Leverage

Now we know how to raise a wide range of hands on the flop. We know which hands to use. However, we still need to understand the concept of leverage; otherwise, raising a wide range will not be profitable, even if we’re choosing our spots wisely. What is leverage?

Leverage means risking the minimum possible amount to make your opponent risk the maximum possible amount.

This concept relies on something called leverage points. A leverage point is the amount of money required to force your opponent into a decision with no right answer (the bet favors neither raising, calling, nor folding). In No-Limit Hold ‘em, there is always a maximum amount in play—the effective stack. Let’s address some common mistakes with leverage points and effective stacks.

I’m playing in a $5/$10 game where the effective stacks are $1000. I raise to $35 in the CO with A4s. The Button, a loose aggressive player and a light 3-better, makes it $130 to go. I decide that now is a good time to 4-bet bluff and collect dead money. A lot of players will just reraise the size of the pot, to roughly $320. This is a leverage mistake. When we 4-bet, our opponent’s only two options are to 5-bet shove or to fold (some players will call, but this is uncommon and unlikely to be a winning strategy). If, instead of $320, we make the 4-bet to $250, our opponent’s decision is essentially the same (calling just improved slightly, but not enough to make it a viable option).* Thus, we just risked $70 less to put our opponent to the exact same decision. Essentially, that extra money is just wasted—it counteracts the dead money we’re trying to win by adding dead money of our own. Additionally, because we risk more money we can’t bluff as often. The extra money we save by 4-betting smaller actually gives us license to 4-bet bluff at a higher frequency. Always ask yourself: what is my money buying? If the extra money isn’t buying you anything new, you probably don’t need it. This lends itself to smaller 4-bets preflop and smaller raises postflop.

A counter-point that is often made (and correctly so) is that, if we lower our bet size to a certain point, we offer our opponent sufficient odds to start calling. Obviously it’s not good to give great odds to our opponent (i.e. minreraising preflop or something similar). On the other hand, it’s also not good to create too much dead money by making our bet sizes too large. There is always a point, though, where any raise from our opponent commits his stack. This is called a leverage point.

If we’re betting, several things occur in reaching a leverage point:

  • Our opponent is limited to two options—bet/raise or fold. This is good because we know exactly what to expect. However, it’s not inherently profitable for us if our opponent raises and folds at proper frequencies. A good example is when we 3-bet a good player on the button. He is stuck in a 4-bet or fold spot, and thus we are part-way to achieving a leverage point.
  •   Our opponent DOES call. This isn’t the end of the world. Preflop, flop, and turn each provide new opportunities to reach a leverage point. (The river is somewhat different because an opponent can end the hand by calling. We are often forced into a spot where we have to shove or c/f. This is okay, though, so long as we bet and c/f at proper frequencies—don’t bluff too much, don’t c/f too much, etc.) At a $10/$20 game with 100bb stacks, let’s say that a player raises to $70. I 3-bet on the button to $210, and to my surprise, that player calls. The flop is now about $460, and he checks. I’m not about to sacrifice leverage, so I’m going to bet something like $280. If he calls, the pot is about $1000. He checks again, and now if I decide to continue my aggression, I’m STILL not going to sacrifice leverage, so I will bet somewhere between $350- $500. As the pot size increases relative to stacks, less money is required to reach a leverage point. For example, if we open-raise preflop to $500 at a 10/20 game, we’ve achieved a leverage point. (However, that’s obviously bad because our opponents are going to play perfectly. He’s just going to shove or fold in that scenario, and 25bb is a lot of dead money to create in the event that we ever fold after opening that large.)

The first time I played 10/20, I got crushed because I didn’t understand leverage. I was good at identifying the mistakes people were making in general game dynamics, and one of the first I noticed was that people were playing too aggressively—c-betting too often especially. So, I decided to start raising a lot of flops. It was a pretty good plan.

The only problem with my plan was that I was raising to abnormally large sizes. I’d have A♥T♥, and I’d decide to bluff raise on an 8♥6♣5♦ board. The preflop raiser bet $120 into $150, and instead of choosing a size that gives me good leverage ($360 let’s say), I would choose a size like $480. That extra $120 of dead money that I’m putting in directly counterbalances the $120 in dead money from his c-bet. Additionally, the extra dead money encouraged people to both A) go along with their hands and B) rebluff me more often.

At one point, I was playing with an extremely good player, Ariel, on my left. I raised to $35 at $5/$10, he 3-bet, I 4-bet bluffed to $320 (bad leverage again), and he shoved. I folded. The next orbit, the exact same thing happened. The next orbit, it happened again. An orbit later, I picked up AA, 4-bet, and stacked him when he shoved with JJ. I quit and triumphantly looked back at my session, only to realize that I hadn’t actually made any money off him. If I had only chosen a good leverage size, I would’ve actually made some money off the exchange.

Many players never learn about leverage at small stakes because they’re simply never bluffing. If you’re only raising the flop with a set, you can usually raise as large as you want because it really doesn’t matter—your opponent either has a hand or he doesn’t. On the other hand, once you want to start bluffing, you can’t bluff-raise the flop small and yet value raise the flop large. You’ve got to find a leverage point that can be used efficiently for both bluffing and value-betting.

The point is this—raising to a larger amount doesn’t make you any “scarier”. Somebody’s not going to fold their overpair because you raised to 30bb instead of 15bb. If 15bb is the optimal leverage point, then it’s the correct play in a vacuum. However, seeing as we don’t play in a vacuum, it’s important to acknowledge that leverage is most important against good players—the type of players against whom we’ll need to balance—and less important against bad players. This is self-explanatory as we’re rarely, if ever, bluffing fish, and thus we rarely have any need to balance. So, in theory, we could raise larger against fish because balancing isn’t an issue.

Like many things in poker, we can visualize leverage as a spectrum. On one end, when we undershoot a leverage point, we offer our opponent excellent odds.** On the other end, when we overshoot a leverage point, we create dead money that doesn’t achieve any purpose. The graphic below displays the way leverage works in a common situation at a $5/$10 game; with 100bb effective stacks, a good regular has raised to $35 in MP, and we’re trying to decide how big to 3-bet him.

We could change the numbers around and replicate this exact same spectrum for any situation, whether a preflop open-raise, a 3-bet, a 4-bet, a 5-bet, a flop raise, a flop check-raise, or anything else. The leverage spectrum exists in all aspects of poker.

The last comment to be made about leverage points relates to c-bets. In general, a leverage point attempts to find the cheapest number to put your opponent into a raise-or-fold situation. However, when A) our opponent is likely to call a bet instead of playing raise-or-fold, and B) there are later streets to play, we actually don’t mind betting larger. This is because, so long as our opponent calls often (and doesn’t play raise-or-fold often), he’s creating passive dead money. Basically, we will be able to make effective value bets and bluffs on later streets, winning back the extra dead money that we created with our larger flop c-bet. Personally, I was completely on the “small c-bets” bandwagon until I saw a top high stakes player potting or near-potting many flops. When one of the best players in the world does something, there’s usually a good reason. So, I experimented with betting larger on the flop and using my knowledge of equity to stay aggressive. Sure enough, the dead money that we create when c-betting usually swings back into our profit column when we stay properly aggressive.

*This is probably still too large. Leverage points tend to be even smaller than I thought in 2009.
**The obvious side-effect of offering our opponent good pot-odds is that they’ll call the bet or raise with weaker hands. This can be good if they overestimate their equity against our range. For example, if we have Aces, we might make a very small 3-bet or 4-bet hoping to be called by a hand like QT. QT might think it has fold equity on a later street, or that a Q or T could make it the best hand. This would be true if I had a wide range in that spot, but given that I hold AA, he’s playing incorrectly. I’d just have to make sure not to take that line with a bluff or a hand like 97s.

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