Loosening Up Before the Flop – Part 1 by Andy Bloch
Knowing what to do and when to do it is what separates those who just play in tournaments from those who make final tables. This is especially true in No-Limit Hold ‘em, where the first decisions you’re faced with are what hands you should play and when you should play them. As the blinds get bigger and antes come in to play, these decisions become even more crucial. In these situations, one of the most critical errors that people make is not varying their pre-flop strategy enough.
While many pros advocate playing a tight, aggressive game and the importance of choosing “premium” starting hands, I find that there are many newer players who take this advice too far and simply don’t play enough hands. I recently talked with a newer pro who told me he was playing less than 10 percent of his hands pre-flop. This just isn’t enough – I don’t even play this tight under the gun. If you’re playing this tight, you’ve got to loosen up considerably, especially in late position and in the later stages of a tournament.
Let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about. As a general strategy, I want to play about 40 percent to 45 percent of my hands from the button before antes come into play. Under the gun with eight players left to act behind me, I’ll play about 14% of my hands. This percentage goes up gradually as my position advances around the table until I’m playing about 31 percent of my hands from the cut-off.
When antes come into play, I’ll raise about 59% of the time I’m on the button. On the other hand, I’m only going to raise about 18% of the time when I’m under the gun. With or without antes, it’s important to note that I’m raising about three times as often from the button as I do from under the gun. That may seem like a lot, but that’s how much you need to vary your play before the flop.
To give a specific example, let’s say you’re at the 100/200 level, and you raise three big blinds from the button. You’re risking 600 to win 300, which isn’t ideal. But if you’re making the same raise when there’s a 25 ante per person, then the same pot’s up to 500, which means you stand to pickup another 200. Those extra chips make it worthwhile for you to loosen up and raise more often with a wider range of hands, especially when you’re in the cut-off or on the button. If you’re successful with this play even a little over half the time, you’ve got an edge raising with almost anything.
You may have noticed that I’m giving some very specific percentages in this article. These are based on thousands of hands that I’ve played and tracked over the years, and a ranking system that I’ve been able to create that helps me determine which hands I should play and raise from different positions. You can create a similar chart for yourself or find a copy of mine in the Full Tilt Poker Tournament Strategy Guide. Use this information to help fine-tune your pre-flop hand selection and see how loosening up your game can help you thrive in the later stages of a tournament.