Reversing the initiative in a hand (when is this appropriate and why is it valuable)

First I think it’s important to define what initiative is, and how it varies.

Player A open raises preflop, and Player B calls in position. Player A has the initiative. In order to maintain the initiative, Player A must bet. If he checks he has lost initiative and Player B gains it. Basically any time the flow of aggression in a hand is in favor of one player, that player is said to have the initiative. Whenever this flow is broken, initiative reverses.

It’s also important to note that initiative comes in varying strengths.

Examples of strong initiative:

-HU pot on flop AA7 rainbow, Preflop raisor

-basically any 3-bet pot, Preflop 3-bettor

-any time there’s a bet-raise-flatcall on the flop or turn, on the next street the raisor has strong initiative

Examples of weak initiative:

-multiway pot 9s8s4d, preflop raisor

-Tag A opens button, Tag B 3-bets BB, A calls, flop AJx rainbow and Tag B checks. Tag A has weak initiative.

-limped pot, checks to player last to act.

In general a player’s initiative is stronger as his range is stronger, and/or as their opponent range is weaker. See ISF theorem. Obviously it becomes much easier to reverse the initiative when it is weak. Another way of looking at it would be to estimate the likelihood of a player to use his initiative. The less this is, the weaker it is.

Series of possible initiative reversals and why they are good:

Note: For simplicity assume HU pots in the following examples.

1) Light 3-betting preflop

People who open very wide ranges have weak initiative. You should reverse the initiative with hands that aren’t good enough to play without the initiative, which in the end widens the range of profitable hands you play against the opener. Additionally, it’s pretty difficult to reverse the initiative of a 3-bet preflop. 4-bet bluffing has really high variance and many aren’t willing to bother with it.

2) Check-raising the flop

Just like how people open exploitably wide ranges preflop, there are also people who continuation bet way too much. Against them you should of course be capitalizing by check raising them often with bluffs. You should also be checkraising with decent hands like TPGK. This will widen your legitimate range of value, thereby fortifying your initiative and making your checkraising range very tough to play against. Just like with 4-betting, most players aren’t willing to 3-bet bluff on the flop.

Note: 1) and 2) are in nearly direct opposition. I find myself 3-betting far less vs. people who have really exploitable c-bet tendencies.

3) Leading the flop

This is one of the simplest and most effective ways of reversing initiative. Whether value or bluff, leading works best in situations where villain isn’t expected to bet as often (i.e. when his initiative is at its weakest). Leading allows you to give yourself a chance to win the pot cheaply, while denying villain the option of pot-controlling some of the weaker hands in his range. Best of all, it represents a very credible range, giving you the option of barreling and making villain’s life generally difficult.

4) C/c and lead turn

Similar to 3), this works best when you expect the preflop raisor to often check behind the turn. You may have a read that a nitty player will bet 99 on a 8xx flop, but then auto-check behind a blank turn for pot control. Vs this player you would want to c/c lead with a hand like JJ. This play is also good when the turn card strengthens your range, or weakens villain’s.

5) Raising flop or turn IP

Lastly, it can be valuable to raise villain’s c-bets ip. Obviously with a nut hand or a bluff you will be doing this often, but more interestingly it can be good to do this with medium strength hands or draws, in order to show down or get a free card on the next street, respectively. In my opinion this reversal is a bit weaker than the OOP counterpart, due to the fact that its harder to have a credible range of value when in position.

When is it more appropriate to play without the initiative?

-When your hand has high implied odds. (i.e. coldcalling with 44 or 87s preflop, calling a cbet with 86 on 973 board)

-When your hand is good but not nut. (i.e. coldcalling with ATs preflop, calling a double barrel with KQ on Qd8d6s2h)

-When your plan involves taking away the initiative at a more opportune time. (i.e. floating, slowplaying)

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Reversing the Initiative in a Hand
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