Preflop Play in Pot-Limit Hold’em Tournaments by Rafe Furst
To succeed in Pot-Limit Hold ‘em tournaments, No-Limit Hold ‘em players need to make certain adjustments to their game. Perhaps the biggest modification you need to make is to recognize the importance of being the second raiser before the flop rather than the first, a change necessitated in large part by Pot-Limit’s unique betting structure.
If you’re the first player to move all-in before the flop in a No-Limit tournament, you will have a huge advantage over your opponents because, according to David Sklansky’s “Gap Concept,” you need a much better hand to call a raise than you do to make a raise. Taking advantage of this discrepancy, experienced No-Limit players are able to steal enough pots late in tournaments to keep themselves alive.
However, in Pot-Limit tournaments, you can’t make this play because you can bet no more than the size of the pot at any one time; unless you’re short-stacked, you won’t be able to get all your chips into the pot with an initial raise. In this situation the advantage goes to the second player to raise before the flop because such a raise will often be big enough to force all but the very best hands to fold.
Therefore, whenever you raise before the flop in a Pot-Limit Hold ‘em tournament, you need be prepared to get re-raised for all your chips. It’s very similar to boxing in that every time you make a punch you’re opening yourself up to a counterpunch. Every time you put in a raise, you need to be willing to go all the way with your hand. If you’re unwilling to do this, then you shouldn’t have made that opening raise in the first place.
Here’s an example of how difficult it is to be the first raiser in a Pot-Limit Hold ‘em tournament. Let’s say that you have 13,000 chips in your stack, the blinds are 500/1,000 and you pick up A-Q under the gun. In No-Limit you could just shove your entire chip stack into the pot and you’d probably win the blinds and antes, but in Pot-Limit the most you can bet in this situation is 3,500, leaving you vulnerable to a re-raise. If someone sitting behind you makes it 12,000 to go, you’re going to be faced with a very difficult decision, having to call with the last of your chips with a hand that could easily be dominated. Even though your opponent might have a hand as weak as K-Q, you’d be wise to muck your cards and wait for a better spot.
Here’s another example, which shows just how powerful being the second raiser is in Pot-Limit. With three players left in the 1,500 Pot-Limit Hold ‘em event at the 2006 World Series of Poker, Eric Lynch raised three times the big blind from the button, and I picked up A-Q in the small blind. Normally being in the small blind is considered very bad position; but because of the nature of Pot-Limit Hold ‘em, being in early position can actually give you an advantage over the players sitting behind you.
In this instance, Eric’s initial raise allowed me to make a very large re-raise and if he had come over the top of my bet, I was going to be right there with him. He just called, but I still really liked my situation. I knew the flop was going to miss him two-thirds of the time, so I figured I could lead out with a bet no matter what the flop was and two-thirds of the time he would be forced to fold. Add to that the possibility that I might actually hit an Ace or Queen on the flop and I felt really good about moving all in on the flop no matter what it brought, which is exactly what I did.
The advantage the second raiser has over the first has the biggest impact on players with short stacks. If you’re playing No-Limit and you’ve got a short stack, you should be looking to move all-in the first chance you get in an effort to steal the blinds and antes and keep yourself afloat, but making this move in Pot-Limit requires a much more specific scenario. You need to wait for an opponent to make an opening raise and that player needs to be capable of laying down a big hand in the face of an all-in re-raise. Once your stack dips below eight or nine big blinds, however, you can stop looking for opportunities to re-raise and instead start making the initial raise with hands you’re willing to go all the way with if someone comes over the top of your raise.
As you can see, the unique betting structure of Pot-Limit Hold ‘em tournaments makes putting in the first raise before the flop a tricky proposition. If you want to be successful in these tournaments, you need to be aware of this crucial difference from No-Limit Hold ‘em tournaments and make the necessary adjustments to your game.