You only get dealt two cards for yourself in Texas Holdem. Combined with the three cards on the flop, you’re supposed to make some sort of a hand, hopefully a pair or better. It turns out that it’s pretty hard to make a pair. In fact, only one-third of the time will you flop a pair with two unmatched hole cards.
Given that it’s so hard to make a hand, the player who bets first often wins the pot. Armed with this knowledge, players will usually fire out a continuation bet when they are the preflop raiser. Most of the time, this is exactly what you should do. But before we look at all of the good reasons and situations to c-bet, let’s look at some of the reasons not to.
Stabbing at the pot when you’ve raised before the flop is a natural thing. It’s almost an emotional thing for many players. “Good players try to pick up pots that no one wants,” they think. “That pot is mine. I’m going to take what’s mine, put pressure on my opponent.” The only time they want to check back is for pot control when they have a marginal hand.
With $60 in the pot, if you bet $40, you only need the opponent to fold 40% of the time to show a profit. Most players will fold the flop between 40% and 50% (a typical regular may fold 60% or more), so c-betting is often profitable. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best play.
At the heart of this matter is a false dichotomy: you can either c-bet the flop with your air, or give up. That’s the mindset of many otherwise good players, but it’s dead wrong. Just because you check the flop doesn’t mean that you’ve given up your right to attack the pot.
When you c-bet the flop, you’ll wind up giving up on a lot of turns that don’t help you. Maybe you’ll fire a scare card like an ace or a king, or you’ll try to move someone off of a marginal calling hand. But in general, your turn edge will be thin.
Instead of c-betting, you can wait for an opportunity to do something more profitable later. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you have 7♠ 4♠ on A♥ Q♦ 8♣ . There’s nothing exciting that can happen on the turn. Not only are there no cards to give you a strong hand or a strong draw, but there aren’t even any good bluffing cards. When you bet, your hand looks like top pair or better, a straight draw, or total air. If you check back, your hand looks more like a marginal hand (e.g. king-queen that wants to control the pot size).
If your opponent bets the turn, he’s usually got something. After all, you’ve implied that you have a marginal hand that wants to go to showdown, and he bet anyway. When he checks, though, you’ve gained valuable information. Your delayed c-bet will still shake loose the same range that your flop c-bet would have. The difference is
that this same range of hands now makes up a larger portion of your opponent’s range because his good hands, the ones that would bet the turn, can be removed.
Despite having nearly zero equity when called, it’s possible a flop bet may have been profitable. But a turn bet was more profitable, thus a better play.
There’s another way to use this delayed c-bet. Let’s look at an example to see how:
When you check back here, there are a number of things that can happen:
When your opponent bets the turn and you don’t improve, you just give up. You’ve probably saved yourself $40.
When your opponent checks the turn, he’s usually folding. Your turn bet is more profitable than a flop bet would have been, since you have better information.
There are about 15 cards you could play the same way – anything that gives you a straight or flush draw. If your opponent calls, you should typically bluff the river when you miss and value bet when you improve.
Your opponent will almost never re-raise, but even if he makes it $360, you still have enough money behind to call. You’re only risking $240 to potentially win up to $1,155. Assuming that you raised with eight or nine outs, you’ll improve between 17 and 19 percent of the time, which makes it a borderline call.
There may be other ways to win the pot on the river:
Your turn call of the re-raise represents so much strength, that it sets you up to take the pot when your opponent gives up on the river. When he checks, he’s waiving the white flag. The only reason to bet all in instead of making a smaller bluff is to prevent him from taking another shot at the pot.
Now, a similar scenario could have played out if you bet the flop and bet the turn. But turn barrels are easier for your opponents to deal with than turn raises. Most opponents will have statistics to rely on to judge your propensity to barrel off. They’re used to dealing with this situation. When you check back the flop and raise the turn, you take your opponent out of his comfort zone. Even if he has some stats on the situation, they will be less reliable since the situation arises less frequently. Your opponent will have to actually think! Many moderately successful players are surprisingly bad at this. The use of a HUD has become so prevalent that any time you can make a play that your opponent’s HUD won’t help them understand, there’s value in it. By rendering their tools useless, you can set your opponents up to make bad decisions.
The moral of the story is not that you should avoid c-betting. It’s not. You should c-bet a lot. But pause to think about why you’re firing off that c-bet on this exact hand against this exact opponent. C-betting should not be a reflex. It should be a decision. It’s often a profitable option. But instead of asking yourself if it’s a profitable option, ask if it’s your most profitable option.