to be dominated in large pots. 

2. When facing limpers

When someone limps in, try to figure out if he is limping with a range of hands he thinks are too weak to raise, premium hands which he hopes to limp and reraise, or a wide range that includes both strong and weak hands. Someone who plays hours without limping and suddenly limps probably has a strong range, hence you should be cautious.

Your standard raise size over a limper should generally be around the size of the pot. If there is one limper before you whose limping range you think is weak, you should frequently attack his limp with a raise. this will allow you to play a pot in position against a range of hands that will perform poorly postflop. Fold more often in early position due to the number of players yet to act.

If you raise one weak limper who calls, you should continuation bet around 6BBs, or three-fifths the pot, on almost every flop, expecting to frequently win the pot with no contest. If your opponent calls, you will have to figure out the strength of his range and proceed from there. Your preflop raise and flop continuation bet will often be enough to win the pot. If a player limps only with strong hands, you should tend to limp behind him with hands that flop well, including suited connectors and small pairs. Fold hands such as A-T and K-6 that play poorly after the flop. In general, if you know your opponent limps with strong hands, such as A-A, A-Q, K-J and A-T suited, you should tend to limp behind with your non-premium holdings that have implied odds, hoping to flop a hand that can beat top pair. Your hand obviously needs some potential. Medium offsuit hands do not qualify.

A few excellent players have added limping to their arsenal with reasonable success. Don’t mess around too often against these players. remember you make money from the bad players, not the good ones. Limping does not in itself make someone a bad player. Be cognisant of who you are playing against and adjust accordingly. expect strong players to make good decisions and weak players to make bad ones.

Should you ever limp?

I strongly oppose limping for a few reasons. Getting your stack in with the nuts becomes a huge hassle because the pot is miniscule compared to your stack, and you are likely against weak ranges. If you limp and someone raises, you are forced to either reraise and play a large pot out of position against a likely strong range, or call, again playing out of position which is rarely good. You let the blinds see the flop for free too.

Limping makes sense in two situations. You want to see the flop as cheaply as possible with a speculative hand in early position. this is a reasonable option with hands such as Fours, 6-5 and A-4. Also consider open-limping from late position when the players yet to act tend to reraise but play passively if you limp. these are usually online players who don’t know how to attack limpers who play well. 

3. When facing a raise

When a player in an earlier position raises and you have a hand you want to play, you can either call or reraise. While you often want to reraise for value and protection with your strongest hands, you must make a point of playing pots with weak players. Say a good player raises from middle position and you have A-J on the button. If the players in the blinds are bad, you should call to entice them to enter the pot, but if they are good, you should reraise to force them out, electing to play your hand in position in a reraised pot. You should do the same if the initial middle-position raiser is a weak player.

You should generally aim to have a polarised three-betting range – big pairs, A-K, A-Q and a mix of occasional bluffs made with hands that are too weak to call, such as marginal suited one-gappers, small pairs, suited A-x hands and suited K-x hands. You almost always want to have a polarised reraising range unless you know your opponents are so bad as to frequently call a reraise with hands such as A-5 and K-8, in which case you should reraise hands such as A-T and K-J for value. 

4. When you get three-bet

When you raise and get three-bet, try to figure out how wide the three-bettor’s range is. If he reraises often, you should be very willing to fight back. You should be much more cautious if he is tight. You must know how passively your opponent normally plays. Your position is also important because most players will reraise late position raisers much more often than they reraise early position raisers.

There is little reraising in small and mid-stakes games. this is because players tend not to bluff with their marginal hands. It’s really simple to deal with opponents who are reraising only with their premium hands. You should reraise with the most premium hands, namely Aces or Kings; just call with hands that are probably good or have large implied odds (such as A-K, Jacks, Sixes, and good suited connectors such as k-J and 9-8) – assuming the reraise is not too large; and fold everything else. It’s really important to note that such a straightforward strategy will not show a significant profit against opponents who are capable of mixing up their games. 

5. When to four-bet

As with three-betting, your four-betting range depends on your opponent’s tendencies. If you are only four-betting A-A and K-K in reasonably tough games, you are almost certainly leaving money on the table. If a player three-bets only with premium hands, you should only four-bet with hands that do well against his premium range. These players are usually incapable of folding.

For example, say you raise A-A or K-K from any position and you’re reraised by a bad TAG, tight-passive or loose-passive player who rarely does this. You should almost always four-bet for value because your opponent will usually be unable to fold. Your opponent may call with a hand such as J-J or A-K and attempt to play postflop, but that is an acceptable result.

Call three-bets from these players with hands such as J-J and A-K. You will not be able to profitably get all-in unless you know your opponent will get all-in with worse hands, such as T-T and A-Q.

If you are only four-betting A-A and K-K, your opponent should call when getting the proper implied odds to outdraw you, and otherwise fold. However, assuming your opponents are bad, which they likely will be at small stakes games, you do not need to balance your play by four-betting with some bluffs. If your opponents often fold when you four-bet, you should open up your four-betting range.

Four-bet with a much wider range against LAGs and other players who frequently three-bet, assuming your opponents are capable of folding to four-bets. Some players fold to almost all four-bets unless they have a premium hand. Others rarely fold. Four-bet with a wide range if your opponent will frequently fold. If he rarely folds, then four-bet with a range that does well against his calling range.

You should obviously four-bet all of your premium hands. The whole purpose of four-betting with a wide range is to exploit your opponent who is three- betting too often, and also to allow you to get paid off frequently when you have a strong hand. You’ll leave a lot of money on the table if you get tricky and only four-bet with bluffs, electing to slow-play your premium hands. 


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