Three-bets in MTTs: How to make sure you come out on top

Three-betting in poker has become so frequent that no matter what game you’re playing you’ll come across it – here’s how to make sure you come out on top

Early stages of tournaments

The set-up
The opening levels of tournaments, stacks are deep, reads are thin on the ground.

Stack size
During the early stages of tournaments (both online and live) the effective stacks of most players at the table are going to be between 50 and 200 big blinds.

Opponents’ tendencies
Most players’ three-betting range is polarised between premium hands like A-A, K-K, A-K and speculative hands like 9♠-8♠.

With the premium hands they’re three-betting for value and with the speculative hands they are looking to get paid if they connect hard and can fold with little fuss to a four-bet. Those that fall in between like pairs up to tens and broadway hands like K-Q and Q-J tend to just flat call and see flops. They’re harder to release if four-bet and players don’t want to be blown off a hand preflop that can win them a big pot postflop.

Obviously, there are players who fall outside of these boundaries and will either only three-bet premium hands or go nuts from the off. From personal experience in low stakes tournaments, three-bets near the start will be heavily weighted towards value bets. Three-betting is hair-raising and players value their tournament life and don’t want to bust out early, this is even more true when playing live.

Position
Stacks are deep so position is paramount. While life is going to be far easier cold-calling a three-bet in position, the hand range of anyone who’s three-betting out of position (usually from the blinds at this stage) is going to be weighted towards strong hands. Calling a three-bet even in position can’t be done without a plan. You’re going to face a continuation bet a huge percentage of the time, while missing the flop 66% of the time with unpaired cards.

Floating the flop is an option but then you’ve invested 20% of your stack and the pot is getting big. So it’s preferable that floats have some equity such as a gutshot, one over card, backdoor draws and so on. Calling a three-bet out of position can be a huge leak, as it’s likely you’ll have little idea where you stand postflop even on safe flops.

Bet Size
A smaller three-bet is going to give you better direct pot odds, but a smaller three-bet also indicates a stronger hand range. At lower stakes a player will alter the size of their three-bet depending on hand strength. A small three-bet usually means ‘please call I have Aces’. A larger three-bet usually means a strong but vulnerable hand like Jacks or A-Q.

Solutions

Four-betting
As Tony ‘Bond18’ Dunst says you could likely go months without four-betting as a bluff and it wouldn’t be a leak. So four-betting as a bluff at this stage is unwise, but you can of course do it for value with your premium hands. You should rarely, if ever, be four-bet folding here as you’ll have committed a fair percentage of your stack and be getting generous pot odds. By four-betting smaller you’re hoping to induce your opponent to go all-in by giving him the illusion of fold equity, where there is in fact none.

Flat calling
You can flat call the three-bet, and occasionally this can be for deception with a big hand such as Aces or Kings. Also if you four-bet it can allow your opponent to ‘play perfectly’ and fold out hands such as Jacks and A-Q that you dominate and want to keep in. But as opponents’ three-bets are usually for value at this stage, just getting chips in the pot can be better.

You can flat call because you have a hand that you don’t feel is strong enough to four-bet but want to see a flop with such as pocket pairs or a hand that can flop hard and is unlikely to be dominated such as J-Ts and T-9s.

Folding
Often you have to fold because you don’t have the correct implied odds to set mine with pairs. If it’s the first time a player three-bets in the tournament it’s wise to give them credit and fold, especially if out of position or you’ve got a hand that can be dominated postflop.

Mid stages of tournaments

The set-up
The antes have kicked in, the tournament has been going a while and the bubble is still a way off. All kinds of stack sizes will be at the tables

Stack size
The average stack is going to be in the 30-50 big blind region.

At this stage there will be a number of below average stacks who will be looking to pick good re-steal spots. Any stack over 40 big blinds is great to three-bet as a semi-bluff or as a pure bluff as the risk/reward ratio is good. For example, if the blinds are 100/200 a25 and you open to 500 at a nine handed table there’s now 1,025 in the pot and a three-bet size of 1,250 from a stack of 8,000 seems a good move. Even if you are forced to fold you still have a very playable stack.

Opponents’ tendencies
By this stage of the tournament if you’re fortunate to have been at the same table for a while you (or your HUD) should be able to give you some reads on your opponents. Hands will have been shown down and antes will have loosened the action up, so three-bets will be more common. As a result you have to open up your four-betting range if you don’t want to constantly get smashed off the pot.

You’re also going to face a few players with stacks of around 20 big blinds that are the perfect size to three-bet all-in. If you have a number of these stacks to your left you really need to consider folding hands that you’re not willing to call all-ins with.

Position
Having position when facing a three-bet isn’t as important now as during the early stages as there’s not going to be as much postflop play.

For example, if the effective stacks are 8,000, you open to 500 from the button and the big blind raises to 1,500 and you call there’s now 3,325 in the pot and you have 6,500 back. A c-bet of around 2,000 isn’t going to leave you much wiggle room, moving all-in will give your opponent good pot odds to call and floating makes no sense. As such with stacks around that size, four-betting or folding is often better than flat calling.

Bet Size
At this stage the size of the three-bet is likely to be slightly smaller than earlier in the tournament because it’ll do the same job ­ much as the opening raise size drops as the stacks become shallower. You’re not going to have the implied odds to set mine, so if you do peel with a pair it has to be in position and you’ve got to be prepared to try to win the pot without flopping a set on favourable boards.

End stages of tournaments

The set-up
You’re in the money and at the business end of the tournament

Stack size
By this stage of the tournament the average stack is often going to be around 20 big blinds, most of the poker is going to played preflop. Most three-bet decisions will be whether to call an all-in or not.

Opponents’ tendencies
At this stage players will fall into two broad camps: Those looking to win and those looking to ladder. The former will be looking for good spots to three-bet all-in and be putting pressure on similar sized stacks, especially those opening in late position. The latter will not be three-betting all-in or otherwise without the goods, and they’ll be folding often too.

Position
Position is important in a different way. If you’ve got a really active player on your right then he can often limit your opportunities to open. Likewise, if you’ve got good players to your left-hand side they can be a total pain in the backside and three-bet you light, which really puts your skills to the test.

Bet Size
As most three-bets will be all-in it becomes a maths problem and one of assigning ranges to opponents.

Solutions

Four-betting/Calling
We’re going to go ahead and assume that almost all four-betting at this stage will be calling an all-in. A common situation will be that you’ll open to 2.5 big blinds and be shoved on for an effective 18 big blinds. So imagine the blinds are 2000/4000 a500 at a nine-handed table, we open to 10,000 and get shoved on by the button for 72,000 and it’s on us to call. We have to call 62,000 to win 92,500 (meaning we need 39.37% equity to make a call break even). So let’s have a look at some ranges for different players and how three different and somewhat marginal calling hands play against each range:

Mr Tight (6% of hands)
Three-bet shoving range = 9-9+,A-Js+,K-Qs, A-Qo+

  • 5-5 = 37.145%
  • A-Jo = 31.98%
  • i9-9 = 39.175%

None of the three hands have the required equity to make this a profitable call.

Mr Top 10%
Three-bet shoving range = 8-8+ A-9s+, K-Ts+, Q-Ts+, A-Jo+, K-Qo

  • 5-5 = 41.734%
  • A-Jo = 43.36%
  • 9-9 = 47.014%

This is probably a pretty average re-shoving range for a competent player against a standard tight aggressive opener. As you can see all three hands have the required equity, but would you have the stones to call for your tournament life with pocket fives?

Mr Frisky (15% of hands)
Three-bet shoving range = 7-7+, A-7s, K-9s+, Q-Ts+, J-Ts, A-To+, K-To+,Q-Jo

  • 5-5 = 44.38%
  • A-Jo = 51.61%
  • 9-9 = 51.29%

All three are calls here, note that A-Jo has better equity than pocket fives, the looser a shover is as they’ll have more high card combos that A-Jo is ahead of and that pocket fives are flipping against. In short, though, at this stage of the tournament you’ll be getting shoved on reasonably light and often you’ll just have to close your eyes and click call safe in the knowledge that you’re ahead of their range and it’s an +EV spot.

Folding
You can really help yourself out by not open-raising hands that you’re going to fold. Obviously, this is not always possible as open-raising A-Jo in late position is totally standard as you need to win pots to stay ahead of the blinds and antes. Should you then get shoved on by an incredibly tight player you may well have to fold.


Three-bet checklist

Before deciding to four-bet, flat call or fold there are some key rules you should always consider:

The strength of your own hand
This is the one absolute piece of information you have. It’s vital, more so in some situations than others

The tendencies of your opponent
This will affect the range of hands your opponent can have and can turn an easy shove with pocket Jacks into a insta-muck. Knowing how they’ll react to a four-bet is also useful.

Stack sizes
The deeper they are the more options you have.

Position
The deeper the stacks the more it matters.

The size of the three-bet
Is it a large committing three-bet or a tiny minimum three-bet that screams call me? Pot odds if a three-bet is all-in then you will have a maths problem to decipher and solve before deciding whether to call or fold. In other situations you’ll have to decide if you’re getting the right odds to continue should you decide to call.

Are you closing the betting?
Often a three-bet can be a squeeze play and you may have another opponent to act behind you, flatting a raise with a premium hand has become common these days so beware.


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