Making big shoves in tournaments

CardRunners pro instructor Will ‘HalcyonDays’ Ma explains why making big shoves in tournaments is fundamentally bad, but sometimes still the right move

Let’s define a big shove as a preflop all-in in a spot where you are deep enough to raise and react to what comes later. For example, say it’s folded to you in late position and you have 22 big blinds and everyone else at the table has the same. In this spot a player would usually just min-raise, but sometimes the best option is to shove your entire stack in.

This is a very common scenario in MTTs today, because beyond the first few levels (when antes come into play) everyone generally has around 25-30 big blinds. If you want to go deep in MTTs you need to learn when making a big shove is better than just raising.

It’s important to realise that the big shove is fundamentally not a good play. And intuitively it doesn’t make sense either. When you min-raise, your opponent has to decide what you’re going to do if he resteals. You get to fold your bad hands and call with your good hands. When you make a big shove you don’t get to make the final decision, and that seems stupid. But in the right situation it can be a very useful move, and let’s see why.

Times of change

A few years ago nobody played back aggressively from the blinds, so it was profitable to steal from late position with a wide range of hands. I’m going to call a profitable ‘pure steal’ spot one where it is profitable to raise with any two cards.

If a pure steal is profitable then it is never correct to make a big shove. If your opponents are tight enough then if they resteal you can instantly fold your cards. It is never a good idea to make a big shove here. Unfortunately times have changed and players now play back much more frequently.

The main reason to make a big shove is to deny the big blind of profitable situations in which to flat call.The big blind will have 4.5-to-1 odds to call your min-raise, which is a very profitable situation for him to call with a wide range. He only has to put in one chip to win four and a half. Therefore by shoving 22BB you are denying your opponent this opportunity.

You can also induce some common mistakes by shoving. Most players fold too much and show too much respect to a big shove. If you’re on the button and shove 22BB a lot of players will fold A-5 offsuit from the big blind. They are definitely not folding an Ace to a min-raise. Also there are a few players who will call too light.

Main factors

One of the main questions to ask yourself is: ‘Can I induce weaker hands to resteal?’ Let’s say you’ve got A-K on the button and 22BB. If the small blind would resteal with A-2 but not call your shove, then by shoving your A-K you allow the small blind to get away from their A-2. If the small blind is the kind of player who would resteal but not call with a range of worse hands, you are making a huge mistake.

You should also be asking: ‘Do I get blown off too frequently if I raise-fold?’ Let’s say you have J-T on the button. This is a pretty good hand, but not good enough to call a resteal. You can’t just fold it, so the solution is to put all your money in.

If you don’t make a big shove you always run the risk of playing a hand postflop, and one of the reasons you make a big shove is to avoid postflop play. This is another really important question: ‘How well does my hand play against my opponent’s range postflop and how well does he play postflop?’

Clearly a hand like J-T is going to play better postflop than 2-2, even though 2-2 is a stronger hand. How well your hand plays postflop relative to how your hand plays preflop is very important. Observant opponents might realise that when you shove 22BB from the button your range probably doesn’t include A-T+ and 7-7+.

When you have those types of hands you are going to min-raise and try to induce a resteal from a weaker hand. When you make a big shove you can’t possibly have a strong hand, and this is really bad for you. When you shove 12BB you might well have Aces, but nobody in the world is going to shove 22BB with Aces. If you do the maths then against a range that doesn’t contain 7-7+ you can call with a super-light range.

Some players have realised this, and against a player who is making a lot of big shoves you can call with hands such as J-T. You are never too far behind and you almost always have odds to call given all the dead money in the pot. One small factor to consider is whether your opponent likes to slow-play Q-Q+ preflop. If he has this type of hand he may opt not to reraise preflop, but hope his opponent hits top pair and gets all the money in bad.

If your opponent might slow-play then it’s good to just min-raise hands that are pretty good but not amazing. If you min-raise and he shoves you can get it in. But if you min-raise and he just calls you can save yourself if you think he is slow-playing. Sometimes you can dodge sick coolers this way. You can min-raise with A-K and get called by Aces and dodge a cooler as you’re probably not going to hit top pair.

Case by case

Your approximate strategy should be to raise-call really good hands, raise-fold average hands and shove decent hands. It seems like a pretty reasonable strategy. The one-word description of it is polarisation. When you play cash games good players say your range should be polarised when you’re threebetting.

You don’t three-bet with hands such as A-J. If you’re on the fl op and the flop is J-9-2 you check hands such as 8-8 that are decent but not that good. If you don’t get into tough decisions it increases your EV. If your opponent resteals you can call. If your hand is garbage you can instantly fold if they resteal.

Make it easy for yourself with the marginal hands by just shoving in. Now we will look at more specific situations where we are assuming it’s been folded to you on the button and everyone has 22BB each.

Premium pairs

With big pairs I will almost always raise rather than shoving. You gain so much value when your opponent defends with hands like T-9 and hits top pair against your overpair. Even if they get it in with a flush draw you’re ahead, and you get it in really good against a resteal.

If I was less deep and/or facing opponents who would never expect me to raise-fold I might shove these hands. If you min-raise this opponent you effectively reveal that you are raisecalling, which gives away the fact that you have a good hand.

This only applies against good thinking opponents. Very rarely I will shove big pairs against an opponent who has a specific read on me. Say someone has seen you shove Q-6 from the cutoff and min-raise Kings and he is a bit tilted, you might get a call. But I only do this about 1% of the time and I’m more likely to do it with nines or tens than Jacks or better.

Middle pairs

The smaller the pair the less likely you are to hold an overpair, and you can’t really continuation-bet and call a shove. With these hands I am much more likely to shove preflop so I don’t have to play postflop. Most of the time though I am still raising, as the value you get from inducing weaker hands to resteal is still huge.

You are still in position and you can often check behind and win the hand at showdown. I shove about 20% of the time if I have 22BB. A lot of people automatically min-raise and don’t think about how their opponents play. I shove them 40% of the time if I have 17BB.

Shoving is only worse if there are hands you dominate that won’t call a shove but will resteal. You are less afraid to get postflop versus good opponents. In general, good players are more likely to resteal with T-9 and defend with Q-J. They want to get it in with hands that are harder to play like T-9, where they can blow you off hands like J-T.

Good tournament players are adapting this strategy and will defend hands like Q-J as they can play well postflop. If you have pocket sixes, on what sorts of boards are you going to put all your money in? This is likely to be a set versus a straight or combo draw instead of a set against top pair. If you think your opponents are good then you lose less by getting postflop with your middle pairs.

Small pairs (up to 5-5)

This is easy. You should almost always shove these as they suck postflop and you will so rarely hit a set. Their preflop value is extremely high relative to their postflop value. If you think your opponent will resteal with A-2 it might be better to raise-call 4-4 and 5-5. But only do this if you can make a strong case for an opponent restealing light.

Strong broadway hands

These are hands that I consider strong enough that you can raise-call for 22BB from the button. Usually I will raise-call with these because getting it in against A-x is so nice. Against opponents who like defending but hate restealing, I will just shove.

If you min-raise your pocket Jacks and they defend with T-9, this is good for you. But with A-K if they call with T-9 this is bad for you, as the board will often come three low cards and you will just get blown off the hand. If you min-raise A-K on the button you are rarely dominating them postflop.

Usually though, around 80% of the time I will min-raise, as most opponents will shove with hands like Q-J or 8-7. You would much rather get postflop against Q-J than 8-7 here, as Q-J hits the same sorts of boards as you, so you will usually get it in good if you hit. Against 8-7 they are going to fold if the board misses them and check-raise when they hit.

Obviously, getting it in against 2-2 when they would otherwise have folded is frustrating. Likewise if they only resteal with A-x and not K-x. Getting it in with K-Q against A-2 is extremely frustrating, so you may want to shove some marginal Broadway hands rather than raise-calling. With hands like K-Q I am usually shoving 22BB and I’m not crying the times they fold Q-J.

A-x hands

These hands have a higher preflop value than postflop. I basically always shove these, as it’s normally a profitable shove. Hands like A-7s play okay postflop and get enough smaller Aces to resteal that it may be worth raising and reacting to their shove. But in general I shove A-x. You don’t want to induce a resteal and you don’t want to play postflop.

Weaker broadway hands

This includes hands like Q-9, K-T and J-9. With these hands I raise-fold around half the time and shove half the time. It depends on how likely they are to call with K-Q and K-J, or in other words how likely they are to put me on A-x. I am more likely to raise-fold if they defend smaller suited hands instead of restealing. In this case I would much rather let them call and play postflop in position.

Good small suited connectors

These are hands that are pretty bad, but are still profitable shoves. If I have a hand like 7-6 suited or 9-7 suited I only don’t shove them if I can treat it as a pure-steal spot where I don’t think my opponent is going to resteal that often. What you really want to avoid is getting it in postflop.

Everything else

This is the same as above, except I fold instead of shoving. If I can’t min-raise as a pure steal I will just fold. There is nothing wrong with folding the button. Tournaments are so aggressive nowadays, you don’t have to feel bad if you fold the button sometimes.

In summary

  1. Big shoves are fundamentally bad. You are committing your stack when you don’t need to.
  2. The main reasons you should shove are to prevent flat-calls and bad postflop spots and to induce mistakes.
  3. With the best hands you should tend to raise-call.
  4. With the worst hands you should tend to raise-fold.
  5. With the hands in between you should just shove.

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