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2.5 is the new 3!
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DISCLAIMER: Do not attempt to read this if you don’t care about poker. In fact, even if you care a lot about poker, this will probably bore you to tears. I’ve written all this to get my general ideas on paper so I can scrutinize them and determine whether they’re sound or silly. Try reading this drivel at your own risk.

I recently changed up to a standard 2.5 BB raise, which I’m comfortable with and which I believe saves me chips in the long-run. Why? Basically, if I raise 2.5 BB, I can play more pots for the same money, and I feel that the more pots I play with the players I usually play against, the bigger my edge will be. The 2.5 BB raise is cheaper because it saves .5 BBs every time I open a pot and because it saves me 1 BB every time I make a continuation bet (c-bet), which is almost every time against typical, non-aggro players. Here’s how:

First of all, if my table will let me steal with a 2.5 BB raise, then I’m getting more bang for my buck. I’m putting in 2.5 BB to win 1.5 BB (BB plus SB), which means my play has to work about 63% of the time to break even. If I put in 3 BB to win 1.5 BB, it has to work about 67% of the time to break even. Of course, my raise won’t win the blinds nearly that often, but that’s ok because I’ll often be raising with hands that are strong enough that I don’t mind getting called. Also, when the antes kick in, I usually don’t increase my standard raise even though the starting pot is larger. With antes, a 2.5 BB raise will usually be getting close to even money pot-odds, which means it only needs to work 50% of the time to break even. In that case, it typically will work that often. This is a separate topic, but the reason I don’t increase my raise proportionally to the starting pot size is that players don’t adjust their play to the better odds I’m offering with a small raise. Players tend to start tightening up when antes kick in because they’re trying to survive. Because they’re (usually incorrectly) tightening up and not adjusting their calling range to accommodate the better pot-odds, they’re making a mistake which can be easily exploited by making many small raises to take down the pot pre-flop.

Second, it costs me less to make my “standard” sequence of bets–raise pre-flop, then make a c-bet if it’s checked to me post-flop–which I typically hope will lead to a fold on the flop. Say I raise from the button and I make it 3 BB. The BB calls, so there are now 6.5 BB in the pot. We see the flop, he checks and I make a standard c-bet of half the pot, or 3.25 BB. So far, I have invested 6.25 BB and my only goal has probably been to win what’s out there (ie, I’m not trying to build and win a big pot, I’m just trying to take down a small pot and add to my stack). Up till now, it’s unlikely that a slightly smaller or slightly larger bet size would have affected the hand. The BB probably would’ve called 3 BB just as often as he’d call 2.5 BB or even 3.5 BB because he either likes his cards or he doesn’t. So, if the same scenario plays out, only I use 2.5 BB as my standard, then I raise to 2.5 BB, he calls it, he checks the flop, I bet 2.75 BB and I’ve invested 5.25 BB to win a small pot. In fact, I’ve invested 5.25 BB to win the initial 1.5 BB offered by the blinds (after all, the hand began as a struggle for the blinds, so unless I’m trying to build a pot, every subsequent bet I make is ultimately an attempt to win the initial pot consisting only of the blinds) whereas with a 3 BB raise, I will have invested 6.25 BB to win that same 1.5 BB. Given this perspective, a 2.5 BB raise called pre-flop and followed with a post-flop c-bet of half the pot has to work about 78% of the time to break even, but a 3 BB raise with the same sequence would need to work 81% of the time.

So, all other things being equal, reducing my standard pre-flop raise from 3 BB to 2.5 BB shows a 3-4% increase in equity both pre-flop (on the initial steal attempt) and post-flop (on the subsequent c-bet) each time I make this play. This is a substantial increase in expectation at lower cost that I believe compounds over time (ie, the course of a tournament). While I think that pure steal raises and c-bets show a negative expectation, reducing the pre-flop raise amount makes these plays less negative (in business parlance, I’m talking about cost avoidance, not cost savings).

Here’s another perspective: The whole point of a tournament is to be the last one standing, to survive longer than all the other players. There are basically two ways to accomplish this–accumulate chips when possible and conserve chips when necessary. Chip accumulation typically occurs when I have a strong hand, whereas I’m trying to conserve chips on my weaker hands. It is definitely possible to accumulate small amounts of chips with weak hands (by bluffing and taking advantage of situations), but weak hands typically lead me to try and save my chips (usually by folding). Raising to 2.5 BB allows me to save many, many chips throughout the tournament as I make small bluffs (steal attempts). Here’s an example:

Of course, it’s necessary to say that attempting to steal the blinds semi-regularly is absolutely necessary in order to make sure that I get action when I have good hands. It’s also necessary to survive and conserve chips while waiting on good hands. Any good tournament player will steal the blinds as often as he is permitted because it’s a necessary part of the game. That being said, steal attempts (I’m talking about full-on bluff-raises to take the blinds) typically show a negative expectation (my example above claims that, even with a small 2.5 BB raise, the steal attempt has to work 63% of the time to break even and it is not often that I am at a table that will let me get away with stealing two out of three times I try it) and I think it’s critical, when possible, to minimize the losses incurred by trying to steal blinds.

Say my standard raise is 3 BB and there are no antes, so my raise needs to work 67% of the time to break even on a steal attempt. Let’s say it actually works 50% of the time (very generous), so half the time I make this raise, everyone will fold, and the other half of the time someone will either call or play back at me. That means 50% of the time, I’ll increase my stack by 1.5 BB and 50% of the time I’ll decrease my stack by 3 BB. That means this play shows an expectation of (.5*1.5 – .5*3) = -.75 BB each time I try it. So, if I try to steal 100 times in a tournament under these circumstances (no antes), then I will lose 75 BB. The same calculation for a standard 2.5 BB raise yields that I will only lose 50 BB in 100 steal attempts. So, by decreasing my standard opening pre-flop raise, I can save as many as 25 BB over the course of a tournament. To take that idea one step further, if I’ve saved 25 BB over the course of a tournament and my standard pre-flop raise is 2.5 BB, then I can open 10 more pots than I could if with a 3 BB standard raise. The idea that I can play more pots (usually in position) this way is really the major determining factor in my decision to change to 2.5 BB. I’ll cover that in another post.

In my next post, I talk about my flawed assumptions and problems these ideas might have in the real world. I’ll also talk about other factors that may compensate for these problems.

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