Three Bet Ranges in Early Levels
Three bets have multiple uses, the primary of which is for value with big hands. In this article we are going to discuss three betting for value both pre-flop and post-flop. Tournaments are going to create a dynamic that makes them very unique and different from what you will find in cash games. You can't be three betting as thin in many spots, you are less likely to get called, and so on and so forth. You are also going to need to be exceptionally careful with your 3-bets in the early stages of tournaments because one big loss could cripple your stack.
For the most part, three betting pre-flop is much better defined than it is post-flop. You can all but have a set group of hands that are worthy of 3-betting in some or most situations, whereas post-flop play is going to create infinitely more complicated spots. You won't need to over think the majority of pre-flop three bets, but this doesn't mean that you should be reckless. Since this article is focusing on the early stages of tournaments, you need to remember that you can't win an event right when it starts. Aggression is certainly rewarded in poker, but over aggression is going to be harshly punished.
Pre-Flop Three Betting
There are some hands that you are always going to be three betting with, which include AA, KK, and usually QQ. The cut off range is formed in this area, with AK and JJ being borderline and dependent upon the exact situation. In order to most effectively define ideal three betting ranges, we are going to look at some examples of JJ, QQ, and AK. There is little need to really think about KK and AA given they play themselves out. You may be thinking of making a tricky move with these two hands, but it is almost always best to play them fast, and this is even more important in a tournament.
The toughest time to have JJ, QQ, and AK (and virtually any hand for that matter) is going to be in early position. You are of course going to make an open raise, so facing a re-raise is going to put you in an awkward spot. If you want to 4-bet, you are now all but committing your stack to the pot. The problem with this move is that you are basically playing for a flip, are beating a light 3-bet, or you are absolutely crushed. Needless to say, these sorts of options are not going to create a whole lot of long term profitability.
In this particular spot, flatting a 3-bet and playing it after the flop will make the most sense. You will be able to most effectively reduce your losses and capitalize on your wins by slowing down. Weak hands will value town themselves, big hands may allow you to back out, and flips speak for themselves. It really depends what kind of tolerance you have for variance. If you are feeling like taking a risk or think you have a read, go ahead and 4-bet, but if you are unsure, just slow down and wait for the flop.
When you are holding jacks, queens or AK in late position and there is a raise ahead of you, there will be some situations where flat calling can work. With that said, however, three betting is usually going to be the way to go. You may have a chance to flat a 4-bet (depending upon stack sizes), you will get some folds and take down the pot right away, but you will most likely get a call.
Getting a call of your 3-bet when you are in position is absolutely perfect. You can safely assume that you have the best hand, you control the action post-flop, and you have exercised pot control. As mentioned earlier, flat calling an open against a notoriously tight player pre-flop who can't fold post-flop could make sense, but it is almost always best to make a three bet. Use your position to your advantage as much as possible.
Post-Flop Three Betting
Post-flop three betting is going to be a lot more complicated and complex than it is pre-flop, mainly because everything is not so cut and dry. You can't polarize KK like you can the second nuts post-flop. Sure, usually the second nuts will be massive, but what if the board has four spades and you have the Ks? It just isn't that simple and clear.
One thing that you always need to keep in mind is that players are deathly afraid of going broke or taking big risks in the early stages of tournaments. While this is certainly a reasonable fear, you can use it to your advantage and as a way to measure your opponent's strength. If you are playing a hand very aggressively and are getting relatively quick calls from a player on a scary board, you should be weary that you are beat. Likewise, if a player is making bets into you and also calling your 3-bets, expecting a fold is not the most optimal strategy. Since players absolutely do not want to expose themselves to busting early, the amount of hands that they deem worthy of a 3-bet are going to be pretty small when a tourney first begins.
Three betting comes in two different primary forms, either for extreme value or thin value. There are some hands where it could fall in between, but the real decision making will come up in these two spots. What this means in the early stages of a tournament is that you are going to need to maximize value with big hands and decide when it is and isn't worth it to bet when you are going for thinner value.
The early stage dynamic is what is most important. Going for big value implies that you have a super strong hand, so there isn't a whole lot of thought other than bet sizing that needs to be considered. When you are thin, however, you need to gauge whether or not it is worth it. Losing a big chunk of your stack vs. the possibility of adding a decent amount is going to be disproportionate when a tournament has just begun.
Thin value is something that you should tend to steer away from when a tourney is still in the early blind levels. You are going to end up value towning yourself all too frequently, it is too difficult to gauge your relative strength, and the risk vs. reward just won't match up. By all means, 3-bet your big hands hard, but don't waste your time fighting for a few extra chips when your stack is likely already small to begin with. Thin three bets are best used in cash games, and they are arguably worst put to use when a tournament hasn't gone past the initial level of blinds.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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