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Pre-Flop Raise Sizing

Live Hold'em
Texas hold’em is a game where mistakes compound. If you make a small mistake early in a hand, that mistake can cause bigger mistakes later in the hand. The scariest part of this compounding effect is that one small mistake followed by a string of correct moves is often not enough to stop the effect. Basically, if you start down the wrong path, no matter what you do to get things back on course, you may be on a course for failure.

Nothing like a little doom and gloom to brighten up your poker training session, right? Well, as usual, we are not here to terrify you or make you pee your pants in fear. We’re here to make sure that you get something out of this training article. We want to ensure that your poker game gets better, and sometimes that takes a little tough love and telling it like it is.

In this guide, we’re going to be talking about pre-flop raise sizing. What is pre-flop raise sizing? In simple terms, it’s how much you choose to raise the pot before the flop. While this is a simpler concept relative to others, it’s critical to your success. A mistake with your pre-flop raise sizing can set you down that dark road to failure. You can give away too much information, invite too much action, discourage wanted action, and put yourself into some unnecessary tough situations.

All this from one raise size decision? Yes. This is why it’s that important. Choosing the wrong raise size at the beginning of a Texas hold’em hand is like putting on clogs to run a marathon. It makes things awkward and sets you up to potentially fall flat on your face. The big difference is that it’s usually a lot more expensive than tripping in a marathon.

Thankfully, we’re here to help. We’re going to walk you through everything that you need to know about selecting the proper pre-flop raise size in no-limit Texas hold’em. We’ll cover a few different schools of thought on the topic, and set you up to decide which works best for you. A firm foundation is the key to success in just about anything in life. Today, we’re talking about laying that perfect framework at the beginning of every poker hand you play.

Deception Through Repetition

Before we get into particulars, we want to talk about the methods to our madness. We’re going to cover why the strategies we outline work. The first thing we want to talk about is how you can protect information about your hand with your pre-flop raise sizing. Too often, inexperienced players will give away information about the contents of their hand by their pre-flop raise sizing. The way to combat this is deception through repetition. Let’s look at an example to show you what we’re talking about.

Scenario One

Tournament: $320 Buy-In

Blinds: 100/200

  • Your opponent raises to 500. You don’t get to see what they have.
  • Your opponent raises to 500. They show down pocket 8s.
  • Your opponent raises to 500. They show down 8-7 suited.
  • Your opponent raises to 800. They show down pocket aces.
  • Your opponent raises to 500. They show down A-10.

Your opponent raises to 800. What do they have?

Scenario Two

Tournament: $320 Buy-In

Blinds: 100/200

  • Your opponent raises to 500. You don’t get to see what they have.
  • Your opponent raises to 500. They show down pocket 8s.
  • Your opponent raises to 500. They show down 8-7 suited.
  • Your opponent raises to 500. They show down pocket aces.
  • Your opponent raises to 500. They show down A-10.

Your opponent raises to 500. What do they have?

For matters of discussion, assume this sample size is much larger than five hands. In scenario one, it’s pretty easy to figure out that your opponent is holding a huge hand. They always raise to four times (4x) the big blind with big hands, and 2.5x with everything else. If you see that big raise, you know that you should either get out of the way or look to snap off your opponent’s clear big hand.

But what about in scenario two? Your opponent raises to 2.5x with their marginal hands, but they also raise to 2.5x with their big hands. So, what does your opponent have when they raise to 500 (2.5x)? The answer is that you have absolutely no idea. Your opponent is not giving away the strength of their hand through a pattern of betting. They’re cloaking the strength or weakness of their hand through repetition.

If the bet size is always the same, how can you ever gather any information from that? The answer is that you can’t, and that’s the point. We hear a lot of excuses as to why people don’t want to do this. The most popular excuse we hear is that they want to protect their bigger hands by raising more. What they don’t realize is that by telling people exactly what they have, they aren’t protecting themselves. They’re actually making the risk of getting snapped off and losing the hand much greater.

Now, here’s something that we want to be clear about. In the next few sections, we’re going to talk about some different raise sizes you can use and a few occasions that you will need to alter your raise size. The times that you will be altering your raise size will be in response to something that is clear to the table. In these situations, it’s okay to alter your pre-flop raise size, as long as you alter it the same way every single time you’re in that scenario. If this is confusing, it will become clearer as we work through the next few sections.

Achieving the Goals You Want

What is the point of pre-flop raising? The answer is that you’re raising to accomplish some sort of a goal or goals. You may be looking to build a pot with the best hand, thin the herd so you have less opponents, better define what your opponents might be holding in their hands, steal the blinds and antes, or any combination of these. It’s important to be aware of what you are trying to achieve and to know that you may have to make adjustments if you aren’t getting your desired results.

For example, let’s say you are someone who loves to 3x raise pre-flop. Your reasoning for doing it is to start building a pot, define your opponent’s hands, and thin the herd down to one or two opponents. If you are raising to 3x and getting called by six or seven players every single hand, you’re not achieving what it is that you set out to do. Your hands are only going to fare well against a few opponents, and six or seven is just way too many.

So what do you do? Well, in this situation, you would want to increase the amount you are raising pre-flop. The next time you raise, you’ll try 3.5x or 4x. If that starts to get the results you’re looking for, great! That is your new standard pre-flop raise size. If you’re still getting six or seven callers, then you’ll try 4.5x or 5x. You’ll keep doing this until you start to get the desired results.

Remember that this is going to be over the course of a decent sample size. If you raise one time to 3x and get called by six players, you don’t have to increase your raise size immediately. But if you raise to 3x several times in a row and everyone on the table is calling you, then you can adjust. But, wait…didn’t we say not to alter your bet size? The answer is yes, we did say that, but there are times you need to adjust.

Realize, though, that earlier we were talking about making changes in an individual hand based on the cards you were holding. In this situation, we’re talking about making changes for all hands during a certain session or situation. This is infinitely different and completely okay. In fact, it’s necessary to succeed. If you start raising to 4x every single hand you play, are you giving away any information? No. You will still be using the repetition we spoke about earlier, just with a different bet amount.

The bottom line of this section is that any time you are doing anything in poker, including raising pre-flop, you need to be doing it for a reason and with a goal in mind. If what you are doing is not achieving that goal, you need to adjust until you get the desired results.

Standard Sizing

We’ve discussed keeping your raise sizing consistent unless there is a situational reason to change it. What we need to discuss now is what that consistent amount is going to be. There are different schools of thought on this. Depending on how old you are, who you learned from, and whether you started playing on the internet or live, you’ll probably side with a different school of thought.

We’re going to discuss the three most popular sizings below. Keep in mind that these sizings are assuming that you are the first one to enter the pot, and that no other players have limped into the pot. It also does not take into account opening for a raise from the small blind. At the bottom of this section, we’ll discuss what to do when other players limp into the pot before you.

Poker CardsThe Classic 3x

For about as long as we were old enough to remember, people were preaching that 3x the big blind was the gold standard for pre-flop raise sizes. If it were 100/200, you raised to 600. If it were a cash game and the blinds were $1/$2, you raised to $6. This raise sizing has become less popular with younger players and internet wizards, but you’ll still see it quite a bit amongst live players.

Strategically speaking, this sizing is just fine. We do think that a slightly smaller size (2.5x, which we will discuss shortly) is more optimal, but you’re not really making a mistake with 3x. You will end up getting fewer callers pre-flop, but you will also deter some people from 3-betting you, as they will be required to commit a lot more chips than with a smaller raise sizing. If using this sizing, stealing the blinds must be successful more often to be profitable, because you are risking more on every steal.

Poker CardsThe Newer 2.5x

Our staff favorite for the optimal raise size pre-flop is 2.5x. This raise size is big enough that it forces your opponents and those in the blind to make a slightly tougher decision, while being small enough that you’re not risking unnecessary chips to accomplish the same goal.

If the blinds were 100/200, we would raise to 500. If it were a cash game and the blinds were $1/$2, we would raise to $5. If you’re a bit lost and new to the game, this is what we recommend you start with. You can experiment with some of the other options on the list, but this one is tested and still popular with players all over the spectrum today.

Poker CardsThe Min-Raise or 2x

The weirdest pre-flop raise sizing option on our list is the min-raise (2x). The reason we call this sizing weird is that in the older days, only the fish min-raised. If you were caught min-raising, the entire table knew you weren’t any good. Over the years, though, people started realizing that min-raising pre-flop could be profitable. While it did invite a lot more action, especially from the blinds, better players were okay with playing these pots in position.

They would raise pre-flop in hopes of getting called by players who were defending too lightly or were going to play poorly out of position post-flop. Here are our thoughts on the min-raise pre-flop: it all depends on the table you are at and the results that you are getting. If you are min-raising and getting called by every player at the table, you need to adjust.

If you are min-raising and getting the necessary respect on your raises you need, then by all means, go for it. As we said, 2.5x is better than 3x when it accomplishes the same goals, and the same can be said about the min-raise. If you’re getting the job done while risking fewer chips and also inviting players to make mistakes, you may be onto something special.

Poker CardsAdjusting for Limpers

One of the biggest adjustments that you’ll have to make with any of these options is increasing your bet sizing when other players have limped into the pot. Just so we’re all on the same page, limping into the pot means a player only calls the big blind and does not come in for a raise. If it’s a $1/$2 game, they only call the $2.

Here’s the rule of thumb

For every player that has limped into the pot before you, add one big blind to your raise size. So, for example, let’s say you are adopting the 2.5x pre-flop raise sizing in a $1/$2 game. Your normal raise with no limpers would be $5. But let’s say that one player has limped in before you. Your opening raise size should now be $7.

Why? The problem if you only go to $5 is that it makes the pot odds for the big blind and the limper (and the rest of the table) much sweeter. If there is $1 for the small blind in the pot, $2 for the big blind, and $2 from your opponent’s limp, and you raise to $5, your opponent now only has to call an additional $3 to win $10. You’re giving them better than 3 to 1 on their money, which means there are a lot more hands they can correctly call with.

Let’s say you raise to $7, though. Your opponent now has to call an additional $5 to win $12. They’re now getting worse than 2.5 to 1 on a call, which means that a lot of the weaker hands they might call with would be a mistake.

It makes things much more inviting for the big blind, as well. If there is one limper and you raise to $5, there is $10 in the pot. The big blind only has to call $3 as well to win $10. But the big blind can also assume that, because your raise is so small, the limper is almost certainly going to call. This means they can assume their additional $3 in the pot. This means, in theory, they are calling an additional $3 to win $13, which is better than 4 to 1! This also then, in turn, gives the limper the same 4 to 1 when the big blind calls. You basically set a rollercoaster of bad news into effect by not raising the correct amount.

When you raise to $7, though, the big blind can’t blindly assume that the limper is going to call. This means they can’t assume the better pot odds like they did when the raise was only to $5.

What happens when there are two limpers? Well, instead of going from $5 to $7 like in our example, you would go from $5 to $9. You are adding one big blind for every limper. If you need to calculate it out, you take the number of limpers times the big blind and add that to your standard raise. So, if you have four limpers in a $1/$2 game, 4 times $2 is $8 plus your original raise of $5, which means you will raise to $13.

This adjustment should be made with any of the above pre-flop raise sizing strategies.

Online vs. Live Poker

Depending on whether you are playing live or online, the raise sizes that accomplish your goals will probably be different. When you play online, smaller raise sizes are respected more. A 2.5x raise online is going to get you down to one or two opponents often. If you raise to 2.5x in a live cash game, you’ll probably get the entire table to call. In tournaments live or online, the smaller sizes typically work the same.

The reason for the differences in cash games between live and online may have something to do with the fact that more people are playing multiple games. Boredom doesn’t entice them to play more hands, because they can stay tight and still get their fix from other games. Live, though, you have a lot of casual players who are there for fun and can’t stand to be stuck on the sidelines. Because of this, you have to make the price to play more expensive if you’re going to thin the herd and define ranges properly.

You’ll also notice that this effect diminishes at live games as you move up in stakes. A 2.5x or 3x raise at $25/$50 live is going to get the job done. A 2.5x or 3x raise in a $1/$2 game is going to get you laughed at, and everyone, including the cocktail waitress, is going to call your raise.

Do you need to memorize this? No. You just need to be ready to adjust your raise size wherever you are playing. If you play in an online game where no one wants to fold, be prepared to up your raise sizing. Just be ready for anything and have the ability to adapt your playbook.

Tournaments vs. Cash Games

For the most part, smaller raise sizing is going to work more effectively in tournaments. In cash games, though, you usually are going to have to increase your raise size at least a little bit. If you’re playing in a cash game you’ve never played in before and don’t have time to observe, start with a 3x raise and adjust from there. If you’re playing in a lower-stakes cash game live, you’ll probably want to start at 4x.

Once you get above the $2/$5 limit, this starts to diminish. We asked our staff, and in almost every live $1/$2 cash game they played in, the standard raise size was between $10 and $20. In tournaments, though, this doesn’t seem to happen. People seem to value their tournament chips much more than actual cash, which may sound silly, but probably has to do with the fact that there is no reload option in tournaments. Yes, you can rebuy in some, but you have to start over at square one.

Again, just look to make the proper adjustments here. Pay attention to the table, the game, and how the other players are playing and reacting, and you’ll be fine.

The Bottom Line

Hopefully by now you are an expert with pre-flop raise sizing. You can memorize one of these systems, and you’ll never make mistakes. If you 2.5x it every time, add one big blind per limper, and prepare to increase your raise size if you aren’t getting the desired results, you’ll be set. There really is nothing else to learn. This part of the hand is mostly about not making silly mistakes that invite too much action or give away information about your hand. Figuring out what hands to raise pre-flop with is another story, but at least this is something that you no longer have to worry about doing incorrectly.