Polarization and Responses to 3-betting

Polarization is a nifty word I hear thrown about a lot these days. A classic example would be a 4- bet preflop when effective stacks are 100bb. When somebody 4-bets, committing a quarter of their stack, they’re either planning on calling a shove or folding to one. In short, their range is polarized between very strong hands and very weak hands. So, should we decide we want to polarize our range, we want to be playing either very strong hands or pure bluffs. Or, should we decide to depolarize our range, we want to be playing medium strength hands and very strong hands. Some situations call for polarization and some call for depolarization.

For example, let’s say we decide we want to start creating some preflop image. Let’s get even more specific, and say we decide to start 3-betting from the button. What types of cards should we choose? Well, first let’s consider player types. Against a bad player (whether passive or aggressive), 3- betting is quite simply always for value.* We don’t really need to mix it up by 3-betting a lot against this type of player, as they’re likely to call us and pay off our big hands (against this type of player, we can feel comfortable widening our 3-betting range to include more hands like KJ or AT that we can 3-bet for value). However, against a good player, things are different.

Let’s consider the three possible responses to being 3-bet when OOP:

  1. 1)  The Passive/Bad Approach. This approach is very common—a player raises, gets 3-bet OOP, and decides to call. He then plays fit-or-fold on the flop, check-folding the vast majority of the time. This approach is exploitable by 3-betting a lot and c-betting a lot. This is the most common approach that bad players take. However, there is still an increased likelihood of this type of player calling us down lightly postflop, so we don’t want to be 3-betting with just any two cards. Instead, we can widen our value range to include all big cards, then one-big-one-little suited (like A8s), and slowly work our way down (K7s, Q6s, etc.) counting on our opponent to check-fold so often that 3-betting these hands is profitable. And, of course, our added ability to win the pot postflop simply helps make the play that much more +EV.
  2. 2)  The Tight Approach. Essentially, all this approach entails is folding to an opponent’s 3-bets with everything but the strongest of hands (this often means folding TT and AQ, too). In general, players either A) don’t 3-bet often enough, or B) 3-bet often enough but pay off too lightly in 3- bet situations. The Tight Response takes advantage of both mistakes in that we’re tight against players who have strong ranges (good) and have strong hands against players who pay off light (also good).** The approach works well, both in the aggressive games found at higher stakes and in the generally passive games found at lower stakes. In aggressive games, playing very tightly against a 3-bet when OOP is good because people are generally playing so loosely that they’ll pay off your big hands. In lower stakes games, playing generally tight against passive players is good as a passive player 3-betting usually holds a massive hand. We can exploit opponents who adopt the tight approach by 3-betting often and folding to further aggression.
  3. 3)  The Aggressive Approach. This approach works well in aggressive games. It consists mostly of 4-betting light when OOP, but can include calling OOP and c/r flops without a strong hand (this is far more rare).*** In 2007 and 2008 this approach has become increasingly popular, especially in mid-stakes games from 400nl to 1000nl. The idea is to run over your table—when people try to be aggressive by 3-betting you light, you get more aggressive and 4-bet them light. This approach is difficult to exploit; If our opponents adopt it, it may seem that we can only either play back light and make big calls (i.e. getting it in preflop with AJ), or not 3-bet loosely at all. However, there is another way—polarization.

Bad players choose the passive/bad approach almost unanimously, so our mission is simple against them—either 3-bet/c-bet if they check-fold a lot, or 3-bet more tightly if they call down a lot. Either way, we’re always 3-betting for value. Easy game.

Good players choose either the tight approach or the aggressive approach (it should be noted that the tight approach is also usually aggressive, and the aggressive approach is usually loose. This is only a marginally important semantic issue). This all boils down to one thing, though—good players 4-bet (or fold) when they’re OOP, and they rarely (if ever) call. How does that change what we do? Let’s consider AQ on the button in a 6-handed game. A good player raises in MP and it is folded to us. Against a bad player, this is an easy 3-bet for value—we’d never get 4-bet light, so we could always fold to aggression, and he can definitely call with worse and pay off with all kinds of worse hands (think KQ or TT on a Q high board). Against a good player, though, 3-betting shouldn’t be automatic.

Let’s assume a few constants. First, while he may 4-bet us light from time to time, we don’t think our hand is strong enough to get all-in preflop. So, we’re going to fold to a 4-bet.****

Second, we assume he never calls OOP and always either 4-bets or folds. Now think—is AQ any different than 72o? In fact, given these assumptions, 72o is theoretically better than AQ, as every time he folds to our 3-bet he’s making a bigger mistake if we hold 72o than if we hold AQ (it should be noted that AQ is still better in general for doing this than 72o, as something unexpected could happen, like the big blind cold-calling). However, the small mistakes he makes by folding too often to our 3-bets are insignificant compared to the large mistakes he’d make if he continued with a worse hand postflop. So, unless I have a specific reason to 3-bet AQ for value, I call and let my opponent make his big mistakes postflop. I usually fold 72o—but sometimes I’d 3-bet.

Against a good player (i.e. one who is playing either the tight or aggressive strategies), we can 3- bet any two cards profitably in position (though with many hands it’s more profitable to just call). However, we can’t suddenly 3-bet 100% of the time, as our opponents will quickly adjust and 4-bet with proper frequencies to defeat us. Against a bad player (i.e. one who plays the first strategy), we can 3-bet all kinds of hands for value and take advantage of the added dead money. The overall point is that hands have different values depending on how our opponents play. We’ll continue on this concept in the chapter “Hand Categorization”.

*Given the new definition of bluffing, I’d say that the majority of our 3-bets against weaker players are actually two-way bets. If a fish opens and I 3-bet with Q9s, the greatest value of my reraise comes from his frequent post-flop folds. However, sometimes I’ll flop a value hand and he’ll call down incorrectly.

So, weaker players are prime targets to 3-bet as a two-way bet.
**The tight approach is still a great plan when people rarely 3-bet more than 10%. However, it is also incredibly easy to defeat by simply 3-betting constantly. Most players in mid-stakes games adopt the tight approach—if you see this approach at your table, start 3-betting relentlessly and make them change approaches. This is very similar to opening a lot of buttons when your opponents don’t play back enough in the blinds.
***Actually, it is incredibly rare to call a 3-bet OOP with a weak holding. However, there are a lot of times when we should be calling 3-bets OOP with strong holdings. These are discussed in detail in the following chapter, “Dealing with Polarized Ranges and Calling Big Bets Out of Position”.
****Just because we don’t want to go all-in doesn’t mean we have to fold AQ to a 4-bet. I’d most certainly flat with AQ there. Again, we’ll discuss this in the next chapter.

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