It’s a common dilemma whether to simply stop your opponent from staying in the hand by betting big, or to take a risk by giving them the opportunity to hit the missing card; one that they can potentially beat us with. As always, somewhere in the middle is usually the best move. But whatever you do, don’t make the worse hand fold!
Don’t bet too big preflop
Using different sizing with certain starting hands, or ‘sizing tells’, is a common mistake and creates a very exploitable preflop strategy.
The most typical error is when a player will open between 2-2.5 big blinds (bb) normally but will raise between 3bb and 5bb with stronger hands. Someone who plays this way might notice many times that they get a fold to their stronger hands, and get called for the weaker hands, or even 3bet. You should be aware not to do this, and also make sure to exploit opponents who play this way.
The correct play is to either;
- make all preflop bets the same size when opening the pot, so that it won’t be easy to read the strength of your hand
- switch between bet-sizes completely at random. Not based on your starting stack, position, opponents or cards – you should keep it completely abstract to the game or defer to the same-sizing method.
Don’t bet too big on the flop
You sometimes see hands where the bigger hand makes a huge, sometimes over pot-size c-bet on the flop. Players like this are begging for a fold and are afraid to continue, misunderstanding the concept of betting completely. If you are strong on the flop, you c-bet for value because you want to draw poor calls from opponents with worse hands. In this situation, you never want to get a fold from your opponent – you want to bet as much as you think they will call.
See this example:
You are in the early stages of a tournament with a deep stack. You bet preflop with A♥ J♣ and your opponent calls in position to see a flop of A♠ J♥ 4♠ .
- You will obviously c-bet as you have top-two pair! You don’t want to offer a free card, but are wary nonetheless that there are two cards to a flush on the board.
- You don’t want to scare them out of a draw, but you do want to offer an expensive call.
Let’s say your opponent holds 8♠ 7♠ and is drawing for a flush.
- Your opponent here has at most approx. 19% chance of improving with the next card.
- Give your opponent odds of 4-1 or more and you win in the long run, as you make more money than the times you’re likely to lose.
- Consider that anything over around 35% pot is a losing call for your opponent. This can absolutely be stretched to between 50%-80%, depending on how tight or loose your opponent is likely to call.
It is, of course, not as simple when you don’t know what the opponent is holding but anticipating that this may be the case and instead of desperately trying to win the pot before you can lose it, just remember to make the right moves to win in the long-term. Keeping your opponent in the hand does risk defeat, but you need to take a healthy amount of risk to maximise winnings.
Don’t bet too big on the turn
Once the flop bet has been called, players can often be too passive (by checking) or too aggressive (by betting too heavily) on the turn as a reaction. As in Mistake #2, if you believe that you hold the better hand, you should continue to extract as many chips from your opponent as possible.
For example. If you are holding top pair on the turn with a decent kicker:
- A flush draw has 18% chance of completing
- An open-ended straight draw has 16% chance of completing
- 2nd and 3rd pairs have 10% chance of outdrawing you
- Top pair with a worse kicker has 6% chance of making two-pair
You don’t even have to bet as high a proportion as you did on the flop here, as it gets harder for your opponent to improve with one card remaining. 50-70% of the pot ensures that you win against a hopeful draw enough of the time that the times you lose are covered. You should never miss an opportunity to pick up chips on the turn, as opponents are regularly willing to have one last shot at making their hand with the amount they’ve already invested.
Don’t bet too big on the river
Compared to previous streets with cards still to come, the situation after the river card has been dealt is usually easier. You should only be considering whether to value bet or not, and if yes, how much to bet.
Players will often make the mistake of betting large – or even going all-in – because they have a strong hand and want to get paid as much as possible for it, but they’ll end up getting a fold too often to make it worthwhile.
We see many times that professional poker players bet 20-30% of the pot on the river. Why do they bet that small? This happens mostly when the opponents’ hand is easy to determine: something, but not too strong. In these situations the players are offering very attractive pot odds to the opponent, who is forced to make the call.
Generally, the more possible combinations the opponent beats, the bigger the bet they are willing to call. There are always exceptions of course. Everyone has met the stubborn kind of player, who wants to get to showdown whenever they have anything. If you have already noted that someone plays this way and you think they will call, feel free to bet bigger against them.
Striking the right balance to get paid with the best hand isn’t easy – and the advice in this article may not hold true every time in the complex game of poker – but generally your approach should be that you are not betting based on your hand but what your perception of your opponent’s hand. Getting the opponent to fold is for when you have the worse hand and are bluffing. Getting your opponent to call is where you will create success in the long run.
Mistake #2: Betting too large after the flop
You often see hands where the bigger hand, for example an overpair, makes a huge, sometimes bigger-than-the-pot itself c-bet on the flop. In these hands, its usually clear that the player is praying for their opponent to fold. Players like this are afraid to continue, and they have totally missunderstood the concept of betting. You are c-betting with (most likely) the strongest hand after the flop because you want to get wrong calls from the worse hands. In these situations you in no way want to get a fold – you want them to reserve that for when you are bluffing.
Imagine the following scenario. You are in the early phase of a tournament with 50-75 big blind deep stacks at the table. You raise preflop with A-J and your opponent calls in position. The flop is A-J-4 with two spades. You have top 2 pair and x-ray eyes, allowing you to see that your opponent has a flushdraw with 7-8 of spades. The action is on you. Should you bet? If so, what would be the optimal size? I think you’ll agree you should c-bet at this point to make sure you don’t give away a free card. The correct move is an optimal bet size just big enough for your opponent to still call. In this case your opponent has at most a 19% chance to improve, so you win in all cases long term when they get offered worse pot odds than this. If you bet half the pot, they’ll get 25% pot odds (they can win 4 units for 1 unit), and if you bet bigger than this, the situation is even more unfavourable for them. My suggestion is that you should bet between 50% and 80% of the pot depending on the opponent.
It’s usually true that the bigger you bet, the bigger the chance to win the pot, but you cant be certain that in the long term you’ll earn the most money with big-sized bets. If you bet smaller – as small as the opponent is willing to call with their weaker hand – you’ll lose the pot more often, but the chips you win will compensate you in the long term.
You need to take a certain, healthy amount of risk in order to maximalize winnings. The optimal amount of risk depends on the stack, the opponents’ playing style and several other factors. We’ll look at how to evaluate these factors, and about the special extreme situations you might find yourself, in later parts of the series.
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