How and when to 3-bet light
One leak that consistently comes up in my one-on-one coaching is light 3-bets with the wrong sorts of hands in the wrong sorts of situations. 3-betting a wide range is a powerful tool to have at your disposal, especially if you like playing against conservative opponents. However, it can get you into a decent amount of trouble if you ignore the fundamentals of what makes the play good or bad, so you need to make sure you understand when and how to step up the aggression out of position.
Situational awareness can be one of the first things to go for a good player trying to put in volume to get out of a rough patch. They see J4s 40bb deep facing a minraise, and know that this is a good hand to make a light 3-bet with in general and they do it. Optimal poker requires more analysis than that. When you make a 3-bet bluff because you know it is sometimes good, without going through and figuring out if it is actually good in this particular situation, you throw away money. Similarly, when you fail to make a 3-bet bluff because you know it is sometimes good to play tight out of position, without figuring out if this is actually one of those situations, you throw away money. Try to avoid justifying these decisions by saying things like “it’s just my strategy to be [aggressive/conservative] from the big blind”. While there is certainly room for different stylistic approaches to exploiting your opponent in poker, this type of static thinking tends to lead to less exploitation of your opponent’s frequencies, not more.
The expectation from 3-betting light comes down to four main factors, in order of importance:
1. Your opponent's opening range.
2. How loose and aggressive your opponent is, both preflop and postflop.
3. The properties of the specific hand you've been dealt.
4. Your perceived 3-betting range and your opponent’s willingness to adapt.
Very often, when I ask a student, “why did you 3-bet there?”, I’ll get back an answer that has nothing to do with some or even a single one of these factors. Let's talk about why they matter and how to think about them.
Opening range, the most important factor, has some amount of calculation involved in it in order to make optimal 3-betting decisions, but you can get most of the benefits by just having a good, general sense of the effect. If all other frequencies are the same, it is much better to 3-bet an opponent who is opening 80%, than an opponent who is opening 40%. All those extra air hands make a dramatic difference in the expectation of 3-betting wide. If your opponent is opening close to 100%, and you do not expand your 3-betting range, you will get run over. If your opponent is playing really loosely and aggressively against 3-bets, that just means you need to be expanding your value 3-betting range. If you have a set-in-stone philosophy like “KTo is a hand for calling out of position, not 3-betting”, then you lose out on a ton of extra expectation.
The practical truth is that reacting to opening range really comes down to discipline, one of the least sexy aspects of poker. You have to be paying attention to your opponent's opening range to know whether a light 3-bet is good. It doesn’t matter if your opponent seems tight against aggression and you’ve been pushing him around all match – if he’s one of those weak players who likes to limp 60% of his holdings and raise his top 25%, 3-betting with J4s when he raises is going to be a terrible play.
Paying attention to this sort of thing isn't sexy, but you know what is? Lots and lots of money. So keep your discipline. Recognize when you have lost it and fight to get the focus back as quickly as possible.
Your opponent’s level of looseness and aggressiveness, the second factor on the list, is why 3-bet bluffing is often not such a great idea against most fish – recreational players tend to want to see too many flops, and be too loose when they get to the flop (although you are benefited by the fact that fish can often be much less aggressive). Thus, even if your opponent is opening a wide range, it does not necessarily mean a wide 3-bet bluffing range is optimal. Loose and aggressive play, both preflop and postflop, can mean the main adjustment is to expand your 3-betting range to include more value hands. One of the main benefits to 3-bet bluffing is the ability to pick up the pot on dry boards. If your opponent is the type to float and call down with any pair, that T3s needs to hit the muck preflop rather than be 3-bet, and your 3-betting game becomes all Valuetown.
Let's stop quickly to make an important point: Opens a wide range, plays fairly tight and fit-or-fold against aggression, and wants to get his money in good. What does this sound like to you? To me, this sounds a ton like your garden variety $30-$200 conservative reg who sees poker as a steady, low-risk money-making enterprise. These players have learned to open a high percentage and continuation bet frequently, but still have the terrible affliction of always needing to have the goods in big pots, rather than actually gamble and make creative plays. That's why 3-betting light absolutely needs to be in your arsenal against nitty regulars – it's a strategy built specifically for destroying them.
As for which hands to 3-bet light, there are different schools of thought here and you can build some ranges that make a lot of sense in a few different ways. However, the big point I'll make is that when you 3-bet, it should be because you think 3-betting is better than all other options. In the case of T8s, you should believe that 3-betting has better expectation than calling the raise, a very attractive option with that hand. When you have T3s, you only need 3-betting to have better equity than folding, because that's probably what you'll do if you don't 3-bet. That's why in general, stronger suited connectors work better in your flatting range in HUSNGs. The deeper effective stacks get, the more benefit you get from the implied odds of those hands against the increased strength of your opponent’s range, which is why they become more standard hands for light 3-betting in HU Cash.
It is also worth thinking about your opponent's likely flatting range, and what your perceived range is when you 3-bet. Most villains will have flatting ranges of mostly middling cards, and will perceive your 3-betting range to have a lot of Ax and Kx in it (which it does). That's why I'm really not a fan of adding a hand like A3o to your light 3-betting range in most situations. First of all, it has pretty good expectation calling a minraise, so there is a reasonably high standard that 3-betting has to beat. Secondly, pretty much all of his calling range is going to have good equity against us and play well against us postflop. The ace is such an overt part of our range that we'll find it hard to get much value, and when we get outflopped, we often have very little equity. If you do 3-bet with weak Ax hands, it should be because your opponent has very strong tendencies of folding to 3-bets after opening a wide range. Often a small 3-bet and a small c-bet can be used against these opponents to accomplish what you want to accomplish without running too hard into the negatives of playing Ax this way.
Hands like J4s can work much better in your 3-bet-bluffing range because you get credit on all the ace-high and king-high flops, you can flop good equity on some more middling flops, and your expectation from just calling preflop is often mediocre. When you 3-bet light for value, it's best to do it with hands like KT/QJ/QTs, because those hands dominate a lot of the calling range and play much better on a greater variety of flops, not a hand like A7o.
The last item on the list is essentially all about gameflow. Gameflow is by far the sexiest of the four things listed – people love to talk about it as a reason for making a decision in poker. It implies an expertise in the subtle nuances of the way the match is going, a mastery of “feel” poker that is far cooler to talk about than simply understanding the implications of your opponent’s opening and limping ranges. Gameflow is also often used very incorrectly, so while it is certainly a factor to consider, it is important to get it right.
The biggest thing to be noticing is how your opponent seems to be adjusting to your wider 3-betting range. If you see him increase his limping and/or openfolding frequencies after getting 3-bet a lot, his raising range is not the same as it was 20 hands ago. Gameflow is all about paying attention to what your opponent thinks your ranges are and what kinds of adjustments to expect in response.
Opening range, looseness/aggression of your opponent, the properties of the hand you're dealt, and gameflow – these are the main factors that determine when to 3-bet light.