Playing Under the Gun

When you’re seated directly to the left of the big blind, you’re in the position called under the gun (UTG). Preflop, you’re the first player to act. Postflop, you’ve got position on two players–the small and big blinds–and the rest of your opponents have position on you.

Under the gun isn’t the best position to play from, but it’s not the worst. An ideal UTG strategy will lean heavily towards value plays and will avoid speculative bluffs. Stick to a tight opening range and continue postflop only if you’ve got a legit hand.

The key to staying profitable under the gun is streamlining your preflop hand selection.

Under the Gun Preflop Range

Your preflop range should be very tight when under the gun. Play hands that you know have value and only carry on postflop when you’re likely ahead. A solid preflop range looks something like this:

  • 22+
  • Suited broadway cards (e.g. AKs, QJs, KQs)
  • 89s+ (shorthanded games only)
  • AJo+
  • KQo

While it’s fine to include suited connectors 89+ in your UTG range, you shouldn’t overdo them. When playing 89s from the button you don’t necessarily need to hit the flop to take down a pot; under the gun you usually will. Since you’re out of position when under the gun, you don’t have the luxury of seeing your opponents act before you; therefore you’ve got less room to get bluffy and take shots at the pot.

Keep in mind when you make top pair type hands from UTG, it can be difficult to tell where you stand. For example, imagine you raise from UTG with ATo. Everyone folds to the button, who calls, and the blinds fold.

The flop comes A-4-5 rainbow. You place a strong bet on the flop and the button flat calls. A King comes on the turn and you elect to check for pot control. As soon as you check, the button blasts you with a full pot-sized bet. Is this a bet from a legitimate hand or is he simply betting because you checked?

It’s hard to say. You’re beat by all aces with better kickers, which is a significant portion of your opponent’s range (AK, AQ, AJ are all likely holdings.) A thinking opponent will have deduced that you’re raising with the top of your range preflop, since you’re in the worst position at the table; thus you should expect your opponent’s range to be strong as well.

Of course, you don’t want to throw away top pair–at least instinctively you don’t. Thus you’re faced with a difficult choice: ditch your pair, or stick around with what’s possibly the second best hand.

The above example illustrates the importance of keeping your range tight. Since you’re out of position, you won’t really be able to gauge where your opponents are at before acting. When under the gun, your advantage in a hand will come largely from the value of your cards. Save the loose play for late position.

Aggressive Play Under the Gun

A key to playing profitably under the gun is to be aggressive with your high ranking hands. When you’ve got good cards that tend to dominate preflop, you want to get your money in as quickly as possible.

Here’s a common scenario. A player is dealt QQ under the gun and limps in rather than open raising. His logic is this: QQ is a great hand, therefore I should slowplay to give everyone a chance to put money in the pot. That’s a nice thought, but here’s the thing: it’s faulty logic.

A hand like QQ is a massive favorite over almost all other hands preflop. When your hand is a massive favorite, you want to get your money in. If the players ahead of you have decent hands, they will call an open-raise; after all, they think they’ve got the nuts too. Therefore by neglecting to raise your QQ preflop, you’re saying: “I hate money, I don’t want to build the pot to as big an amount as I can. I’ll settle for less.”

Of course poker is all about maximizing our expected value, and making a play that is less profitable compared to another possible play is a bad move. When under the gun, it is almost always more profitable to raise than to call.

The only time you might want to restrain your aggression is when holding small pocket pairs. A hand like 22 or 33 isn’t really valuable in itself. Both hands play best for set value, meaning you will toss them if you don’t hit on the flop. Since that gives you less equity overall, it’s a good idea to tone down the preflop pot-building with small pocket pairs when UTG.

However, I do not recommend open-limping with small pocket pairs. The only time you can get away with that move is when you are in extremely passive games. If you’re in an average game, you should either raise with it (shorthanded games only) or fold it. Open limping is a transparent play and it makes it so that you can only win the pot if you hit something.

Be Flexible When Under the Gun

Keep in mind that how you play should change depending on the conditions of whatever game you’re in. For example, if you’re up against a bunch of nitty players who only enter pots with strong hands, loosen up; you’ll be able to take down some pots with marginal hands, even without position.

On the other hand if you’re up against loose-aggressive types, you’ll have to play an all-or-nothing game. You can’t come in with weak limps because the loose-aggressive players will blow you out of the water. You have to either come in strong against these players or come in not at all.

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