Tuning Your Poker Raise

In tournament poker the question often comes up, and must be answered, “What is a standard raise?” Conventional wisdom suggests a standard raise of three times the big blind or, if there are antes involved, the exact sum of the antes and blinds. Rather than yield to conventional wisdom (a product of conventional minds) I would ask instead two questions: “What are you trying to do with your raise?” and “What bet gets that job done?

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Assume you want to pick up the blinds and antes without a fight, you need to tune your raise to the amount of fight you find at the table. Let's say the blinds are 400 and 800 with a 100 ante. Only at a timid table would a bet of, say, 1600 fold the field, because with 2200 in the pot that weenie 1600 would just be offering tasty odds for all sorts of wacky draws. On the other hand, if you bet twice the total ticket, say 4400, in that situation, you'd be over betting the pot, at the risk of over committing your stack. You'd happily make that bet with A-A, but would you get a call? The standard raise, then, is anything but standard.

When I first started playing no-limit hold'em, I made it my practice to make the same size raise as everyone else, just because I didn't know better. A lot of new No Limit players have this practice. And a lot of players take their cue from the table as a whole in establishing their own standard raise. Depending on the table, sometimes a small bet will fold the field. Other times, a big bet just seems to be a red flag waved before many snorting bulls. It's kind of a cop-out to say, “It depends,” but, well, it does.

It depends on the tournament stage. Or even if you're in a tournament at all. Depends on the size of your stack. Their stacks. Position. Relative position of dominating and dominated stacks in relation to your own. Table image. Time till the next blind increase. And on and on and on.

But the common denominator is clear: Whatever opening raise you care to make, make sure you make it for a reason you know.

  • Are you trying to fold the field or looking for a call?
  • Are you inviting weak players in because you feel you can out-play them on the flop?
  • Are you scaring strong players out because you fear being outplayed?
  • Are you trying to pick off short stacks?
  • Go to war with big ones?
  • Put pressure on other players as the money bubble looms?

All of these considerations go into the shaping of the bet you make.

Conventional wisdom often tells us to make the same size raise every time we raise, so that savvy opponents can't correlate between our raise size and our hand strength. I'm not sure I agree with this wisdom. If you're in late position and everyone has folded around to you, then your opening raise is much less about what cards you hold than about what outcome you want. In simplest terms, a small raise invites calls and a big raise invites folds. Therefore shape your raise according to the invitation you wish to extend.

Poker Table Image

If your image is right — if you have sufficiently trained your opponents to take your bets at face value — you should get the result you want. The standard raise is simply not always “the right tool for the right job.” Further to this, by showing some flexibility in your opening moves (and by randomizing that flexibility) you can make your opponents uncertain about your intent. Does a small raise mean weakness or hidden strength? Does a big raise suggest that you're bluffing or sitting on a monster? They won't know, and since they don't know you enjoy a measure of control you wouldn't otherwise have.

Naturally, you don't want to veer too far from the norm, either by betting so small as to give favorable odds to call or betting so large as to imperil yourself heedlessly, but within a certain range, it seems to me, there's nothing much standard about the standard raise at all.

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