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Smokin' Poker - The ABC of 2NL

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In my last blog, I expressed the importance of position when considering the playability of a hand. Today's article will provide open-raising charts for the first four positions, with some further details on why I include certain starting hands in my range for each seat.

You'll recall that these charts are based on a few assumptions:

  * There are no empty seats or players sitting out between us and the button. (If one player is missing, and we are “officially” UTG, we will open with the range specified for UTG+1, because we're effectively one seat closer to the button than we would be on a full table).
  * No one else has already raised pre-flop. (Although there may be one or two limpers, who we will be attempting to isolate).
  * Average stack size of opponents with live cards is 100bb ($2).
  * Opponents are unknown/average 2NL players.

Now we've got the assumptions and some jargon out of the way, let's look at our first hand matrix; the open-raising chart for the very first player to act once the blinds have been posted by the players to his right. It's time to go under the gun...

UTG, 6-off the button
TT+, AK (3.5% of hands)

UTG Open-raise chart

Many players might look at this chart and think “How can he fold under the gun over 95% of the time? Surely that's missing value.” They have a point, but remember I said I wanted to give beginners a way to make money without facing too many tricky decisions? Folding UTG extremely often accomplishes this. The main reason I recommend an uber-tight range UTG is that with 8 players yet to act, you are very likely to attract callers and/or get re-raised. This is fine if you have a true monster (hands like QQ will often be an overpair on the flop, and can win at showdown unimproved), but what if you were to raise a hand like 88 UTG and picked up two callers who had position on you? You'd feel somewhat lost when the flop comes K96tt. While a continuation bet would appear to be standard, it's likely that at least one of the 2 pre-flop callers will also call on the flop. Suddenly you've invested around 20c in a pot, when you're OOP with third pair, and have no idea if villain has a better pair, or just a draw. Your most likely play on the turn will be to check-fold, so you've effectively thrown away 10bb for nothing.
My UTG range is made of hands with which you'll usually know exactly where you are on the flop. With a range of TT+ and AK, you're likely to flop an overpair or TPTK quite often, and sometimes make a set. At worst you'll have “nut air” (ace king high) with some sort of backdoor draw. In a pot against a random 2NL player, an overpair or TPTK on the flop is effectively the nuts, and you should treat it as such (by betting strongly) until you receive information (in the form of a raise) that it's losing.

Note: The small number next to each highlighted hand on the matrix indicates how many combinations of those hole cards are possible. There a 6 combos of each pocket pair, 4 of each suited hand (AKs comes in clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades, obviously), and 12 of each offsuit hand. The total number of starting hand combinations is 1326, so the 6 combos of AA, for example, account for just 0.45% of all hands, whereas there are 16 total combinations of AK (1.2%).

UTG+1, 5-off the button
99+, AQs+, AKo (4.2%)

UTG+1

The range hasn't changed much here. We can add AQs and 99, because we're slightly less likely to get called or re-raised, but only slightly. There are still 7 players with live cards and there's a reasonably high probability that at least one of them has a better hand. We'll also likely be OOP if we get called, so our route to Valuetown will be unclear, especially if we miss the flop.
Note that if we were to raise AQs in 2nd position and we got re-raised, the correct play (against anyone but a maniac) would be to fold. A competent opponent will recognise that our early position open indicates a strong holding, so their re-raise indicates a monster.  A typical 3-betting range in FR 2NL is QQ+ and AK. AQs is dominated by that range, because if you flopped top pair queens, you'd still lose to QQ+, and if you hit the ace, you're crushed by AK/AA. Kings and queens would also be unlikely to pay you off with their underpair on Axx, so AQ (along with hands like JJ-99) has little value OOP in a 3-bet pot. There will be much more on what to do when you get re-raised in a future article, but mostly the advice will be to FOLD anything worse than QQ in EP if you get re-raised. Take a small loss pre-flop to prevent you taking a BIG one post-flop.

A common question asked in PSO training sessions is “Should I raise small pairs in early position, or should I limp them?” My answers are No and No. I've done extensive analysis (with my tracker) of how small pairs fare when played in early position at 2NL. Open-limping was slightly -EV, because I had to fold often when I faced a standard iso-raise (especially by a short-stack who killed my implied set-mining odds) and also because limping basically turned my hand face up in the cases when I got to see a cheap flop. e.g. If I limp 44 in EP, and then check-raise an A74 flop, it is obvious to a thinking player that I made a set. (The free version of NoteCaddy that comes with HEM2 even automatically makes notes on which hands a player open-limps with. I've saved a bunch of money by not paying off nitty set-miners that check-raise flops after limping pre).
As TheLangolier says, a weak bet indicates a weak hand. Limping shows weakness. If a hand is good enough to play, it's a good enough to raise, but my database shows that raising small pairs in EP caused heavy losses, at 2NL at least. You simply won't flop sets often enough to recoup the money you spent raising pre-flop and c-betting flops. C-betting an underpair when a station is calling on the flop with any pair or draw is just burning money. Save that money by not limping or raising. Just open-fold those small pairs.

MP1, 4-off the button
88+, AJs+, AQo+, KQs (6.2%)

MP1 Raising Chart

Although this seat is called “middle position one”, I still think of it as early, so I play a correspondingly tight range. The first three seats in a full ring game require lots of discipline, which is another word for “folding”.  You'll often get into trouble if you open anything weaker than AJs or KQs in MP1, because - with 6 players still to act - you're still likely to be out of position post-flop if you pick up a caller or two.
One thing to notice is that with most of the hands I open in the first three seats is that they flop good one pair hands and draws to the nuts. 2NL villains often call pre-flop with any ace, so AJs is a profitable hand in this position. You might not often get 3 streets of value with AJs on A95r, but hands like AT are certainly paying you off. Notice also that most of the hands I'm raising here also have multiple ways to win. The Broadway straight (A-T) is quite a common winning hand at showdown. If you have AQ on KJT, you'll often win a whole stack from AK, or two pair hands like KJ, or a set.
Suitedness also offers value to a hand. Suited aces can obviously make the nut flush. Although flushes are slightly rarer than straights, so AJs is only marginally stronger than AJo in a race, the ability to flop a flush draw (which has 9 outs, as opposed to the 8 outs of an OESD) adds to the suited version's playability. Combo draws (where you have both a straight draw and a flush draw) can often be played aggressively.

e.g. on has 15 outs to a straight or flush, and also has 6 outs to top pair vs Jx. It may surprise you to know that on the flop I just detailed, might literally be just king high, but it's actually a favourite to beat or  if all the money goes in on the flop, and it's flipping with .

MP2, 3-off the button
77+, ATs+, AJo+, KJs+, KQo (9%)

MP2 Raising Chart

In MP2, we're getting closer to the button, so we can open a little wider. We're still folding over 90% of the time, but I've added pocket sevens, another suited ace and suited king to the range, plus a couple more offsuit Broadways. KQo is somewhat overplayed at 2NL, but it's just about strong enough to open in this position, as you can definitely get action from weaker kings which you dominate, and the pot is less likely to be multiway in comparison to the EP seats. Of the 5 players yet to act, only 3 will have position on you post-flop. It's not so terrible if you have to play a hand like AJ or KQ oop against a late position caller, as their range will be relatively weak. If you get heads up, a c-bet on a dry flop will often be enough to win the pot, but obviously you'll also make TPGK+ quite often (over 25% of the time in the case of KQ) and can get value from worse.

All of the above charts should help you to put villains on ranges pre-flop. Although most 2NL players will be somewhat looser than my charts, you can start putting the nits and TAGs on ranges according to these charts. That is to say, if a nit opens in UTG+1, he's not going to have a hand like KJo, so if that's the hand you have, it will not be +EV to play it. I'll write a longer post on hand-ranging (perhaps the most crucial poker skill of all) in a later article.

In the next part of this series, we'll open up our ranges considerably (no more nit-boxing!) as we come to the most profitable positions. Not only can the opening ranges widen to include more value hands and "drawing hands" (partly because we are more likely to see a heads-up flop in position against weak ranges), we'll also be raising in seats where we have a great chance to steal the blinds with very weak holecards.
I'll also combine all the charts into one big image that you can have open on your desktop, so you can see in an instant the type of hands you can profitably open with in each seat.

Keep the questions, comments and suggestions coming in my blog thread on the forum.

Till the next time, remember that tight is right! Good luck on the tables!

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