Three times table

In the first of a series on poker truisms, we ask why the standard pre-flop raise is three times the big blind

Large raises in late position can be a sign of weakness. If you have a big hand, why kill your action by making a larger raise?

Pick up any book on no-limit hold’em tournaments and one of the first things you’ll be told is to always enter a pot with a raise. Raising pre-flop can have several aims. Firstly, we might want to build the pot with a premium hand, whilst reducing the field to minimise our chances of being outdrawn. Alternatively, we could be attempting to steal the blinds, hoping to win the pot uncontested.

Therefore, we need to find a raise size that is going to allow us to take down the pot when no one else has a hand, but that will not price anybody into calling with speculative holdings. Theory tells us to raise three times the big blind – but is this truly the optimum strategy?

Less than three times the big blind

One alternative to the ‘standard’ three times strategy would be to double the size of the blind, known as a limit-raise. Imagine you are holding A-K under the gun during the first level of a tournament and decide to limit-raise. Let’s consider the action for the other players at the table – most critically, the blinds. Assuming everyone else has folded, a limit-raise offers the small blind odds of 2.3/1 on his call and the big blind (assuming small blind folds) 3.5/1.

Any players who decide to call in between are increasing the odds for the blind players even further and a concertina effect usually ensues, leading to a multi-way flop, which is not your objective with most hands in your raising range. If I’m on the big blind and there’s been a limit-raise, I will almost always call due to both the explicit and implied odds offered. I’m not going to fall in love with my hand when catching half the flop, but I’ll be likely to trap you into losing a big pot if I hit the deck hard.

More than three times the big blind

Another alternative is to raise more than three times the big blind. Let’s assume you’re holding pocket sevens in late position with the blinds at 200/400. The action is folded to you and you make a raise of four times the big blind to 1,600. A tight player behind you now re-raises all-in for 8,000. You know this player is unlikely to be bluffing in this spot – meaning at best he has A-K but is likely to have you dominated with a higher pair. This is an easy fold, but the point is that you’ve lost more in this pot than you needed to.

By raising less (three times the big blind) you could have found out the same information, but would not have had to leave so many chips behind as a result. Over the course of a tournament the savings gained in situations like this are critical in maintaining your stack. Coming in for a raise that’s too big is one of the most common and crippling mistakes made by players new to the game.


Raise less than three times the big blind and you may create a domino effect in terms of the players that call. Raise more and you may be using more chips than you need to. So in this sense, three times the big blind is the optimum raise

Adjust and Adapt

The key principle therefore is to raise enough to shut out weaker hands and yet to keep raises small enough to minimise losses when we are forced to fold to a re-raise. Whilst three times the big blind can therefore be argued to be the optimal ‘standard raise’, there are certain conditions which may force us to make adjustments.

Hole Cards
Some players like to raise more with their bigger hands to build the pot, whilst others like to raise less to induce more action. I would suggest that in general you play all your hands the same pre-flop in order to maintain an element of disguise and keep your opponents guessing.

I was in a tournament recently where the player under the gun limit-raised my big blind. This was the first time in three hours he’d made this raise; my opponent was allowing me to play a pot where I could put him on such a tight range of hands that I knew I was only ever going to play a big pot when he was in very bad shape. In this particular scenario I had A-10 and when the flop came 10-high, I checked and my opponent bet the pot. I showed him my hand as I passed, asking – tongue in cheek – if I was passing the best hand. He turned over his Aces in disgust, telling me they were supposed to double him up on that flop. Silly me…

Whilst a limit-raise under the gun is a common example of someone who might give away their hand with a pre-flop raise, there are several others to watch out for and try to avoid replicating yourself. Someone with a fairly standard pre-flop strategy will sometimes make an oversized raise. Rather than their usual three times raise, they will go for anything between four and six times. What they are telling you here is that they have a ‘good hand’ which they are scared to play post- flop.

This, almost without exception, means a pocket pair between 7s and Jacks. Next time you see this in a tournament try putting the pressure on by making a re-raise. Of the times you are called, bet any flop containing a Queen or higher and you might be surprised by the number of times your opponent will flip their cards, announcing: ‘I really hate Jacks!’

Your opponents
The people you are playing against should be a key factor in your decision to alter your standard pre-flop raise. If my table permits, I like to make my standard raise – which is two-and-a-half times the big blind. But, if these bets are being called too often I will revert back to the three times strategy. When your table is playing extremely tight you can afford to reduce your raise.

Similarly, if you find a few calling stations on your table you’ll need to increase the size of your raise to discourage too many multi-way pots. Whilst I have mentioned my dislike for limit raises, even they can have their place on an extremely tight table. The key is to give the big blind a tough decision; if he is happy to pass to any raise without a hand, it’s your lucky day!

I recently read a piece from a former world champion who said that in early position you should raise less as (a) you’re representing a big hand and so are less likely to get action, and (b) you have more people to act behind you and so there is an increased likelihood of someone finding a big hand to re-raise you with.

Whilst the logic here is sound, in practice I find that smaller raises in early position – especially when the blinds are small – get called with a frequency that’s just too high to make this a profitable play in the long-term. In particular, when someone in mid-position finds a playable hand with which they want to call, you normally find both of the blinds feel priced in and you’re now playing multi-way. The logic continues that – for opposing reasons – as your position gets later, your raises should increase.

Large raises in late position can be a sign of weakness and I’m more likely to give action. My thinking is: if you have a big hand you’ve got less people to get through. Why kill your action by making a larger raise?

Blinds and antes
Traditional tournament theory states that when the antes come into play we need to increase the size of our pre-flop raises by an amount roughly equal to half the size of the total antes. In America – where almost all tournaments feature antes and players are much more aware of the increased pot odds they create – I would tend to agree with this idea.

However, in the UK, where running antes have only recently been introduced and players in general are less experienced, I don’t find this adjustment to be necessary most of the time. A player on the big blind facing a standard three times raise should be considering the increased amount of dead money in the pot once the antes have kicked in.

Nonetheless – whether antes are in play or not – I like to begin reducing my opening raise amounts at this stage of the tournament. This is because many players begin to focus more on actual bet amounts and less on pot odds.

For example, when the blinds are 400/800 (assuming no antes) a standard raise may be 2,400. But, in this situation, a raise to 1,900-2,000 will usually serve exactly the same purpose. As the tournament progresses and it becomes increasingly expensive for people to see flops, you may find a player either wants to play a pot or they don’t. Whether you raise 500 more or less will have no bearing. As the blinds continue to rise – and your stealing attempts become more frequent – the money you can save by decreasing your raises becomes critical to losing the minimum when you are forced to fold.

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