Ed. note: This is the second in a series of articles designed to help recreational tournament poker players build their hobby into a profitable endeavor.
In multi-table tournaments, you quickly become familiar with a variety of situations. But as we learn the essential MTT Poker Basics, there is no spot more crucial than raising from the dealer position (commonly referred to as BTN) and playing post-flop vs. the big blind.
As discussed in the first article of MTT Poker Basics, preflop ranges will vary drastically based on opening position. Early positions trend toward suited, broadway-type hands. But as we approach the BTN, the opening range expands as we attempt to steal the blinds. If played correctly, mastering BTN vs. BB will become your most profitable spot throughout MTTs.
From the beginning stages to late game, ICM-rich scenarios, stealing the blinds will fuel your tournament poker game and keep your stack afloat. But while this game of cat and mouse is common, misunderstanding the nuances across the flop, turn and river can risk punting your stack for a relatively small return. Recognizing key heuristics across each street can help you stay balanced as you try to win the easy pots consistently.
BTN vs. BB Play: Flop
The key to attacking BB as the BTN in single raised pots is recognizing which cards favor who, even with wide ranges on both sides. Since both sides are dealing with the top 40-50% of hands, we can eliminate the stronger hands from the BB range as they would 3-bet our raise preflop. Knowing that we are opening quite wide from the BTN, competent opponents are more likely to 3-bet playable Ace high and Broadway hands.
With this in mind, we can attack Ace high and Broadway boards consistently. On a board like A83 rainbow (flops with three different suits), we will always fire a small continuation bet because our opponent should never have strong hands with an Ace.
The same goes for flops with any combination of King, Queen, Jack or Ten. If we haven’t already flopped top pair on these boards, our range contains more hands with straight draws, backdoor flush draws, etc. Our opponent will have a difficult time continuing with third pair or worse past turns when we continue to assert our range advantage. As a result, we are able to c-bet these flops quite small, risking little to win the whole pot often with nearly our entire range.
Since our range contains the best big pairs and our opponent’s should not, there won’t be flops that the BB has an equity advantage. But make no mistake, there certainly are flops that trend closer to 50/50 equity, and these are where the BTN should be most cautious.
For example, take a low connected board like 764 with a flush draw. Considering the BB’s wide defending range, they will have many hands that should continue vs a small c-bet. They have flopped straights and two pairs, along with all straight draws and flush draws since they defend so many suited hands. Because their range is full of value hands and draws, we should check these flops more often to protect from getting check-raised. Savvy opponents may even check-raise these flops with junk from the BB, understanding that they hit this flop much better than us on average.
For a more thorough deep dive into these flops, check out Gareth James’ DTO Coaching lesson on BTN vs. BB at 30bb below. James breaks down these boards and many more, along with a closer look at c-bet sizing.
More from Gareth James: MTT Poker School: Play & Train Like the Pros
BTN vs. BB Play: Turn
The turn can be a tricky street to play, as it’s often a fork in the road for the size of the pot. If bluffed incorrectly, it can set up for disastrous rivers where you feel pot committed to keep firing your bluff with nothing but a prayer. But there are two simple types of turn cards you can recognize before taking your action.
Proceed cautiously when the second or third pair from the flop pairs on the turn. Since our BB opponent must continue with a wide range, they should rarely fold a pair from the flop. So when our A83 rainbow flop example brings another 8 on the turn, it puts us in a nasty situation where they often make trips.
Even with an Ace, we are less likely now to get three streets of value from worse hands. It’s worth considering checking your weak to medium top pairs on this turn to protect your checking range. This helps keep your King and Queen high river bluffs credible as you could believably play your top pairs the same way.
Getting called on the flop with a nothing hand can be nerve wracking, but rest assured, our equity can drastically improve without even making a pair on the turn. For example, sticking with A83 rainbow, let’s say that the Jack of spades arrives on the turn. This could bring our unpaired hands like KTss (King Ten of spades) a gutshot and backdoor flush draw, along with two overs to our opponent’s most likely pairs. Not only have we added all these strong draws, but we can fire another c-bet as the Jack is a pair we can reasonably have that now beats the 8 or 3. This is a hand that we are going to want to bet larger, roughly between half to full pot often.
If you were a fan of Gareth James’ DTO coaching on the flop, definitely watch his next session focusing on the Turn as well. His coaching is invaluable for a spot that may leave inexperienced players left unsure past the flop.
BTN vs. BB Play: River
By the river, we need to be polarized, often betting large either for value or as a bluff. Recognizing which draws have completed and which parts of your opponent’s range may fold is key to picking the best opportunities to steal an inflated pot on the river vs. BB.
As a beginner, it’s always helpful to pick the low hanging fruit. There are obvious draws that you can be wary of when they hit and attack when they miss.
For example, you may consider firing all three bullets of your bluff on a river from an Ace high flop when a flush draw has missed. But this bluff becomes more profitable when your own hand doesn’t contain the flush draw suit, adding more flush draws to your opponent’s range. Ranges will vary based on flop texture, but we are more inclined to be aggressive without showdown value when there is reason to believe our opponent may have a hand that can give up easily.
But even without showdown value, there will be certain rivers you must give up on. Consider a different board, let’s say A76 with the lower cards being of clubs. Imagine a nasty runout of the 6 of hearts and 5 of clubs.
Sure, this flop was relatively good for your range originally. But by the river, our opponent has made flushes, straights, trips and two pair so often that bluffing a hand without relevant blockers like JTo could be a disaster. At this point, even a bare pair of Aces as strong as AKo is willing to check, even with the Ace of clubs!
Keep in mind, these types of rivers are only the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of factors to consider. For an excellent flowchart of decisions to consider ahead of your river bluff, I recommend this PokerCoaching.com video from Jonathan Little.
“Perfecting” common BTN vs. BB spots
“Practice makes perfect” is easier said than done. While recognizing key cards to bluff and understanding equity shifts are essential tools, they are a nuanced means of attack best deployed carefully considering opponent tendencies. The optimal play vs. a poker solver may be torching your stack vs an opponent that’s never considered the same details.
That said, continuing to practice and use heuristics to your advantage is a perfect way to have a strong strategy to default to. I chose to focus on BTN vs. BB play because it is one of the most common spots to win chips consistently throughout MTTs. Next time you are in a tournament, try to take notes on at least three different opportunities you had to steal the blinds. Consider how your preflop range applies to each street across the hand. Whether you won or lost the hand, it’s important to review and understand your decision making and thought process.
A newfound appreciation for the process will help you critique the finer details of hands. In the long run, appreciating these small decisions will add up in your pursuit of perfecting these most profitable spots. Before you know it, you’ll be paying the same attention to detail to the more advanced spots still to come.