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Smokin' Poker - The ABC of 2NL

Helping newbies to bubble up from the bottom of the fishtank
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Last time, we looked at the sort of hands you could profitably open in early positions. The range of hands was very tight indeed. In today's article, we'll be loosening up. Since the players in early position have already folded, there are fewer players still with live cards. With fewer players to beat, we don't need such a strong hand in order to enter the pot. That's why 6-max players typically play more hands than full ring players. The next position we will look at is roughly equivalent to 2nd position in a 6-max game, as a raise here only needs to get through 4 players in order to pick up the blinds. (To a certain extent, every poker game is fundamentally about winning the blinds. In full ring games, it's obviously harder to do that when there are 8 other players all trying to do the same thing! In later positions, we have much better chances of achieving our aim, particularly as FR players don't fight for the blinds as desperately as 6-max players do. In short-handed games, the blinds come round so often that you can't sit around waiting for a hand. You'd be blinded out of the game.)

MP3 (HJ), 2-off the button
66+, A8s+, ATo+, KTs+, KJo+, QTs+, JTs, T9s (13.4% of hands)

Open-raising chart for MP3 (HJ)

Middle Position 3 is sometimes called the Hijack seat. The players in the CO and OTB might be waiting for their chance to open-raise with weak hands in order to steal the blinds, but if you open raise before them, they have to fold their trash hands. You might not immediately win the blinds, but you'll often “steal” the button. Raising here is your way of hijacking the situation and gaining the best position if you see a flop.
I wouldn't go crazy and open very wide in this seat, as there's no law against late position players waking up with a real hand. If they re-raise, most of the hands you open in this seat should be folded, because you don't want to play a bloated pot out of position. At higher stakes, players will often “re-steal” the button, but at 2NL, most 3-bet re-raises are strictly for value with monster hands.
In the Hijack seat we can start raising with some of the better suited connectors, as these can flop strong draws as well as reasonable top pairs. I'm not raising JT offsuit here, but the suited version is a particularly nice hand. Whenever you make a straight using both cards with JT, it's always the nut straight, and a large proportion of boards connect with JTs, so you've often got enough equity to fire one or two barrels when you don't make a pair.
I'm also including some of the typical “trouble hands” in this seat. These are hands that are terribly over-played by beginners. Most of the “trouble hands” flop top pair reasonably often, but their kickers aren't particularly strong. I'm talking about Broadway hands like AT, KJ, QTs etc. The way I look at these hands is to think of them as “Two street hands”.
Remember when I wrote about Valuetown being a place where you put money in the pot on all three streets and get paid off at showdown? “Two street hands” are - as you've probably guessed - hands with which you probably only want to put money in the pot on two streets. In my experience, if you put money in the pot on all three streets with one pair, average kicker, you're LOSING a big pot. Generally speaking, with these “trouble hands”, if you don't have at least top two pairs you should exercise some pot control, by checking one street. A line I often take with KJ on a board of something like K8592tt is to bet the flop, check the turn, bet the river. This bet-check-bet line is considered fishy, because it looks like you have nothing at all. You make a standard c-bet, apparently give up on the turn, and then make one last stab on the blank river. When you take this line, villains will think you are bluffing very often and will look you up very light with hands like ace high, especially if your river bet is small. I recall a hand in which I flopped top set and bet it, turned quads, so checked (a rare slowplay), and then made a small value-bet with the nuts on the river, knowing that villain couldn't have anything very good. My fishy bet-check-bet line caused him to look me up with jack high! I think my quads were good there.
I'll provide you with some annotated hand replays so you get a clearer idea of the difference between betting for fat value and pot-controlling when I come to the articles on post-flop play, but now let's sit down in late position and continue with pre-flop strategy.

LP1 (CO), 1-off the button
22+, A2s+, A7o+, K8s+, KTo+, Q9s+, QJo, J9s+, T8s+, 98s, 87s, 76s (24%)

CO Opening Range

We've only moved one seat along and yet our opening range has almost doubled in size. What the hell's going on?
The Cutoff is the first position in which we can really start opening light. Mostly what we're doing here is trying to steal the blinds, but when we get called we'll usually have decent equity. The range is weighted toward “playability”; some hands with “big card” value, and several more speculative hands that can flop good draws, or even the nuts.
There are certainly some trashy hands in here. A7o is a marginal hand at best, but you can make top pair with it and beat all pocket pairs and worse aces that called pre-flop. It has some showdown equity in small pots and can be played in a similar style to the “trouble hands” described in the paragraph above. Speaking of pocket pairs, I'd recommend opening every pair down to 22 here. You'll seldom flop a set, but you're still beating ace high when you see a flop. C-betting in position against the blinds will be successful pretty often (and you'll be able to get villains off bigger pocket pairs like 88 when the flop comes KJ5), but you won't be going to showdown with an underpair if you can help it. When you do flop a set of deuces on something like Q72, a villain with KQ is never going to put you on bottom set, because you raised pre-flop, so you can win a big pot if you're lucky enough to spike your 2-outer.
Every suited ace is included in this range. As with ragged aces like A7o, you don't want to build a big pot if you just flop top pair. Against most players, I'd rather have a draw to the nut flush than a pair on the flop, because it's easy to check behind (or fold to a bet) when the draw misses, but folding top pair requires more discipline and accurate ranging of your opponent.
Along with the suited connectors down to 76s, I'm also opening some suited one-gappers in the CO. A hand like T8s doesn't smash the flop very often, but it makes some very well-disguised straights that have a good chance of getting paid off. e.g. With on , you have a “double belly-buster” straight draw with 8 outs. If a J or 7 comes on the turn, villain is never going to put you on the straight, and you'll win a stack from two pairs or a set.

LP2 (BUT), The Button
22+, A2s+, A2o+, K7s+, KTo+, Q8s+, QTo+, J8s+, JTo, T8s+, 97s+, 87s, 76s, 65s, T9o (32.7%)

Button opening range

We've finally made it to the best seat in the house. Whoever has the button will always be in position post-flop, and if no one else has opened the pot, then it's a great spot from which to try and steal the blinds. Commonly at 2NL, there will actually be a couple of limpers in the pot when the action reaches you OTB. With most of the hands in the chart above, you can you make an isolation raise, which should be 4bb vs one limper and 5bb vs two limpers. However, since limpers tend to be calling stations that will call the raise about 75% of the time, you're better off only iso-raising with “top pair hands”, because you're likely to see a flop, and generally need to hit it to be comfortable post-flop, because it's a bad idea to try and bluff a calling station. For iso-raising a loose-passive player, I generally want any two cards higher than eight. A9, QT, T9 and K9s would all be fine. If the limper is a nut-peddling set-miner, then it doesn't really matter what your cards are. You can c-bet 100% of flops, and he will fold if he didn't hit his set or nut flush draw.
With some of the weaker, more speculative hands in the chart above, I think it's fine to over-limp and try and see a multiway flop for the cheapest price possible (2c). Bear in mind that open-limping or over-limping in any seat prior the cutoff is a losing play. But if you have a hand like 65s or 55 OTB and there are two limpers in the pot, then there's no harm in over-calling. If you hit the flop hard, you'll be able to build the pot post-flop using your positional advantage, or check behind and take free cards if you're on a draw. Speculative hands benefit from a high stack to pot ratio, and this is achieved when it's an unraised pot. Facing one or two limps, I'd generally fold the weaker off-suit aces that are on the chart, because 2NL limpers often play middling aces. You'll feel pretty sick if you overlimp with A5o and get taken to valuetown by A6o.
If it's folded to you OTB, then you can raise with any of the highlighted hands in the chart above. The range I recommend for the button is pretty darn wide, at almost 33% of hands. A typical TAG (like me!) will only play about 14% of hands in total, but here we are raising with more than double that amount. The reason is quite simple: Most players do not defend their blinds in full ring games. There are a lot of nits on Pokerstars especially, perhaps because they graduated from PSO courses and league games, where a very tight strategy is profitable. Although the chart above recommends open-raising OTB with 33% of hands, I steal more often than that when the players to my left are known to be nitty.
An open-raise from the button will be immediately successful about half the time in my experience (see graphic below), so half the time you're going to see a flop (unless you get 3-bet, in which case you'll usually fold). We therefore want to be able to flop some equity when our PFR is called.
The card matrix for the button contains lots of suited hands, all the way down to 65s. I wouldn't raise anything smaller than that, because hands like 54s can make straights and flushes but they are often not the nuts. If the board comes 678 when you have 54, your “idiot end” of the straight will mean you usually lose your whole stack if an opponent has T9. Speaking of T9, this is the worst offsuit hand I would raise in this seat. It's less playable than the suited version, but can still outflop hands like 88 and 77 that are common hands for a player in the blinds to call with, and also it hits a lot of straight draws. This means that you can feel good about c-betting flops that contain big cards (because an ace or king will scare off an underpair) or medium cards, because you'll have some sort of pair/draw combo.
Any two Broadways and all aces are open-raising hands OTB, but remember what I said about “trouble hands” above. With the vast majority of the hands on this chart, you don't want to build a big pot with anything less than top two pairs. Use your position to exercise some pot control if you make one pair with hands like QJ, K9s, J8s etc. Be especially aware that your opponents will mostly play a tight range in the blinds, so your wide button range is - on average - losing to their tight blind range, at least until you see the flop.

SB (Small Blind)
22+, A2s+, A2o+, K5s+, K9o+, Q7s+, QTo+, J8s+, JTo ,T8s+, 98s (32.4%)

At a full 9-handed table, you won't get a huge number of opportunities to open raise in the small blind (there's usually at least one damn limper!), but when it is folded to you there, you have a very good chance of stealing the blinds, because there's only one player that can stop you. The percentage of hands I'd recommend you raise in this situation is almost as high as for the button, but the actual range of cards differs slightly. On the button, we can steal with hands like 65s, because that's a hand that plays nicely in position, either betting/raising with a draw, or taking free cards. If we raise in the SB and get called by the BB, we'll be OOP on the flop. We don't want small suited connectors here. I'd rather have cards that make top pair, because heads up BvB pots tend to be a battle of who makes the best one pair hand. You'll get owned if you try betting 3 streets with bottom pair or a straight draw, as the Big Blind will usually call pre-flop with two Broadways or a medium pocket pair and station you to the river. Your c-bet success rate will tend to be lowest of all in BvB battles (they never give you credit for a hand), which is why it's more important to actually have top pair if you're putting money in the pot post-flop. It might actually be better to raise K9o here than K5s, but I feel more comfortable when I have backdoor flush potential as a backup if I hit a king with a bad kicker.
If you're still not convinced that stealing with weak hands is a viable play at 2NL, take a look at this screengrab, which shows my steal success rates for the SB, BUT and CO over 100k hands of FR 2NL.

Imagine being able to profitably play more than half the hands you are dealt. That dream is a reality when it's folded to you in the SB. Notice that I attempted to steal in the SB over 55% of the time. Raising 55% of hands may seem maniacal, but my primary reason for stealing so often is that full ring nits will let me! Stealing in the SB was instantly successful about two thirds of the time. It's basically free money. The hand matrix I've supplied for the SB position suggests you only raise with 32% of hands (and that will be fine against unknown players), but if you choose to sit directly to the right of nits, you can often steal BvB with any two cards.
On the button, I tried stealing about 37% of the time with a success rate of over 50%, but you should stick with the 33% range I provided for button opens at least until you have stats/reads on the two players to your left.
In the past, I didn't steal as often in the CO as I'm recommending with the chart supplied for that position. It was only recently while leakfinding with my tracker that I discovered that my CO steals got through as often as 45% of the time. Only opening 19% of hands there is passing up a great number of opportunities, so give the 24% range I provided a try and see how you get on.

One of the reasons I think I'm so successful with my steals is that someone only looking at my overall VPIP stat (or someone that doesn't have a HUD) will think I'm pretty tight. I'm only playing about 14% of hands in total, and if I go to showdown, it's usually with something close to the nuts. If I'm winning a few big pots and mostly showing down hands like AK, QQ or the nut straight with KJs, then villains will expect me to have hands like those when I raise on the button. My LP raises therefore get more respect than they deserve. If you're seen as a tight player that always has the nuts, a villain is never going to put you on T9o or 65s when you raise the button, and will often fold much better hands pre-flop in the blinds.
My unbalanced ranges also work the other way round too. A hudbot reg might see that I have a VPIP of 14% and decide to call my UTG raise with a hand like AQ, thinking “AQ has good equity against the top 14% of hands”. But you saw my UTG range. Every single hand in my UTG range is beating AQ! In fact, AQ is barely ahead of my range for the hijack seat, which is MP3.

Hopefully this article will give you the confidence to play more hands in late position, because I think I've proved (with the stats posted in various blogs) that it's definitely profitable to do so. Feel free to alter the ranges slightly according to your comfort level. If you have a tracker, you can also compare your results with different holecards. If you find, for instance, that you're losing too much money with weak aces, or suited connectors, be more inclined to open-fold those hands.
In the next article, I'll have something about pre-flop bet-sizing, because there are occasions when deviating from standard raise sizes can boost your bottom line. After that will come articles on how to proceed when you're facing a raise pre-flop, and also advice on what to do when your own open gets re-raised.

I've combined all 8 open-raising charts into one image HERE. Save it to your desktop for an at-a-glance guide to open-raising for fun and profit!

Questions, comments and suggestions are welcome as usual, but note that I'm more likely to respond in my blog thread on the forum.

Now go get stealing!

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