Small raise or open shove from the button?

One of the trickiest stack sizes to play is15-20BB, or roughly 6-8M. It’s considered by some to be too big for an open shove, but small open raises can leave one with some pretty tough decisions – especially against good players, and especially on the button where opponents should rightly put you on a weak(er) holding. What should one do in these spots with half decent hands?

I had such a situation in the Unibet Open London last month. My table is tough, and given it’s the start of the day and I’m on table no. 1, it’s likely that I’ll be stuck with it for some time. One to my left is Marc Inizan, an aggressive, good French player with a number of big wins on his Hendon Mob. To his left is Sander Hart, an aggressive Dutch player who if anything has a tendency to be overly aggressive, but given we were on the same table all day the day before, he knows I’m not out of line too often is playing back less at me. (Just for added spice, to his left is Chris Bjorin – not relevant to this article, but still an added excuse for you to break out the violins).

In the previous hand I have around 19BBs, I’m in the SB and Inizan covers me in the BB (for the record, Hart covers Inizan). It’s folded to me and I open with Q9s. Inizan instantly shoves and I fold; fairly uncontroversial. I suppose open limping the SB in this spot is not terrible, but I think this hand isn’t quite strong enough to take the line: limp/call/value town Inizan on later streets, so raise/fold is my choice.

Next hand it’s folded to me on the button. I now have 17BBs and once again I have Q9s. I open raise to about 2.2BBs and once again Inizan shoves on me; Hart folds. I have about a 15BB call into what would be a final pot of 36BBs – that’s 42% pot odds. I felt at the time that given how tough the table was, and given how wide Inizan might be shoving here, I have to call. Given that I have to call, should I not have open shoved? Is there any way with a stack this small that I can raise/fold?

Let’s start with the following proposition: how often do I have to get two folds from my opponents to make the open raise profitable? Given that I raise to 2.2bb to steal 2.4BBs (the blinds were 1k/2k with 9×200 antes), I need to get the raise through more than 48% of the time to make it profitable. That’s the equivalent of either player shoving on me 30% of the time or less. Let’s go one further than that and show the full complement of opponent shoving ranges with how profitable it is for me to raise/fold:

Opp shove
P both
players fold
gain from
folds (BBs)
P either
player shoves
loss from
raise/fold (BBs)
total EV
of move (BBs)
EV if
I call (BBs)
odds v opp
10% 81% 1.94 19% -0.42 1.53 -0.55 33%
15% 72% 1.73 28% -0.61 1.12 -0.51 36%
20% 64% 1.54 36% -0.79 0.74 -0.40 38%
25% 56% 1.35 44% -0.96 0.39 -0.36 39%
30% 49% 1.18 51% -1.12 0.05 0.25 42%
35% 42% 1.01 58% -1.27 -0.26 0.58 44%
40% 36% 0.86 64% -1.41 -0.54 0.94 45%

By the way, I’m not necessarily advocating raise/fold, I just want to analyse the raise/fold strategy to find the threshold point in my opponents’ shove range width which means I should call.

As you can see, it’s profitable for me to raise/fold up to an opponent shoving range of around 30%. When my opponent’s shoving range is that wide, pot odds dictate a call (ICM aside) – see the “EV if I call” column. So with a hand as strong as Q9s it’s not a question of whether to raise or not, but whether to raise/fold or raise/call. By this I mean that Q9s is strong enough in this situation so that, as long as I make the “correct” choice between raise/fold and raise/call, the move is always +EV – something which would not be true, say, of 72o.

Note that it’s not strictly correct to think that the profitability threshold is zero BBs when it becomes +EV to raise/fold. Actually, open folding costs me an ante (0.1BBs). When calculating the EV of a raise/fold, my ante is already in the mix, but if I open fold, I lose it without a fight.

Interestingly, there is so much in the pot already and effective stacks are so small that it’s profitable for my opponent to shove on me with any hand which has more than about 31% equity against me. Against Q9s, that’s quite a lot of hands (not that they know I have it, of course, but given that Q9s is around the top 15 percentile, it doesn’t bode well for getting respect from my opponents).

Of course, Inizan has to be more circumspect than Hart since (a) he’s only in for the small blind, not the big blind, and more significantly (b) he has Hart yet to act behind him. Still, if Hart only needs to find 31% equity to shove on me, Inizan can still be shoving quite wide.

Given that’s true, is it really so wise for me to open raise here? It seems like against aggressive players I’m getting the worst of it and have to sigh call (which, for the record, I did, and lost to Inizan’s AK). Assuming that open folding is too weak, our only other option is to open shove. How profitable is this?

I’ll skip the detailed maths of working this out, but it turns out that open shoving with Q9s in this spot is (contingent on the chances of being called by at least one of my opponents) is no less profitable than +1.5BB. My “raise/fold or call if my opponent shoves wider than 30%” move only becomes more profitable than that when my opponents shoving range reaches around the 40% mark. Even then, I’ve presumed I know my opponents’ shoving ranges perfectly, and make a correct call or fold accordingly – something I don’t need to do if I just open shove.

It seems that open shoving is a better move. However, the fashion has turned away from open shoving with such as big stack (19BBs or around an M of 7), especially against opponents who are likely to call lighter with hands which are still ahead of my Q9s.

Of course, I have discounted ICM throughout my discussion (that will actually push the analysis further in favour of the open shove). As tournament poker gets ever tougher, more of the top players are risking their stacks less in marginal situations. If I had raise/folded my Q9s I would have been left with about 15BBs. This is not a tiny stack by modern standards, but it’s still not ideal, especially since I would have raise/folded two hands in a row.

In sum, I prefer the open shove against LAG opponents, even though they are more likely to call me wide and this is a hand which figures to be behind their entire calling range. If I raise/fold here, I’m likely to get little respect if I raise small again, so maybe this is the last hand I can raise/fold before I’m in open shove mode. Unfortunately, my hand is too good to open fold, so I’m “destined” to crash out to Inizan’s AK either way. The upshot of this is that one should probably avoid getting into these situations in the first place by taking more risks and being more aggressive with a 20-30BB (M of 8-12) stack size.