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No limit hold'em: bet sizing

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Where limit hold'em is more of a science, no limit hold'em is an art. The ability to bet any amount at any time may be a simple rule, but its application can be quite complex. In theory, you want to bet when you have the best hand and for an amount that makes it mathematically incorrect for your opponent to continue drawing. In practice, we are constantly dealing with an information deficit which requires us to size our bets to extract value from a variety of possible hands, or to find out if our hand is no good and then check or fold.

Before you bet, you must know the purpose of your bet. There are five primary reasons to bet:

  • To extract value.
  • To protect your hand.
  • To gain information.
  • To control pot size (blocking bet).
  • To bluff.

You will often have a combination of reasons for betting, but you must have at least one reason to bet, or your bet accomplishes nothing. Once you know your reason for betting, your bet should be sized to achieve that goal. Value bets are usually (but not always) in the range of 50-80% of the pot. Protection bets are typically larger, in the range of 70-100% of the pot. Bluff bets can be anywhere from 30% of the pot to overbets, depending on your opponents' perceived holdings and their propensity to fold to aggression. "Feeler" bets, made to gain information about the opponent's hand strength, are generally smaller, in the range of 35-50% of the pot.

Let's run through an example of each.

Value betting

This type of bet is the most common and profitable play made at the tables (second only to folding correctly). It is used to gain value from hands that are worse than your own, or when you have a big draw that is a favorite to win once all the cards are out. For instance: you have AK versus your opponent's KJ and the flop brings K72. Your opponent has just three outs (the remaining jacks) to win. In this situation you would bet for value and hope that your opponent calls. About 60-70% pot is about right in that case. Small enough that your opponent can call, big enough that he won't raise without a hand that beats your top pair.

Another example would be JsTs vs AhAd on a flop of Qs9h3s. In this instance, your opponent is ahead, but you have a 56% chance to make the winning hand by the river. In this case, you're a favorite to win, so a value bet or raise (on the flop) is justified since you're going to win the pot more often than not. Just be aware that putting more money in when behind relies on making your hand through the cards yet to come. It's a high-variance play that requires a deeper bankroll since you will go through upswings and downswings of greater intensity. (Also, if the turn card doesn't improve your hand, your odds of winning drop to 35% in this example, so you may want to slow down on the turn if you think your opponent won't fold to a bet.)

The more opponents in the pot, the bigger the value bet should be. This is to discourage multiple opponents from continuing in the hand. Going back to the first example, if we have AK on the K72 flop but there are 3 opponents, a value bet of 80% pot (or even larger) is more appropriate. It starts to blur the line between a value bet and a protection bet, but you absolutely have to protect your hand in this situation. Top pair top kicker against multiple opponents is vulnerable to a lot of cards.

Value bets can be much smaller or much bigger on the river, based on how much you think your opponent will call. It's all about extracting value; bet an amount you know your opponent will call. Let's say you flopped a set and your opponent called your flop and turn bets. No straights or flushes are possible and you are first to act. If you think your opponent was calling down with top pair, you could opt for a mid-range value bet of 40-60% pot that is likely to be called, but if you think your opponent will call, you can bet full pot and hope your opponent puts you on a bluff. This last option is most effective against players who like to bluff-catch with pairs or who have difficulty folding in general. I've seen a few players call these monster river bets with hands as weak as ace-high, hoping their opponent missed a draw.

Protecting your hand

This is a bet you make on the flop or turn with a good but vulnerable hand that you perceive is currently ahead of your opponents but could be beat if overcards or scare cards are dealt on future streets. For instance, you have JJ versus three opponents and the flop comes 853. You likely have the best hand right now, but almost any card that comes could give your opponents a winning hand. Any card above your jacks can make them a bigger pair, and any nine or below could give your opponents a straight or two pair. A bet to protect your hand will discourage those with overcards from continuing in the hand, while those with weaker pairs and draws are given bad odds to continue. So if your protection bet is called, you'll have to reevaluate based on what comes and decide whether to bet again. A bet of 60-70% of the pot is sufficient to get most (but not all) overcards out, but for that amount hands like 8x (especially where x is an overcard), 67, 64, and 42 are going to call the bet.

On the other hand, a protection bet of full pot may win the hand immediately by discouraging anyone from drawing. If you are someone who struggles with folding on later streets with one-pair hands, this is the better option, since you can be more certain of making a good fold when an opponent plays back at you. In which case we are also betting for information. If you make a big bet with your overpair and get called, your opponent has a made hand or a decent draw. If the turn card is an overcard, it's possible your opponent paired his kicker but not likely. So you can bet again to protect against draws but it doesn't have to be full pot since draws have an even lesser chance to win at this point; a bet of 60-70% would make it incorrect for drawing hands to call. If you get raised, you're beat and should fold. If a low card comes--anything below a 9--and your opponent leads out or raises, chances are he just made two pair or a straight.

Occasionally you are going to make a protection bet when you're already beat, and you will frequently be outdrawn if your bet is called. A protection bet is an attempt to take down the pot while you have the best hand and extract value from those who are drawing to beat you. The key point here is you are protecting a vulnerable hand, and you should play future streets accordingly. Sometimes, checking the turn and river to get to showdown cheaply is the best option once your protection bet is called. It depends on the board texture and the cards that fall, plus your opponents' tendencies. If they're still check-calling, you're likely still ahead. Anything else and it's likely you've been outdrawn.

Gaining information

Betting for information is a useful tactic in many situations. If you have the nuts, you know where you stand in the hand. But if you have a medium-strength holding, it's difficult to know whether you should stay in or get out. That's when betting for information is most useful. Let's say you raise preflop with JhJd and get two callers. The flop comes 569--all spades. Sure, you've got the overpair, but your opponents could have you beat, have decent draws to beat you--or have nothing but overcards. This is where a "feeler" bet will help you narrow down their range without exposing your entire stack. Betting 30-40% of the pot in this case is just about right. Certainly, you will be called by players with draws in this spot no matter how much you bet, so betting big doesn't yield any additional value. But if your opponents have weak pairs and no draws, you can take down the pot without a fight.

Another situation where this is useful is when you've raised with a pocket pair and an overcard hits the flop. You could still have the best hand, but you need to find out. A feeler bet will tell you if your opponent paired the board or maybe picked up a draw. If you're out of position, you can check the turn and blocker bet the river if he checks behind. If you have position you can check behind on the turn and reevaluate on the river depending on what he does.

The feeler bet is the way to go when protecting your stack is the priority over winning the pot.

Blocking bets

Blocking bets are used on the river to stave off big bets from opponents who have position, especially when scare cards hit. Let's say three players limp and you raise from the SB to 8BB's with KdQd. Two players call and you see a flop of KsJhTs. The effective stacks are 300BB's deep. The pot is 30BB's. There are plenty of worse made hands and draws that can call this flop, so with top pair and an open-ended straight draw you bet 25BB's. Both players call relatively quickly. The turn is the 9h, completing your straight but putting two flush draws on board. The pot is now 105BB's. You have the second nuts at this point, so at worst you're chopping if one or more of your opponents has a queen. But you still have to bet to protect your hand against flush draws. So you bet 75BB. The first opponent thinks for a minute and then calls. The second opponent calls fairly quickly. The pot is now 330BB's and you have 192BB's left in your stack. The river is the 4s, completing the spade flush. If you check, either of your opponents could put out a big bet, putting you to a difficult decision. So instead, you bet 80BB's. If neither of your opponents has the flush, they may either fold or call, hoping you don't have the flush yourself. However, if one of your opponents has the flush, they will surely raise and you can correctly fold. It's a name-your-own-price bet or blocking bet, similar to betting for information.

Here's another example from a hand I wrote about on my blog in 2011. It was a live $1/$2 game at River Spirit. I'd been winning and started the hand with over 300BB's. The player to my left was a calling station and had been having an up and down night, but started the hand with around 200BB's. Everyone checked to me in the cutoff; I looked down at QQ and raised to 5BB's. The BTN called and everyone else folded. The flop came KQ4r. I bet 12BB's into the 13BB pot and the BTN called. The turn came a T. This card might have given my opponent a straight, or at the very least a draw to a straight. If he'd had KQ or even AK I believe he would have raised the flop, so KJ and JT were his most likely holdings. But given how stationy he was, AJ, AT, QJ and QT were also in his range. I felt I still had the best hand so I bet 25BB's into the 37BB pot and my opponent called pretty quickly. The river brought a J. I quickly added up the pot of 87BB's and bet out 30BB's as a blocking bet. If my opponent had a pair, he wasn't calling. If he had two pair, he'd call rather than raise. But if he had the straight, he'd raise and I could safely fold, which is what happened. I folded my set face up and he showed the table ATo.

Bluffing

Bluffing is the essence of poker. If you can't win with the cards you have, the only way to win is to bluff. But just because a bluff is the only way to win doesn't mean you should try it. Bluffs work when you can credibly represent strength while your opponent has shown weakness. In no limit games, bluffs are most often semi-bluffs where the bettor has outs to win the hand. The most common version of this is the continuation bet. You raise with AK, two opponents call, and the flop comes Q94. You bet the flop to represent the Q and hope your opponents fold, but if they call, you expect to be able to win if an ace or king comes on the turn. So how much should you bet on a bluff?

As always, it depends. If you are semi-bluffing with a draw, you may want to size your bets in line with your perceived odds of winning the hand. So let's say you have an overcard and a flush draw as clean outs--perhaps Ah8h on a board of Kh9h6s. That's fifteen outs, twice, for an approximate winning percentage of 50% against random hands, and 44% against a pair of kings. So you can bet half the pot and still be breaking even when your opponent calls, and making a profit when he folds.

But regardless of the specifics, when you decide to bluff you have to ask yourself: what story are you trying to tell? Or in other words, what hand are you representing? Let's say you raise preflop with KQs, one player calls, and the flop comes A85. Your opponent checks and you bet 60% of the pot to represent the ace. Your opponent calls. The turn brings another ace. This time your opponent thinks for a moment and bets half the pot. It's safe to assume you don't have the best hand at this point. But your opponent doesn't necessarily have an ace, either. He may have paired his 8 or have pocket tens that didn't three bet preflop, and he's leading out for information and to protect his hand. You could give up the pot, but you could also continue with your bluff. If you had an ace in this spot, or even pocket kings, you would just call and see a river rather than raise and force your opponent out. So you call and see the river. If your opponent checks to you on the river, then make a value-sized bet consistent with your story, i.e. the hand you're representing. If he leads out again, you can bluff-raise if you think your opponent will fold, or you can give up the pot and save your chips for a better spot.

All-in bluffs are most effective when you have position on your opponent, a scare card has hit the board, and there is only one pot-sized bet left in your stack. For instance, let's say you and your opponent have 150BB stacks. You are on the button with JhTh, and your opponent raised to 6BB preflop from middle position. You and two other players called and the flop came 8s9s3h. The pot is 25BB's and your opponent bets 15BB's. The other two players fold and you call with your open-ended straight draw. The turn is the 5s. The pot is 55BB's. Your opponent hesitates and bets 25BB's. Your opponent has shown strength up until now and is suddenly showing some weakness. He doesn't have the flush and is trying to find out if you do. The safe play is to fold at this point since you aren't getting the proper odds to draw to your straight. But you could win with a bluff on the river even if you don't make your hand, so you call. The river is the 6d. Now there is both a 4-card straight and a 3-card flush on the board. Your opponent tank-checks. The pot is now 105BB's. You have 104BB's left and push it into the middle. After a lot of muttering and head-shaking your opponent folds. Could you win with a smaller bet? Maybe. But if he calls you're beat, so maximum pressure has the best chance to win.

What you should never do with a bluff is change what you're representing mid-hand. So if you raise preflop with AK, the flop comes 479, and you bet big to represent pocket aces, don't expect your opponents to believe you made a straight when the turn brings a J. It's not consistent with the story you're telling. Doing so will confuse your opponents, and confused players call. If you can't credibly represent strength, give up the bluff.

Size up your opponents, then size your bets.

When considering a bet, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I get a worse hand to call?
  • Can I protect my hand by betting?
  • Will I gain more information by betting than I can by checking?
  • Will a bet force my opponent(s) to fold?

If the answer to all of these questions is no, you shouldn't bet at all. But if you decide to bet, size it in accordance with your goal and the players you're up against. Extracting maximum value and applying maximum pressure is an art that requires both nerve and discipline. May your brush strokes yield masterpieces.

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