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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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The previous few articles have been concerned with hands you can play when you're first into the pot with a raise. In most poker situations, it's preferable to be the bettor/raiser, not a caller, because being the aggressor tends to have a positive expectation. We don't want to be making a lot of calls, either pre-flop or post. Calling stations don't make money in the long run, after all. Nevertheless, today's article will give you advice on which hands you can call pre-flop raises with, along with the reasons for doing so. I won't be saying anything about how to play in the blinds at this point. That is a complicated topic that will require several additional blogs. This piece is solely concerned with your action when you are facing a raise in position. e.g. Villain opens in MP1, you are on the button.
I think many beginners make the mistake of thinking that a hand that is good enough to open with is automatically good enough to call a raise with. In most cases, it's simply not true. Many hands that I would be happy to open-raise with in particular positions become insta-mucks when someone has already entered the pot. For example, if it's folded to me on the button and I have KJ, I am always coming in for a raise, but I'm almost never calling a raise with this hand. If you remember back to the hands I suggested were good for opening in early and middle positions, you'l recall the ranges were tight, mostly consisting of big pairs and big aces. Early/middle position raising hands like AK, AJ and KQ dominate hands like KJ and AT. Bad players will make the mistake of calling your raises with hands like KJ, and they'll get taken to Valuetown when you have AK and the board comes Kxxxx.
Recall the 6.2% range I recommended for opening in MP1. It was 88+, AJs+, KQs, AQo+. How does KJ far against that range? Here's the equity simulation:

MP1 68.34%  { 88+, AJs+, KQs, AQo+ }
BUT 31.66%  { KJo }

KJ is a big underdog here. Mostly because it only has one live card against much of the range, KJ will win at showdown less than a third of the time against that range. It's clearly not a good idea to call with KJ when facing a raise from a player that you believe is only raising 6.2% of hands.

So which cards could we call and see a flop with?
Counter-intuitively, we're actually better off with calling with lower cards than KJ. This is partly because we are less likely to be dominated, and partly because we won't run into trouble on the flop very often. The pre-flop raiser gets value from his “big cards” by making a pair and being called by worse pairs and draws. It follows that you should be calling pre-flop raises with hands that have a chance to draw out and beat top pair. We therefore want to play the type of hands that make sets, trips, straights and flushes.
If a villain is raising 88+, AJs+, KQs, AQo+, then we might call with 76s, for example. There are no sevens or sixes in villain's range, so we have two live cards. We won't make top pair very often, but this is a good thing, because it means we won't get attached to a one pair hand that is actually very weak. If the flop comes J72r and villain fires out a big c-bet, we have a weak pair, bad kicker and no draw. We can give villain credit for a jack at worst. He'll also have top set or an overpair sometimes.
If the flop instead comes J76, then we have two pairs, and there is no way villain has a better two pairs, because J7 and J6 are not in his range. The only hand that beats us is a set of jacks. On a board like this, we can win a big pot against AJ (TPTK) or QQ+ (overpairs). Hands like 76s are good in another respect: they can flop strong draws. On a two-tone board of J54, we have an open-ended straight draw, and sometimes we'll have a flush draw too. Once more, we have a chance of winning a big pot against TPTK or an overpair.
The biggest drawback with speculative hands like 76s, is that they don't flop two pairs, trips, or strong draws very often. This means that on the rare occasions that they do flop huge, you have to get maximum value to make up for all the times you called pre-flop but didn't hit. For this reason, we'd prefer to only play speculative hands when the cost of calling is cheap and the potential rewards are high. I'm referring to implied odds and “risk vs reward”. With speculative hands, we'll take a minimal risk for a maximum potential reward. That is, we want to see flops cheaply, but win a whole stack when we make a monster hand (straight, flush, or better).
Speculative hands tend to benefit from multiway action, partly because villains play “honest” in multiway pots (so they won't c-bet bluff so often and may even give you free cards) and partly because multiway pots mean you get better pot odds to draw cards and are more likely to be paid off.
The value of speculative hands goes up when stacks are deep. If a villain only has 30bb to start the hand, then the implied odds are greatly reduced. You might only have to call 3bb pre-flop, but you only stand to make 30bb in total. That's implied odds of 10 to 1 and it's simply not high enough, because you'll make your monster hand much less often than 1 in every 11 times. With a suited connector, I'm looking for implied odds of 20 to 1 or more. Whatever the price of calling, I want the effective stack to be twenty times as much. If everyone has 100bb, it's fine, because we could call anything up to 5bb and make money in the long run, because we expect to win a total of more than 100bb if we see 20 flops with suited connectors.
The other good speculative hands are my favourites: pocket pairs. These are by far the easiest hands to play, and – at 2NL especially – incredibly profitable. With a hand like 55, I'm happy to call 3bb pre-flop even if I know villain has a big pair. It doesn't matter to me that AA will beat 55 at showdown about 80% of the time, because I'm not going to showdown unless I'm winning! With small pairs, we can call pre-flop to go set-mining. Our one and only aim is to flop a set of trips and to try and win a whole stack from TPTK or an overpair. If we miss the flop (which will happen about 7 times out of 8 ), we'll fold. I'll write a separate article all about set-mining, but for now, all you need to know is that if you have implied odds of 15 to 1 or better (effective stack is 15x the price of calling) you can profitably set-mine. Just be sure to fold on the flop if you don't spike your set. “No set, no bet” as Joe Stapleton puts it. (If you do spike a set, then it's best to immediately put in a pot-sized raise and try and get all in at the first opportunity, because sets are monster hands that should be played fast, to prevent draws getting there cheaply, and to get maximum value from top pair+).

So we've established that KJ is a bad hand to call a raise with, but suited connectors and pocket pairs are good ones. Are there any others? Yes, but not many. You can sometimes call with suited aces, provided you keep your discipline post-flop. When calling a raise with a suited ace, your aim should be to flop two pairs, trips, or a draw to the nuts. Just hitting the ace and being out-kicked will be very costly. I would recommend you usually only call with suited aces that can also make Broadway (A-T straight), a good two pairs, or the wheel (A-5). A hand like A7s can get you in all kinds of trouble.
If you call a raise with a small suited ace, you can sometimes flop a combo draw. If you hold and the board is , for example, you have multiple ways to win. Your ace might by good (if it makes top pair) but you could hit any 3 to make a straight, or any club to make the nut flush. It would depend on the action, but I'm generally always seeing a turn card on this board, and sometimes I'll also play beyond the turn. If I happen to flop just the ace, my default action is to call on the flop, but I will fold to a bet on the turn if I haven't made two pairs, trips, or picked up the NFD. Note that in the charts below for playable hands against average MP ranges, hands like AQs should be played just as cautiously as A2s. If you haven't improved to two pairs or picked up additional straight/flush outs on the turn, it is better to fold AQs on Axxx than call all the way to showdown and lose to AK or a ragged 2 pairs.

Can we alter our calling ranges according to position and player types?
Yes. Against looser players, we can call with a slightly wider range. Hands like AQo which would be insta-folds facing a raise from a TAG/nit in EP become playable against loose-aggressive players. In fact, we may choose to 3-bet AQ for value against a LAG. Our ranges can also be wider if there are already two players in the pot and we are on the button. We can play some suited gappers and Broadways in this situation, given the great pot odds and the better chance of being paid off when we hit big.

Roland GTX posted some very solid advice concerning calling pre-flop raises, in my blog thread on the forum. He wrote:
I only call with speculative hands (pairs, suited connectors and Axs) when ALL 4 of the following conditions are in place:
* 2 or more players with deep stacks are already in the pot (improves the needed implied odds).
* I am in late position (likelihood of getting 3-bet is reduced).
* I expect to see the flop cheap (I'm calling a 3bb raise, or I'm over-limping).
* I have a real speculative hand (suited gappers such as J9s and connected unsuited such as T9o are NOT playable).

I'm a little looser in my requirements for cold-calling pre, but Roland has crushed limits much higher than I've played, and his advice is rock-solid for beginners who are yet to develop their post-flop play. If you're unsure how best to maximise your value or minimise your losses when playing less than stellar hands, then it's perfectly fine to just fold hands like 76s or A4s to a single raise, as they are only marginally profitable in the long run. I agree with Roland that you're better off only calling in late position. The HJ seat (MP3) is about the earliest you can profitably call with a speculative hand. My tracker reveals that calling with almost any hand in an early position is not profitable. So if you have 44 in MP1 and UTG has raised, just dump your hand and wait for a better spot to go set-mining.
I'm going to post some hand-charts below. As with the charts in previous articles, these are based on villains with 100bb stacks. You can alter your calling ranges according to your reads, stats and stack sizes. When stacks are very deep, you can widen your calling ranges. If the opener is one of those dreaded 80c mid-stackers, I wouldn't even call 3bb with 55 if it's likely to be heads up, as the implied odds just aren't that great.

In the charts of “playable” hands below, you'll see monster hands like AA and KK are included. These hands are more than playable.  Your standard play with KK/AA when you are facing a raise will be to put in a re-raise and to try and get all in pre-flop. I'll write a separate article about 3-betting later on, so I've just given the briefest of advice below. Most of the time at FR 2NL, it's standard to 3-bet QQ+ and AK for value, but in specific situations, it's better to call with these hands. (In rare circumstances, folding QQ or AK is actually the best option!). JJ and AQ and some weaker hands can sometimes be 3-bet for value, but those situations are beyond the scope of this article. Hands that can/should be 3-bet for value by default are highlighted in yellow on the charts. Hands you can call with are in blue.

Playable hands vs a tight range (e.g. Villain is in EP, or villain's VPIP < 14%)

Playable vs tight range

This hand matrix above contains all pocket pairs plus AK. It is standard to flat call with AK if the raiser is in EP or is a nit. A very common mistake made at 2NL/5NL is to auto-3-bet AK and stack off, no matter what the situation. Don't make the mistake of 3-betting a nit or an EP opener when you have AK. You'll run into a big pair way too often and get your money in bad. The same applies to QQ. Keep a tight villain's range as wide as possible by flatting QQ/AK. If villain is a nit or he opened in EP, you should only stack off KK+.

Playable hands vs an average range (e.g. Non-nit villain is in MP/CO, or villain's VPIP >20%)

Plavable vs average range

All the best suited connectors are on this chart, along with some suited aces. Your value 3-betting range against MP/CO opens (of if villain is a LAG) should include QQ, AK, and (depending on reads/stats) perhaps even JJ/AQs.

Playable hands vs a wide range, or multiway on the button (e.g. Villain is in CO, or his VPIP>25%, or the action facing hero is a raise and a call.)

Playable vs wide range or multiway

A typical CO opening range is quite wide, so you can call and 3-bet for value with a wider range. Particularly in multiway pots when you have the button, you can profitably call with many suited gappers/Broadways. If you're heads up against the CO, then making top pair with hands like AQ, AJs and KQs is usually good too. You don't have to play those hands solely for their straight/flush potential. Just remember to keep the pot fairly small if you just make one pair. When you're on the button facing a CO raise by a loose player, you can also mix in some light 3-bets if you pick your victims carefully. I'd use the lowest suited aces and smallest pairs for this purpose, as just calling with these isn't particularly +EV when villain is unlikely to have a hand he'll want to play a big pot with (if you call and hit a set of deuces on AQ2, villain isn't stacking off with QT) . If you're uncomfortable 3-betting light, or don't feel you have the post-flop skills to play hands like 86s profitably (sometimes raising as a semi-bluff, even with a gutshot), then it's perfectly fine to fold pre.

Hopefully, this blog has helped you understand the sort of hands that are playable in position when you're facing a raise. If anything's unclear, feel free to ask questions in my thread on the forum.

The next article will give advice on how to proceed when you open for a raise, and someone comes over the top with a re-raise. Till then, thank you for calling. Please call again!

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