How to Beat Microstakes Poker: Best Pre-Flop Strategy
PokerListings.com and Microstakes master Nathan "BlackRain79" Williams have teamed up to produce the definitive series on beating the microstakes for the beginner poker player.
PokerListings.com and Microstakes master Nathan "BlackRain79" Williams have teamed up to produce the definitive series on beating the microstakes for the beginner poker player.
Combining the best general knowledge about microstakes poker strategy, in-depth concepts from BlackRain's groundbreaking book, Crushing the Microstakes, and an ongoing Q&A/hand analysis this is the ideal tool to learn how to beat poker's lowest levels.
By Nathan Williams
Beating poker’s micro-stakes starts with rock-solid strategy before the flop. Playing the right hands before the flop will result in much easier decisions on later streets.
How to Win at Microstakes Poker
Before we start with the pre-flop guidelines it’s important to consider exactly what our objectives are and how we can achieve them.
The micro-stakes are all about getting value with your good hands and folding hands in situations where you can only win a small pot or, if things go wrong, lose a big pot.
This sounds simple. And the good news is that it actually is when you follow a few guidelines and leave your ego and fancy plays where they belong: at the door.
The micro-stakes aren't limits where you want to outplay your opponents. They aren't about finding every +EV situation. They’re actually quite the opposite.
Your goal isn't to outplay your opponent but get maximum value from the right opponents. And instead of seeking every +EV situation, you only choose the situations that offer the most value.
Take Initiative, Have Position
The good news is that the micro-stakes do offer the luxury of a lot of bad players and therefore a lot of profitable situations.
Why try to exploit small edges (which lead to high variance) when you can wait for very profitable situations that come around often, lead to a high-win rate and lower variance? To do this our pre-flop foundation starts with:
- Taking the initiative
- Being in position
Before we start with hand-selection guidelines let's first discuss what your main objectives should be.
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What's the Biggest Advantage in Microstakes Poker?
Poker isn't all about having the best hand at showdown. In reality the player with the best hand doesn’t always win the money.
More often than not both players won't hit a good hand and in those cases you should ask yourself who would probably win the pot.
That player? The one who bets. Often the other player, who also don't have a good hand, will fold in the face of aggression.
This is why taking initiative – meaning you are the one betting/raising instead of calling (passive) – is essential. By betting pre-flop you show strength and in the case another playing calls there’s a greater chance you can win the pot on a later street by betting again.
The biggest advantage of having initiative is that you can win a pot in two ways:
- By having the best hand at showdown
- By making your opponent fold.
Getting your opponent to fold is easier said then done. When your opponent does have a reasonable hand he probably won't fold and this is especially true at the micro-stakes.
How do you know if your opponent has a reasonable hand? Well, you’ll never know for sure but, as with a lot of things in poker, you want the odds in your favor.
Your Opponent Should Act First!
Let's take a simple example in which your opponent has to act first. In situation 1, he bets. In situation 2, he checks. In which case does he probably have a reasonable hand?
In situation 1, and this especially counts for the micro-stakes, betting often means strength. And in situation 2, checking means weak.
Players thinking this through already recognize the other important factor: Your opponent should be the one acting first.
Play in Position
The biggest advantage from “having position” is that you’re the one with the most information before having to act.
Play at the micro-stakes level is often very straightforward so it often is what it seems. Checking does mean weak and betting means strong.
Exceptions are the rule, of course, but exceptions are not where the money comes from.
The Power of Initiative and Position
As said, the player with the best hand doesn’t always win money. In poker it’s your goal to merely the odds in your favor.
By taking initiative and having position you give yourself the maximum chance to win the pot by not only relying on your hand strength but also giving yourself an option to win the pot if you don't hit a good hand.
Not hitting a hand is very common for both you and your opponent(s), so by only following these two guidelines you set yourself up to win a lot of “dead money.”
Besides the dead money you’ll also make your post-flop game much easier -- and post-flop is where the real money (big pots) are won or lost.
Starting Hand Selection for Microstakes Poker
Now that you know the most important factors to micro-stakes success it’s time to outline some rough guidelines for pre-flop hand selection.
Much of the material below is found in more detail in BlackRain79’s e-book Crushing the Microstakes. Specifically the hand-range charts below are taken from the book, but most of the pre-flop information is generally accepted micro-stakes strategy. Some simple points to remember:
1. Raise to Gain Initiative
Always raise when you enter the pot first. When you’re not the first player to enter the pot, re-raise (3-bet) most of the time when you decide to play a hand.
2. Play Hands in Position Post-Flop
Always know how close you are to the dealer button (the best position in poker). How close you are to the button will likely determine whether you’ll have position post-flop.
3. Hand Strength is Important
When you don't have position, or at least chances are good you won't have position (such as in early and middle position) you’ll need to rely more on straight-up hand strength.
4. Chances Someone Else Has a Big Hand
We know we can win the pot more easily when in position but we also need to consider the odds someone else has a big hand.
When there aren't many players sitting behind you the chance one of those players has a good hand is quite small compared to when you’re in early position. In early position the chance is much bigger that someone else behind you has a big hand.
5. Balance Your Range
Another factor, although less important at the micro-stakes, is balancing your range. Assuming you only play hands like AA and KK, even less competent players will notice you only play these hands and will fold or play their hands knowing exactly what you have.
That's why we play a range of hands -- hands that are good enough to play but that leave our opponents guessing about which exact hand we have.
Optimal Strategy for Microstakes Poker
Early and Middle Position
It should be clear that you don't play many hands from early and middle position. There are still lots of players to act after you so chances someone else has a big hand are strong
You also probably won't have position post-flop. You’ll mostly rely on hand strength so you’ll only play the top of our range in these positions.
Hijack (Two seats before the button)
Although the Hijack is also middle position it’s a bit “in between.” Only the cut-off (one before the button, the button and the blinds are still to play so chances there’s a big hand out there are not that big.
After the flop only the cut-off and button would have position on you if they play the hand,
That doesn't mean we can play weak hands, but considerably more hands compared to early position and MP1 and MP2.
Cut-Off and Button
The cut-off and button positions are the real money makers in poker -- especially the button.
Chances are low someone else after you will wake up with a big hand and with the button you’ll always have position after the flop.
Does this mean you can play every hand from this position? No, but still roughly three times as many hands compared to early position.
There is a small difference between the hand ranges you should from the cut-off and the button. Sitting in cut-off there’s still a chance the button will also enter the pot which means you won’t have position throughout the hand.
Hand Selection Chart for Microstakes Poker
Now that you know the rough guidelines for hand selection with regards to your position, it’s time to determine exactly what hands you should play from each position.
For this section we’ll draw entirely from Crushing the Microstakes as it explains it perfectly. It’s also important to realize that these are just guidelines. You don't have to play all of these hands if you don’t feel comfortable.
Also remember: Money you haven't lost is also money you've won...
First in (if no one has entered the pot before you)
Early position (UTG/UTG+1 and UTG +2):
• 22+ (22 and higher pairs, in this case: 22,33,44,55,66,77,88,99,TT,JJ,QQ,KK and AA)
• AQs+ (AQ suited and higher, in this case AK suited)
• AQo+ (AQ unsuited and higher, in this case AK unsuited)
MP1 & MP2:
• AJs+, KQs
• AJo+, KQo
• A8s+, KJs+, QJs, 78s+
• ATo+, KJo+, QJo+
• A2s+, K8s+, Q9s+, J8s+, 56s+, 57s+
• A2o+, K8o+, Q9o+, J8o+
• A2s+, K2s+, Q7s+, J8s+, 56s+, 57s+, 47s+
• A2o+, K2o+, Q7o+, J8o+, T8o+
• A9s+, KJs+, QJs, 78s
• A9o+, KJo+, QJo
• A9s+, KJs+, QJs, 78s
• A9o+, KJo+, Qjo
Raise-Size First In:
A standard raise size from most positions is 4x the big blind. Only when in late position (CO and BTN) should you raise 3x the big blind.
Play when there are limpers
The same ranges count for when there are limpers (callers) in front of you. When there are limpers in front of you this doesn't mean you should limp behind. It’s still better to raise to take the initiative.
The only adjustment you should make is to not play the bottom (lowest part) of your range. Reason for this is the chances are high the limper(s) will still call your pre-flop raise.
Raise size when there are limpers:
When there are limpers and you’re in position you should raise 4x the big blind plus 1 big blind per limper.
When there are limpers and you’re out of position you should raise 4x the big blind plus 1 big blind per limper, but also add another big blind since you have the disadvantage of playing out of position.
When someone else raises first
In this case you have three options: re-raise (3-bet), call or fold.
Before we discuss the different options, remember the importance of having initiative. You want to 3-bet or fold much more than you call since calling is a passive play that gives the advantage back to your opponents.
There are, however, situations where calling is the best option.
When to Call in Microstakes Poker
When someone else raises first pre-flop you have three options:
- Re-raise (3-bet)
You want to 3-bet or fold much more than you call but there are situations where calling is the best option. Three particular exceptions are important.
When you have a pocket pair and you want to set mine. Sets are a big moneymaker at the microstakes but 3-betting with small and mid pocket pairs is often not ideal, since we can't call a 4-bet and don't hit the flop often enough when we get a call.
When you have a hand good enough to call but will lose value in case of a 3-bet. Although you'll often 3-bet with hands such as A-K or J-J, there are situations where this isn't the optimal play.
Take for example a nit who opens from early position. His range is so strong that in case of a 3-bet he'll fold his hands we want to play against and he continues with hands we'll be the underdog against.
When you have a speculative hand and a fish has entered the pot. First of all, in this situation there is one "must" before you even consider calling: You must have position.
Playing against a fish can be very lucrative with hands such as suited connectors, suited aces and broadway hands, but you want to keep the pot small and play in position.
In almost every other situation we should always choose to 3-bet or fold. Before making that decision we should first consider a few things.
1. Position of the Raiser
The first thing to do is note the position of the original raiser.
This is important to make an estimation of the range of your opponent. In general a raise from early position means more strength compared to a raise from late position. Just look at our own play to understand this.
In general we should play tighter against an early position raiser compared to a late-position raiser.
2. What's the Raiser's Playing Style?
Besides position we can also look at the statistics from the original raiser -- or when you don't play with a HUD, the image of the raiser.
It's obvious we should give a tight player who raises from early position more credit for a strong range then a fish who plays almost every hand. To profile your opponent you should try to answer these questions:
- What is his likely open-raising range?
- Does he often fold to a 3-bet?
- What will be his 4-betting range?
- Does he often fold to a continuation bet?
- Is he aggressive post-flop?
3. Will You Have Position Post-Flop?
As you've learned by now, playing in position offers multiple advantages like acting last in every betting round, being able to put pressure on your opponent and extracting value, so it's important to know whether you'll be in position post-flop.
Considering the factors above you know can estimate the range of your opponent and your situation post-flop.
Only 3-Bet for Value in Microstakes Poker!
This is a very critical and distinct point for microstakes poker that BlackRain also makes clear in his book. There's no use 3-betting fancy hands as you'll only get yourself into unnecessary trouble spots.
Yes, at higher limits you should balance your ranges with 3-bets and 4-bets, but at the microstakes level this isn't the case.
A 3-bet should almost always be for value. If it isn't then folding is almost always the best option. In general you can always 3-bet for value with the top of your range, so hands like QQ+ and AK.
Playability in Case of a 3-Bet
Besides your equity against the range of your opponent you should also look at the playability of your hand. Ideal would be of course sitting in position since you are in control.
Being out of position against an aggressive player who calls your 3-bet a lot and plays agressive post-flop, it might not be a smart plan to 3-bet with a hand like J-J when you wouldn't feel comfortable playing the hand post-flop.
Remember, pre-flop is the moment to lay a foundation for your post-flop game so try to always think ahead with regards to the playability of a hand in combination with position and the type of opponent.
If you think you will get into a trouble spot then it might be better to call instead so you keep the pot small. Sometimes it's even better to fold a hand if the other two options don't feel comfortable.
Do We 3-Bet Light At All?
Three-betting without a strong hand is called "light" 3-betting. At higher limits this should be in your arsenal but this is not the case at the microstakes.
Remember: If you only 3-bet for value at the microstakes level you will do fine.
There are situations where light 3-betting can be profitable, but there are some requirements:
- You have to be in position
- Your opponent should often fold to a 3-bet and often fold to a continuation bet
When you 3-bet light you mostly rely on fold equity, so to maximize your fold equity the situation needs to fit the above-mentioned requirements.
Don't get fancy in the microstakes when it comes to 3-betting light. Three-betting light can be a nice addition, as long as you pick the correct spots, so you can balance your 3-betting range a bit.
Which Hands Can You 3-Bet Light With?
Besides the above requirements you can also 3-bet light with hands that won't get you into problems post-flop.
Assume you 3-bet light with a hand like A-4s and the flop comes A-7-T. You make a continuation bet and your opponent raises.
This is a tough spot for a lot of beginners since they have top pair in a relatively big pot. Although it is a clear fold, if you have trouble folding this hand you shouldn't be even playing this hand.
The same counts for easily dominated hands in 3-bet pots like K-J, A-T etc.
If these hands are hard for you to fold as well you'd be safer to 3-bet light with suited connectors (examples of suited connectors are 98s, 87s and 76s). With these type of hands you don't hit the flop often and it's way easier to fold in the face of aggression from your opponents.
Another advantage is that when you do hit the flop you often win a big pot since your opponent will have trouble putting you on those kind of hands.
If you don't have trouble laying down your hand post-flop in case of aggression you could 3-bet light with hands like high cards, suited aces and suited connectors.
Logically you can also count small to mid pocket pairs to this category but why this isn't the case you can read above in the exceptions to call a raise.
Raise Size in Case of a 3-Bet
In this case we first look if you have position or not. When you're in position you should raise 3x the original raise and when you're sitting out of position you should raise 4x the original raise.
When Your Opponent 3-Bets
If you open-raised and your opponent 3-bets the play is almost always very straight forward in the microstakes. In most cases a fold will be the best option.
First of all, you don't have initiative in case of a call so you are actually playing hit-or-fold in this case. Most of the time you won't hit a good flop, which will result in a fold on the flop.
Even if you do hit this doesn't mean you will get paid off. Your opponent won't automatically invest his whole stack. Often he will fold to agression when he has nothing, so these moments don't make-up all the small losses of 10-12bb.
Often you'll also be playing out of position, which is really a handicap as you've learned. You're in fact playing clueless while your opponent has all the information.
Besides that, it's quite hard to get value when you hit the flop when you're out of position. In case of hands like AA and KK it will be an easy 4-bet/all-in.
Hands with which you could call a 3-bet are player/situation dependent. It speaks for itself that you can call with more hands against a loose 3-bettor who also plays passively post-flop compared to a tight 3-bettor who plays agressively post-flop.
You should therefore consider position, the tendencies/stats of your opponent, but also the playability of a hand. You might be ahead of the range of your opponent but how much is that worth when you're out of position with a hand like 88 on a A-J-6 flop?
Also in this case it is important to think ahead and, in case of doubt, you can fold. Remember, opportunities come along a lot on the microstakes so why exploit small edges with the danger of getting into trouble spots?
Raise Size in Case of a 4-Bet
When your opponent 3-bets and you want to 4-bet you should raise his original 3-bet 2.5x-3x. Aim for the higher if you suspect your opponent will give action.
When Your Opponent 4-Bets
When your opponent 4-bets after your 3-bet then only play further (go all-in) with AA and KK. One exception might be going all-in with KK against a complete nit who will only 4-bet/all-in with AA.
You might think QQ is also a candidate against certain opponents but don't forget that you'll only have 53% equity against a loose 4-betting range like TT+,AQs+,AKo.
When this range is even tighter (often the case), your equity drops even further. Yes, there are situations where a call might be correct based on pot odds/equity. But it still isn't worth it at the microstakes where you can simply wait for bigger edges instead of taking the high-variance route.
Raise Size 5-Bet/All-In
When your opponent 4-bets you and you want to play the hand further, if you have AA and KK then you can just go all-in.
Play at the microstakes level is totally different compared to higher stakes. And so should your strategy be.
It might not be cool to play ABC poker and leave a lot of +EV situations on the table but you're not playing to boost your ego. Your goal is to a achieve a high win rate, limit variance and climb the limits as fast as possible.
You need a strategy which achieves these goals. Of course not every pot will be decided pre-flop, but with a decent pre-flop game you're at the same time laying a good foundation to have easier decisions on later streets.
The most important factors when considering pre-flop play are:
- Having initiative
- Hand strength
- Assessment of your opponents
By considering all these factors before you decide to play a hand and/or how to proceed, you will make far better decisions compared to most of your opponents at the microstakes.
And this is what poker is about: Having an edge on your opponents!
Questions and/or hands for analysis are welcome in the comments below. Purchase BlackRain79's groundbreaking book Crushing the Microstakes right here.
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