Shifting Trends is an irregularly published series about how baseline poker strategy has changed over the past five or so years. It is written from the perspective of a low-to-mid stakes online Sit-and-Go, Spin-and-Go and multi-table tournament semipro; some of the trends we’ll look at may differ when it comes to live and/or cash game play.
Here’s a situation you’ve likely been in plenty of times if you play much online: You’re playing a tournament and effective stacks are around 25-30 BB. You find some decent cards – Ace-Jack, let’s say – and it folds to you, so you open for a small raise to 2 BB, or 2.25 BB – whatever your standard is for stacks that size, and someone 3-bets you. They don’t make a normal-sized 3-bet, though, to 5 or 6 BB or thereabouts; rather, they click it back for a minimum re-raise.
As I said in starting off this series, trends in poker happen on both a large scale – in terms of general styles of play – and on a very small scale, in the ways players react to uncommon situations and board textures, and how they employ unusual tactics such as very large or small bet sizes. Last time, we looked at an example of a large-scale trend – the shift from passivity to aggression and now back to passivity. Here, now, is an example of a very specific, very small-scale trend.
Now, once in a while you’ll run into a player who simply doesn’t seem to know there’s such a thing as a bet slider, whose bets and raises are virtually always the minimum (except when they’re going all-in, naturally). Assuming that this is not such a person, however, and that the min re-raise wasn’t a misclick, then the tiny sizing has to mean something, but what?
Is it always Aces? Or was it always Aces?
I imagine that many people reading this are already rolling their eyes and preparing to go read something else, because most of us who’ve played many online MTTs learned long ago that this weirdly tiny 3-bet from a mediocre player is virtually always pocket Aces. What else could it be? The amount of the raise is so tiny that you can’t possibly fold, so clearly the opponent must want a call. Meanwhile, if he has something like Kings or Queens, he may want a call but definitely doesn’t want to give you correct odds to try to flop an Ace.
Once upon a time, I think this was nearly an infallible trend. I can’t begin to count times I’ve dodged bullets deep in a tournament because a weak opponent made this tiny 3-bet and thereby allowed me to get away from a hand that I would have had to call off with if he’d just shoved. It’s possible that I’ve made mistakes doing so, but until very recently, I was pretty sure I hadn’t, as every time I did find myself with an “unfoldable” hand like Kings and reluctantly called down, my suspicions were always confirmed.
Emergence of a new trend in Spin-and-Gos
Recently, however, I’ve played a lot of Spin-and-Gos, and what I’ve seen there leads me to believe that even many weaker players have realized that others have caught on to this particular trend and are counter-adapting. I’ve certainly seen it happen that someone makes a minimum 3-bet and ends up turning over Aces, but much more often I’ve seen it turn out to be some sort of face card with a bad kicker: K5, J8, etc. What gives?
The first couple of times I saw it happen, I assumed that it was an isolated occurrence and the player was simply unorthodox, but I’ve now seen it enough times to feel sure that it’s a genuine trend, at least in Spin-and-Gos. I’ve also seen it in tournaments since, but I don’t have time to play as many as I used to, and compared to Spin-and-Gos – which begin three-handed and 25 BB deep, setting the stage from the start – the frequency with which it arises in tournaments is much lower. I also think that trends are likely to develop much more quickly in the Spin-and-Go format because of the pace and volume of play; therefore, I wouldn’t count on things having reached this point in MTTs yet, and would still expect to see Aces a lot there. However, it’s something to be considered, and certainly watched for in future, especially as players move back and forth between Spins and MTTs.
Why would you min 3-bet that?
On the surface, making a tiny 3-bet with a hand like K5 and a 25-30 big blind stack seems absurd: Your opponent shouldn’t be folding often, if ever, your hand is not one that flops well, and if you get 4-bet, you have to fold. From the point of view of fundamental strategy, there’s almost no upside to the play.
Like most trends, what makes it potentially effective is that it runs counter to a previous trend, namely the tendency of bad players to make these tiny re-raises specifically when they have the nuts. If you’re convinced that’s what your opponent has, then the correct strategy is either to fold immediately if the implied odds aren’t sufficient, or else to call and try to smash the flop and fold to a continuation bet almost always, even with a one-pair hand. But of course, like any highly exploitative strategy, that response is itself highly exploitable.
Particularly in a short-handed situation, as Spin-and-Gos always are, a hand like K5 is often a 3-bet. Generally speaking, the recommended policy for light 3-betting is to do it with hands that seem slightly too good to fold, but which are too weak or don’t flop well enough to continue with passively. Depending on the opponent, K5 can fit neatly into that category, as King high isn’t strong enough to want to take to showdown unimproved, but you’re simply not going to like the run-out very often either.
Because so much 3-betting goes on in a Spin-and-Go, however, 3-bets tend to get called fairly light by the same token. Not so light, however, that you’re often getting called by worse if you shove K5 in the first level.
There are three big advantages to the tiny 3-bet then, provided your opponents are likely to read it for strength. Firstly, it will tend to take out most of their light 4-bet shoves, since they believe you will call. Secondly, when they do shove and you have to fold, you save yourself some chips. Finally, and most importantly, if the opponent is convinced to call and then fold to a continuation bet on most flops, that makes the play as a whole incredibly profitable, more so than a simple 3-bet steal.
Staying ahead of the curve
Let’s be clear; I don’t advocate making the minimum 3-bet a part of your game at all, except in very specific circumstances. I could see myself doing it with a strong hand in a progressive super-knockout to reopen the betting for a bounty-hungry maniac who I know will shove if given the chance. I could also see myself pulling out the above trick in a very special one-off situation such as at a final table, specifically with an opponent who I can tell thinks I’m predictable and a fish. That’s basically it, however; under almost all circumstances, I believe the best thing is to standardize your 3-bet sizing.
Thus, this is more a trend that you want to be aware of for purposes of reacting to it rather than employing it yourself. If you’ve been snap-folding to minimum 3-bets as a matter of policy, it may soon become time to reconsider that. Certainly, in Spin-and-Gos, in my experience you’re probably already better off shoving over top of tiny 3-bets (or calling with the intention of stacking off on most flops) than you are folding or call-folding, because it just isn’t Aces that often anymore.
That said, in many tournament situations, it probably still is Aces a fair bit of the time. Specifically, the later in the tournament and the more mediocre the opponent, the more I would expect to be seeing the older trend rather than the newer one, because bad players have a tendency to fall back on weaker, more naive strategies when more money is on the line. I would also expect to see Aces a lot more in situations where your own range can be expected to be strong, such as when you’ve opened from under the gun.
A spot that I might be less inclined to assume Aces, then, would be a somewhat decent opponent minimum 3-betting me in a spot where my range is fairly open, especially when he has position on me. For instance, if we’re 35 BB deep, I open from the cutoff and get minimum 3-bet by an average player from the Button, once upon a time I would have assumed I was up against the nuts, but now I’m not so sure. These days, most people know they’re setting themselves up for a bad beat or just not getting much value by playing Aces that way; on the other hand, it’s a great spot to “steal my aggression,” as it were. If his bet sizing induces paranoia and dissuades the blinds from coming along and me from 4-betting, then it’s a great way for him to buy the right to be the one to make a continuation bet, rather than me. In that kind of circumstance, I would consider the bet sizing to be more of a polarizing tell than necessarily weak, as he could be doing it with a very speculative hand, but would presumably not want to play a hand like pocket Eights or Ace-Queen that way.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.