Five challenges to improve your online cash game play

Want to improve your online cash game play? Ross Jarvis presents five challenges – be warned, poker doesn’t get tougher than this!

I have two main interests in life: poker and food. They aren’t a natural fit, but after watching a recent episode of MasterChef I was inspired by a segment on the show that tests the budding chefs’ technical skills. The challenge can be anything from plucking a pheasant to frying a steak, but they are all skills that any professional chef should and must possess.

To be a winning poker player in today’s games there are also skills it’s essential to learn, so I’ve channelled my inner Michel Roux Jr to set you a series of challenges on the cash game tables. And best of all, the only ingredients needed are an online poker account, a small bankroll and a dash of Hold’em Manager. Good luck!

1: Perfect your preflop bet sizing

Difficulty Rating: 1/5

What is the challenge?

Many weak poker players have very exploitable leaks in their preflop bet sizing which can give away the strength of their hands to perceptive opponents. With some fine-tuning this can be fixed, and will improve your game hugely.

Why it’s important

A common and extremely reliable tell on an unknown player is that if you see them making unusual bet sizes preflop they are a fish. Do you ever open-raise to 10BB? Three-bet a 3BB opening raise to just 6BB total? Or even shove over a three-bet for an extra 150BB? If you recognise yourself in any of these, it’s time to get out of the water, for you are a great big piece of cod.

Preflop bet sizing is a simple art, yet one that every winning player must master. Assuming 100BB effective stacks, here are some simple guidelines to follow. Generally, you should be coming into the pot with a raise rather than limping in. Raise to 3BB from any position except the button, where you should raise to 2.5BB instead. This is because you are more likely to be three-bet by the blinds and it is in your favour if the pot size is more controlled.

When you have a hand you want to three-bet, the size of your raise depends on the number of players in the pot, the pot size and your position. If the cutoff has opened to 3BB and you wish to three-bet the button, raise to 10BB whatever your hand strength. This amount is enough to discourage him from continuing with very weak hands (when you are bluffing), but sufficient to build the pot when you have a big hand. If you find yourself out of position, add an extra 1BB onto your raise to compensate.

For example, a 3BB open should now be three-bet to 11BB. If you are making a squeeze play (meaning the pot has been opened and there has been at least one call before you reraise), your bet should be larger. A good rule of thumb is to raise the size of the pot plus one BB. So, if in a $1/$2 game the cutoff opens to $6 (3BB), the button calls (3BB) and the small blind folds (0.5BB), you should squeeze to $28 (14BB) from the big blind.

Finally, it’s vital to have consistent sizing when making four-bets too. In this instance the aim is to put your opponent to a decision for all his chips while risking the least. This should be the same amount whether you hold A-A or 6-7 suited. A hand will often go like this: you raise to 3BB, get three-bet to 10BB and wish to four-bet. Out of position your raise should be slightly larger (to discourage flat-calls), to 24BB. In position you can make it just 22BB and expect the same results.

2: A one, two, A one-two three-bet

Difficulty Rating:2/5

What is the challenge?

To increase your three-bet percentage to a minimum of 6%.

Why it’s important

If you only ever three-bet with your big hands, you are going to be very easy to play against. Opponents will simply fold dominated holdings like A-J and K-Q, while calling with small pairs and suited connectors in an attempt to crack your monster. It’s therefore vital that as you move up the stakes you begin to threebet a wider range.

If you have a tracking program such as Hold’em Manager, go into your database and see what your current three-bet percentage is. If it’s below 6% you are likely not threebetting enough. That number is about perfect for a fairly tight-aggressive style and is what you should initially aim for.

If you are just getting used to opening up your game, I recommend you start by three-betting light (that is, with weaker hands) only when in position. Great hands to do this with are suited connectors, suited one-gappers like J-9, Q-T and 8-6, and suited Ace-wheel hands like A-2 and A-5. These types of hands can play very well postflop if you are called, yet are weak enough that you can fold without a tough decision if you are four-bet by an opponent. If you are called and miss the flop then usually you should still go ahead and continuationbet once in an attempt to take it down.

For now, forget any notions of slowplaying big hands too. You really want to pile on the pressure whenever you feel your hand is good. Look to three-bet T-T+, A-K and A-Q at every opportunity to boost your three-bet percentage. Once you start doing this you will become a much tougher opponent, as you will have a more balanced threebetting range than before.

3: Be a positional monster

Difficulty Rating: 3/5

What is the challenge?

To make your opponent’s life a living hell when you have position on them postflop.

Why it’s important

Everybody has heard over and over that position is crucial in any poker hand. Yet a lot of players still fail to take advantage of their positional power. You probably flat-call in position with a whole variety of hands. If a villain has opened from early position it’s probable their hand strength is greater than yours, yet because you have position you can still win a lot of these pots.

For example, a TAG opens under the gun, you call on the button with K-J and the flop is 7-8-T. On the surface this looks like a pretty poor flop for us, as we only have two overcards and a gutshot. However, in our opponent’s eyes this flop will have hit our range hard. We could feasibly represent sets, two pairs and all manner of straight draws here, so folding to a c-bet is out of the question.

If you raise the c-bet you have to be prepared to follow through with your bluff on most turns, while if you float you also have to bet the turn whenever checked to. Spotting good situations to bluff in  position is crucial.

Another common way you can exploit this is in three-bet pots. Say you call a three-bet on the button with 8-9 and the flop is A-2-6. Unless your opponent is extremely aggressive you should call here a fair amount of the time. In theory the Ace is likely to have hit the three-bettor some of the time, yet because of that he is going to represent it every time. When an Ace is on board not many players will attempt to run multi-street bluffs, so you can comfortably call the flop and bet small on the turn when it is checked to you.

You’ll be surprised how often it works. If you notice, in both of these examples we have a small  amount of equity in the hand and are never purely bluffing. This is important to bear in mind, as being able to pick up extra outs on the turn will increase your chances of success.

4: Take a trip to the jam factory

Difficulty Rating: 4/5

What is the challenge?

Execute a five-bet all-in bluff and get away with it.

Why it’s important

We’re getting onto the sexy stuff now. Five-bet jamming with a weak hand is about as reckless as it gets in a cash game, but in the right circumstances it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal. For this to be effective you must be playing in games (or at stakes) where the players are aggressive enough that they will be four-betting light.

You see, when we five-bet all-in with a weak hand we are not trying to get our opponent to fold decent holdings like T-T and A-Q. No, we are attempting to use our instincts to re-bluff players we suspect of pulling a big bluff themselves.

You obviously must have solid reads on your opponent to attempt this in the first place. They must be capable of four-bet bluffing and also be aware that you are capable of three-betting light (necessary knowledge for them to attempt this in the first place). The ideal time to pull off this move would be in a blind-versus-blind battle or button-versus-blind.

Here, nobody ever believes anyone has something until the bets get big. Technically your hand shouldn’t matter (because the aim is not to be called), but your chances of success go up slightly if you do this with an Ace or a King in your hand. This is because a strong part of your opponent’s calling range will be A-A, K-K and A-K.

When you have an Ace or a King in your own hand it makes it mathematically less likely that they hold these hands. This is not a play you should make frequently. When it works you’ll feel great and when you get snapped off by K-K you’ll feel stupid, but that’s not the point. As long as you are recognising great situations to attempt the move the results really don’t matter.

5: Long-term crushing

Difficulty Rating: 5/5

What is the challenge?

To maintain a win-rate of 2BB/100+ over a minimum of 100,000 hands.

Why it’s important

Winning poker players don’t emerge overnight. Anybody can have a big winning or losing day, week or month in poker because of the combination of skill and variance found in the game. However, if you can start to maintain a win-rate of 2BB/100+ over a substantial number of hands then you are well on your way to becoming a good winning player.

A good number to start with is 100,000 hands. If you play four tables at a time you should be able to achieve this number within three months by playing a few nights a week. This challenge is the hardest because it requires a consistency the others do not. If you can achieve this, the poker world is your oyster. Which reminds me, it’s must be about time for MasterChef…

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