“When you have a border skirmish with someone, you don’t need to bring out the heavy artillery, but when a war breaks out, you’d better bring your big guns!”
– Phil Hellmuth, Play Poker Like the Pros
When you’re sitting in the big blind and watch the button open raise and the small blind cold call, it can be very tempting to put in a re-raise. Doing this with discretion can be quite profitable.
Most button raisers will have a wide range, much of which will fold to a 3-bet, particularly since your pot sized raise will be larger because of the extra money put in by the small blind. The small blind himself will rarely have a hand that is happy to see you 3-bet, since he would usually have re-raised with those. Even when the small blind does decide to take a flop, you will have position on him, so it’s not a poor result.
That’s called the squeeze play, and it’s very effective if used judiciously. There was a time when you could squeeze with any two cards whenever the button opened and the small blind cold called. If you do that these days, someone will start playing back at you, or the small blind will begin cold calling with big hands trying to induce a squeeze from you. When overused, this valuable play quickly loses its effectiveness. The squeeze is a great weapon to have in your arsenal, but don’t empty the clip too fast.
Just as you can squeeze against a button raise and small blind call, you can squeeze against a cutoff open and button call. Ostensibly, your opponents should give you more credit since you’re 3-betting against a tighter range. Still, many opponents have wide cutoff ranges, so you may get them to fold a fairly high percentage of the time. The biggest trouble here is that the button has position on you and will be more likely to call your raise than the small blind would be. Players will also cold call on the button more often with hands like ace-queen, whereas most players 3-bet those hands from the small blind. Again, squeezing in this scenario can be profitable if used judiciously. Be more cautious than you would in the first scenario.
Once we move the open raiser up to the hijack, or even further off the button, squeezing becomes a dicey proposition. Against some players, you may get an inordinate amount of respect. If the hijack is willing to fold 80% of his range, then go ahead and squeeze. But you still have to worry about the third player in the pot. Against an early or middle position raise, players will call with hands as strong as jacks, queens, and ace-queen suited. Those hands are not folding to your squeeze. In fact, they may re-squeeze if the opener calls your re-raise. When you consider everything that can go wrong now, you need a special situation to make a compelling case to squeeze.
As a result of all the light 3-betting that goes on nowadays, 4-betting as a cold bluff is a viable option. This is another one of those spots where discretion is the difference between adding a valuable play to your arsenal and spewing like a madman.
When you’re in the big blind facing a button open and a small blind 3-bet, you have a tempting 4-betting opportunity regardless of what cards you hold. The button will usually have such a wide range that it’s difficult for him to continue more than ten percent of the time, if that often. In fact, assuming an opening range of 65% and a 5-bet shoving range of ace-king, queens and better, he’ll actually fold 96% of the time.
Once the button folds, the small blind will be in a tough spot. His three options are to fold immediately, 5-bet all in, or call and play a large pot out of position. The last option is disgusting, so usually he’ll almost always shove or fold. Assuming his 3-betting range in this spot is 12%, he’s likely to fold between one-quarter and half the time.
In this example, you’re spending 23 blinds to win 15 blinds, so you need both players to fold over 60 percent of the time to have a profitable bluff.2 If the small blind folds two-thirds of his range, then you have a slightly profitable play. So to keep this as a weapon in your arsenal, you need to keep the small blind folding closer to 75% than to 67%.
If you 4-bet too often, the button may tighten up a little on his steals and the small blind may tighten up a little on his 3-bets when you’re in the blind. These are small benefits that can help you. Unfortunately, today’s players are more likely to play back at you aggressively than to start folding a bunch. As your success rate on the bluff goes down, the play goes from profitable to expensive.
Deciding how often to use this play is a balancing act. Think about the following situation: you’re salivating over pocket aces in the big blind as you watch the button and small blind raise and re-raise in front of you. After carefully sizing your 4-bet, you watch the button turbo-fold, then the small blind fold after pretending to deliberate. If you find that the only times you wind up getting the chips in against competent opponents is when you hold aces and they hold kings or queens, you’re not bluffing enough.
To find how often a bluff needs to succeed, divide your price to bluff by the total amount of money in the pot after you raise. 23/38 = .605, or about 60% success required for a profitable bluff. Both players must fold 60%, which is different from each player folding 60%. If each player folded 60%, then both players would fold only 36% of the time (.6 x .6 = .36). If the button folds 90% of the time, then the small blind needs to fold over 67% of the time (.9 x .67 = .603).
By bluffing a certain amount of the time, you force your opponents to either pay off your big hands, or let you run them out of some decent sized pots.
The same play can be profitable against openers from earlier positions, but it’s more dangerous, particularly when the 3-bettor has position on you. It can be a useful tool to break out from time to time, particularly if you have an image on the tight side. Just keep it under control. The more you do it, the less effective it will become.
A couple hands that require special consideration in these circumstances are JJ and TT. While you’re typically far ahead of both players’ ranges, the more relevant consideration is how you’re doing against the hands that will get it in against you before the flop. Against most opponents, the answer is “not so hot.” Their range will consist mostly of larger pairs and hands with two overcards. As a result, when you 4-bet with JJ or TT, your play is as much of a bluff as it is a value play. You’re so unlikely to see a flop in this spot that your cards don’t matter.
In fact, if your opponent will never call your 4-bet and you don’t plan on calling a shove, you should be more apt to bluff with any hand with an ace in it. This is because of the effect of card removal. With an ace in your hand, it is half as likely for your opponent to hold pocket aces and 25% less likely for your opponent to hold ace-king. Those two hands make up a significant portion of most players’ shoving ranges, so reducing how often your opponent can hold those hands reduces how often he’ll shove. Holding a king in your hand will cause a similar effect.
Against opponents who either play very tight to your 4-bet or will 5-bet liberally as a bluff, you should go ahead and 4-bet. Against the former, you should fold to a shove, and against the latter, you should be happy to call. Even if you’re slightly behind when you call the 5-bet, you can make that up with the pots you’ll pick up. When your opponents will 5-bet you aggressively, but not often enough that you’re willing to call for your stack, just fold. It may feel weak folding jacks or tens when you’re well ahead of your opponent’s range, but there’s just no way to play the hand profitably under those conditions. Poker is about finding profitable opportunities. It’s nice to have a big gun, but sometimes a pea shooter will get the job done.