How to play
Learning how much to bet is a vital skill for your game. Betting the right amount will make sure you win more hands and suffer less if things don't go so well. There are many factors to consider when figuring out how much you should bet.
It is important that you bet the right amount – as mistakes can be costly. The size of your bet should be related to your position on the table and the state of both your cards and of the flop.
Firstly, we would say that a standard bet before the flop (it is generally thought that a bet pre-flop should be 3x the big blind) can be a dangerous tactic as it only takes a few others to call your bet and the size of the pot will rise so quickly that many more players will want to compete for it. Further, you won't have been able to gauge what sort of hands the other players hold, because everyone else will be betting from the perspective of a large pot rather than the strength of their hands.
This means that you should bet more aggressively to scare those players who have a good hand off the pot. A bigger bet will also help you see the strength of the other players hands, as only those with good hands will stay in. If you make a large bet, this will of course mean that anyone who wants to stay in the hand will have to increase their bets too, so the size of the pot will increase dramatically. Use this to your advantage.
It’s time to look at two of the most important aspects of betting in more detail:
So you’ve got a good hand, but is it good enough? Here, we’ll show you how to decide if your cards are worth another bet, including:
Drawing and winning hands
In poker, there are only two types of hands – winning hands and draws. Regardless of your cards, any hand that’s not the top hand is technically a draw (because you’re hoping it’ll improve to the top hand later).
So if your hand isn’t a winner (yet), you’ll have to decide if the draw’s worth chasing and, if it is, how you’re going to bet. This comes down to two factors:
- How many outs do you have to get the probable winning hand?
- How big is the pot or, better yet, how big will the pot be?
You’ll also have to decide what your opponents have, or could have. This will give you the reverse implied odds – the chances that the card that makes your hand actually gives your opponent a better hand.
Calculating your outs
Let’s show how this works with a few example hands.
Hand example #1
Flop: J♥ 9♥ 2♣
Your hand: Q♦ 10♠
There’s not a lot to go on here. The pre-flop raiser has been aggressive, so you think he has an over-pair. Two other players have called his bet and raise, so they might be on a flush draw.
So how do you calculate your outs in this case? Out of the eight cards that could give you the straight, three are no good (any two that would make the callers’ flush and the overcard that might give the raiser the set). That leaves you with five outs in total.
Hand example #2
Flop: J♣ 6♦ 5♣
Your hand: A♣ K♣
Here we have nine clean outs (nine clubs) and two over-cards, so that’s six more outs. If an ace or a king comes, that should be enough to win the pot.
But if two players call your button raise, they could have a K-J or A-J. One of them could even have flopped a set.
As you can see, counting outs isn’t an exact science, but it’s the best way of working out whether to go ahead with a hand or not. We’d say that with eight or more outs, you can really bet hard on the flop. Your hand is strong enough to go all the way to the river. In fact if you’re in position, do everything possible to try and get yourself a free card on the turn.
How big is the pot?
One you know your outs, you need to work out the pot odds. Remember, we don’t care how big the pot is – we care about how big it will be. So you need to ask yourself, are your opponents going to carry on putting in chips? Will the player who calls you on the flop do the same on the turn (especially if you hit your hand)?
If the pot odds look good then you should play. In fact, if you don’t you’re costing yourself money. But always keep the reverse implied odds in mind.
Hand example #3
You raised pre-flop and four players call, so you decide to call from the big blind.
Your hand: 8♥ 9♥
Flop: 10♥ J♣ 4♠
Now, you may have just flopped an open-ended straight draw, but don’t get too excited. If the pre-flop raiser has A-K (which is not unlikely) a queen is going to be bad news. So play the hand as if you only had four outs.
Value is relative
Second-best hands tend to be expensive, so make sure that if you get your overcard, someone else doesn’t have two pair – or if you make two pair someone hasn’t just hit a straight and so on.
There’s also the possibility of getting outdrawn on further streets (when sets become full houses and flushes become bigger flushes). So if your hand looks strong enough, you need to think about whether to move now - or wait and potentially lose your edge.
A lot will also depend on the style of play at your table. For example:
- How loose or tight is the table after the flop?
The tighter your table, the more careful you need to be about chasing and vice versa.
- How passive or aggressive is the table after the flop?
An aggressive table makes chasing expensive. At a passive table, you’ll face fewer re-raises and get more free cards.
- If you chase and miss, can you bluff?
Of course you can – just don’t bluff a bad player or anyone who can’t be bluffed. Make sure the bluff makes sense. If you bluff and get caught, show your hand - it’s a good advertisement.
Usually, when you’re chasing it makes sense to be aggressive. If you’re going to call, why not raise? Semi-bluffing is quite a powerful play and will see down a lot of opponents.
When to make a value call
We know – calling is hard. While you’re building your confidence as a player, the last thing you want to do is go head-to-head and lose.
In fact, that’s exactly the kind of thing you should be doing. If people know you’re prepared to play marginal cards, they’ll pay you more when you do have a hand.
The most important thing is that your bet makes sense, based on your opponent’s playing style and range of hands in this situation. If they’re happy to bet with ace-high or fourth pair, you can work out what you’re up against. Generally, the more aggressive the bet, the more likely you should make that call. And if you have good reason to think your opponent’s bluffing – and the pot odds are right – you should definitely call.
You’re head-to-head on a flop of 9♠ 7♠ 4♣. Your opponent bets $4 and you call with 5♠ 6♠. The turn is 5♦ and you both check. The river is J♥ and your opponent bets $8.
Now there’s $68 in the pot, with $16 to make the call. So even if there’s a one in three chance you’ve got the best hand, it’s correct to make the call.
You’ve got a cracking hand, you’ve made the bet and the flop… well, the flop ruined it all. What now? Here we’ll teach about the continuation bet and how it can save the day:
Why make a continuation bet?
In a nutshell, a continuation bet is when you bet before the flop because you've got a good hand, then a useless trio of cards appear and you bet again – rather than checking or folding – to maintain the illusion that your hand is still a strong one. The reasons for this are simple:
- You don't want to give the other players the impression that you were riding on the flop paying off for you
- You want to make the second bet in the hope that people will potentially fold in the face of your confidence
It's a powerful move when used appropriately, which allows you to win a lot of pots that you aren't entitled to, simply because you have shown strength. However, many players misunderstand the theory behind the continuation bet, believing it should always be half the size of the pot. This isn't the case.
In cash games and tournaments with deep stacks, a half-pot-sized continuation bet often isn't big enough to get the job done. If the bet doesn't threaten to take a serious chunk out of their stacks, opponents will often call you with marginal hands such as flush draws or middle pair, hoping to get lucky and bust you. They might even call hoping to bluff you later in the hand – an absolute disaster for you.
Thus, you'll find that when making a continuation bet, it's best to ensure that your post-flop bet is big enough to really put the fear into all but the most confident players – regardless of what cards they're holding.
There's a significant advantage to playing this way, given that it's a very context-sensitive tactic so you won't be doing it repeatedly and labelling yourself as predictable, and that you're going to be able to make most players back down relatively quickly, ensuring you can rake in a few easy pots as the game or tournament continues.
Let's take a look at an example. You sit down at the table, and you're dealt an A♠ and a K♥. These are good cards to start with, and at this point you've no idea what the flop will be, so you go in confident and make the bet. Not a colossal one, but enough to show that you're confident in your cards.
Then the flop comes in and it's all low cards (2-7-4) that are of no use to you. Show no fear, as now the continuation bet is placed – one significantly larger than your opening bet. What that says to you is “I'm taking a risk,” but what that says to those playing with you is “this player's just had their faith in their cards confirmed, and it might be wise to let this one go.”
The benefits of a continuation bet
Showing strength, in a variety of ways over the course of a game of poker, is very valuable to you because you're building a confident image of someone who bets well when the odds are in. Of course, continuation betting on every single hand is going to let you down eventually as people will realise you're just taking risks in an effort to intimidate. But doing it when you've got a hand like the one above – strong, high cards but no pair – is wise as it's almost impossible that it'll happen every time you're dealt a pair of cards.
The only thing worth bearing in mind with a tactic like this is the huge amount of risk you're taking. As mentioned above, your continuation bet (a chunk of your chips large enough to make it look like you've got serious faith in your hand) plus your pre-flop bet means you are down a worrying amount of chips should someone call you on your bet with a better hand than yours.
It's a bold move, and one that you shouldn't be willing to make unless you can play as well short-stacked as you can when you've got a stack big enough to try a daredevil bluff like this one. But when it works, it's like all moments in poker when you pull something off like you're a member of Ocean's Eleven. The continuation bet is a master bluffer's tool – make use of it.
- What an empty sidepot is
- Why some people think you shouldn't bet into an empty sidepot
- When you should bet - and when you should check
It's one of the first things you learn when playing tournament poker: don't bet into a dry side-pot.
People say that if you and an opponent see the flop when a third player is all-in, you shouldn't normally bet - because it's more important to eliminate the all-in player than win a few extra chips.
This has become one a common fallacy in poker. In fact, there are many situations where it is correct to bet rather than attempt to knock out the third player. Let's look at some situations where it is correct to bet into a side-pot - and some where it's best to hang onto your chips.
When not to bet
First of all, let's talk about situations where this received wisdom is true. That is, when you shouldn't bet into a dry sidepot:
One situation is when you're in the bubble stages of a tournament or when you're at a stage in the tournament where there's about to be a significant jump in prize money. Then, your primary goal is to eliminate players. That's because you make money every time a player is knocked out.
For example, imagine you're in a tournament where 27 places are paid and 28 players remain. The player in 27th place gets $10,000, while 28th place gets nothing.
If two of you are in the pot and another player is all-in you should do whatever is necessary to eliminate the opponent who is all-in.
Usually, this means checking the hand down to give the maximum possible chance of eliminating the third player (if your hand doesn't eliminate the all-in player, your opponent's hand might). So, In general, you would only bet a very strong hand like a set, straight or flush - hands that are virtually guaranteed to win the pot.
If the third player is eliminated, you've just earned $10,000 in real money. But had you had bet, you may not have eliminated the player - and may even have risked going out on the bubble yourself. Obviously, this alternative costs you money in the long run and it's something you should avoid.
It's clear that there are situations where you should not bet and should try to eliminate players instead.
However, the big mistake so many players make is to carry this advice over to all tournament situations, instead of just the specific ones it applies to. They see this as universal advice because they don't fully understand the concepts behind it.
When to bet
Take the same situation, but now there are 500 players remaining, again with 27 places paid. In this case, eliminating a player has almost no value whatsoever - there are no big money jumps or significant prize differences to worry about. It's great if you send someone to the rail, but there will still be 472 other players to eliminate before you make any real money.
Consequently, you should make whatever play has the highest expected value at the time - your overall equity in the tournament is not yet important. Often, this means protecting your hand by betting, regardless of whether there is a side pot.
Let's look at an example:
- The blinds are 100/200, and Player A raises all-in for 1,500. It's folded to you on the button and you call with A♣ Q♠. The big blind also calls, making the pot 4,600
- The flop comes Q♣ 9♥ 8♥, giving you top pair with top kicker - a nice hand. The big blind checks. Remember, Player A is still all-in
- Now it's on you. This is a situation where if it was the bubble, you would definitely check. You wouldn't mind too much if the big blind held something like A♥ 10♥ and made a flush or a straight - because at least the third player would be gone and you would have made some real money
- However, at the early stages of a tournament, you should almost always bet. At this point in proceedings, winning that 4,600 pot is much more important than eliminating the all-in player and you would be annoyed if you let your opponent hit a flush or straight and win the hand for free
- Therefore, you should protect your hand by making a suitably large bet and make your opponent pay to hit his draw
- Because most players do not generally bet when there is no side pot and a player is all-in, be aware that if you are called in this situation your opponent will rarely have a weak hand. If you are called on a dry-looking board like Q♣ 7♥ 2♦, you should slow down accordingly against typical opposition. If you get called on a draw-heavy board and the draw hits, you should be very careful.
As you can see, poker isn't as simple as some would make it out to be. Generic advice like 'don't bet into a dry side pot in tournament poker' shouldn't be taken at face value, so the next time you hear Captain Casino and his re-buy army offering poker lessons like this at the table, think about what they are saying in more detail. Try to work out if the underlying concepts are correct - and why - before applying them yourself. As this rule shows, received wisdom isn't always reliable.