The fourth of a multi-part guide series designed to take readers from having little to no knowledge of poker to being a profitable and competent virtual money low stakes player.
This part helps you understand the different reasons for placing bets, how you disguise your hand strength when you bet, how to gain information from your bets, and when to bluff or bet for value.
Now you understand the basics of the game. You know to play like a tight but steady player, including which cards and hands are strong enough to be excited about. You also have some idea of the sorts of players that exist on a poker table, and it’s worth getting a good grip on betting principles – how much to bet, when to bet, and how to maximise your gains and minimise your losses.
This section will be split into three main sections: betting before the flop, betting after the flop and the turn, and betting after the river card. The reason for splitting this section in this way is that the reasons of deciding on your betting are fundamentally different in each of these three stages.
Before the flop
Until you feel comfortable with the rest of this chapter, you can stick to the star valued opening ranges of hands outlined in chapter 2. The rest of this section will be about sizing and paying attention to other people’s behaviour. Adjusting your “pre-flop range” (the different hole card combinations that you choose to do something other than fold with) will be further discussed in later chapters.
The first thing to adjust is to get out of the habit of mostly “limping” (just playing the big blind and not raising) before the flop. This is a common habit that new players almost always fall into, and it comes with two disadvantages: You learn nothing about the sorts of hands other players might have, and you get smaller pots and less profits from your good hands.
If you have a good hand, how much to raise, or re-raise with the great hands?
It is quite common, especially when starting out, to raise your super premium hands (particularly K-K and A-A) by a larger amount than your other hands. Don’t get into this habit! It’s very important that you give away as little information as possible about the strength of your hand by your bet sizes.
The following is a decent quick and easy rule of thumb for how much to “open” (the name for being the first raise pre-flop):
If you have more than half of 100 big blinds (so 50 big blinds), open to 3x (3 times the big blind)
If you have less than that, but more than half (so between 25 and 50 big blinds), open to 2.5x
If you have more than 10 big blinds but less than 25 big blinds, open to 2x
Any less than 10 big blinds, you should only ever fold or go “all in” (put all your chips in as your opening raise)
So, if the small blind is 100, and the big blind is 200, then you should be raising to 600 if you have at least 10,000 chips, 500 if you have between 5,000 and 10,000 chips, and 400 if you have between 2,000 and 5,000 chips.
If you are put off by all this maths, it’s not a big deal. Instead, 2.5x is a safe raising size for all situations other than when you have less than 10 big blinds remaining.
If you have one of the three-star hands, the suggestion is to re-raise. In this case, a good rule of thumb is anywhere between 2.5 and 3 times the previous raise.
So imagine you’re the 4th player to act, the first player raises to 400 (big blind is 200), the second player folds, the third player calls, you should be re-raising to anywhere between 1000 and 1200.
There are further adjustments you can make according to position, how many other people have called, how big the raises are etc, but those will be discussed in later chapters.
Pre-flop betting summary
Raise 3x if you have more than 50 BBs (big blinds)
Raise 2.5x if you have between 25 and 50 BBs
Raise 2x if you have between 10 and 25 BBs
If this is too complicated, stick to 2.5x for greater than 10 BBs
Your re-raises should be between 2.5 and 3 times the last raise
Fold or go all in below 10 BBs, go all in with all two-star and better hands
If you drop to 5 or less BBs, go all in with any ace or king as either card
The betting “lead”
This is a relatively important concept to learn. As we should now expect there to be a decent chance that someone has raised before the flop is dealt, a player will now have what is referred to as the “betting lead”. This means they are the last person to perform an aggressive action – the last person to bet or raise a bet to a greater amount.
Seeing if that person is still excited about their hand after more cards are dealt is important. As a result, if you call someone else’s raise pre-flop, you don’t want to do anything but check if it is your turn to act before they do. If they bet again after the flop is dealt, they are obviously still happy with their hand. That doesn’t mean you should fold everything other than really strong hands, but getting the information about whether they want to carry on betting allows you to get a slightly better feel for how strong they are.
If they check instead of continuing to bet, they are “giving up the betting lead”, and the next person who bets takes it on instead.
There are many ways to carefully adjust the way you play in different situations to “balance your range”, but this only starts to become valuable when you’re playing mostly strong players who are paying a lot of attention specifically to what you are doing. As a result, the betting recommendations on the rest of this chapter can be considered a basic step up from “playing like a rock”. It is designed to give you good value on your good hands and cheap folds on your bad hands. It should be relatively easy to follow at the cost of making you a bit easier to read.
On the flop and the turn
Once the flop has been dealt, players now have a good idea how strong they are likely to be. Some of this was covered in chapter 2, looking at the traffic light systems for flops.
Bet Lead: If you have the betting lead, you should be continuing with a bet (known as c-betting) with top pair, two pair, overpair (a pocket pair above the highest card on the flop). You should be checking if you have three of a kind or better or nothing at all. This is to give a sensible chance of getting more money in the pot when you have a good hand, and allowing you to get away nice and cheaply if you’ve completely “missed” the flop. The reason you don’t bet the strongest hands like the straights and flushes is that you’re so strong that it is likely you will have the best hand by showdown, and you are trying not to appear quite as strong as you are.
No bet lead: Check everything if you act before the betting lead. If the betting lead bets again, call with your c-betting hands as they are probably winning, call with your strong draws (see the pot odds chart in chapter two), and re-raise the three of a kind or better hands that you’d have checked with in the “bet lead” section. Fold everything else. If the betting lead checks, treat it as if you have the betting lead, and refer to the bet lead section above.
There is a wide range of reasons to pick precise and varied betting values, but to keep things simple, bet between half and three quarters of the pot. It will be correct in enough situations that you can use this as an “always” rule of thumb. Raising another bet, as before, should be 2.5x-3x their bet.
Remember to pay attention to what other people are doing, and the possible hands that exist based on the community cards on the board. If you called a raise pre-flop, called a c-bet on the flop, re-raised the turn with your straight and found yourself still being called by the other player, ask yourself whether they can have better hands – three or four cards of the same suit on the board makes a flush more likely, and a pair on the board makes a full house possible. This isn’t to suggest you should start thinking about folding your really good hands just yet, but it’s worth becoming a bit less aggressive unless you have the best type of hand available.
Flop and turn betting summary
Bet lead: Bet top pair, two pair, overpair, pocket pair above second pair
Check everything else, call if re-raised with only the super strong hands
No bet lead: Always check if betting lead has not acted yet
If betting lead has checked first, consider yourself to be betting lead
If bet lead bets, call your betting hands, re-raise the super strong hands
Bets 0.5x-0.75x pot, raises 2.5x-3x the other player’s bet
Fold everything else to a bet, never fold if you can check
Betting on the river
The reason for betting changes completely on the river. In many ways it’s a much simpler round to understand, but a large number of amateur players completely fail to understand how it changes from the betting on previous rounds.
At this point, everyone knows exactly how strong their own hand is. No-one will ever call with their draws any more, as there are no cards still to be drawn. As a result, one of the primary reasons for betting on the flop and the turn with your two pair hands has gone – you’re no longer getting calls from people who have nothing but are hoping for their magical card for a straight.
You now need to think about the value of your hand. The way this is measured is the price that weaker hands will pay to see if they might win the pot. If you have third highest pair (for example, on a A-Q-9-4-3 board, you have a pair of nines), there is never any point in betting, even if you think that you have the best hand. Everyone with a worse hand is almost always going to fold, and anyone with a stronger hand is probably going to call (or even worse, raise!). You gain no more money by betting if you’re best, and you lose more money by betting if you’re not best.
The strength of your hand also depends on the other possibilities represented on the board. If the board above (A-Q-9-4-3) contains three cards that are clubs, flushes are possible (albeit unlikely). If it contains four, flushes are likely. 5-2 is also a straight. If someone bets a very large amount (pot or above), you need to consider that they have one of the unlikely but very strong hands.
The rule of thumb is now simple – if you think it’s likely that you have the best hand pick the amount you would choose to call with if you had a specific worse hand (like if you really have top pair, how much you call if you had third pair), and that’s how much to bet. If you have a flush and there is 9-8-7-6 on the table, you have a decent chance that someone else has a straight or a two pair. This means that you can now bet quite a lot more, not because of the strength of your hand, but specifically because of the likelihood of other players having a strong hand too, that happens to be weaker than yours.
River betting summary
- Don’t bet just because you think your hand is best
- Bet only if you think you’re ahead of the majority of the other hands players can have
- Pick your betting size based on the hands you beat, not your hand
- Call only if you have a pair, even top pair
- Half pot if you beat most two pairs
- Full pot if you beat or match all straights and below
- Anything you like if you have a strong full house or better
- Adjust slightly if you have a feeling you know specifically what other players might have, and you have a good feeling of how much they would call