Skill #3. Assess Your Hand Value – P6: BET SIZING

Bet sizing is a vital no-limit hold ’em topic, and one we’ll return to repeatedly. It has many subtleties. At this point, however, I want to introduce the idea briefly in a direct, actionable way. We’ll refine these ideas as we go.

In general, big bets get people to fold, and small bets get people to call. But most players overestimate this effect. The typical live no-limit hold ’em player has two thresholds for their hands that apply at all times. They have a threshold of hand strength above which they will not fold no matter what. And they have a threshold of hand strength below which they will not call, no matter what. For example, your opponents might never be willing to fold trips of any kind as long as the board doesn’t show a four- straight or four-flush. And your opponents might never be willing to call with king-high no pair on the river. Once you can pin down your opponents’ thresholds, your results can improve.

This concept is critical. New hold ’em players don’t understand it, and make errors regarding the first threshold all the time. Students regularly send me hands where they launch a big bluff, only to have their opponents snap them off. In many cases, my students were trying to get opponents to fold hands that these players realistically were never going to fold no matter what.

The second threshold is even less understood, but is very useful. Basically it means you can fire low-cost bluffs at some pots (even a bet as small as $15 or $20 into a $100 pot, for instance) and show a profit because enough of your opponents’ hands fall below their calling threshold.

But this section isn’t about bluffing. It’s about using bet sizing to extract maximum value from your good hands. Consider these concepts:

1. Bet big enough with big hands so you can comfortably bet all-in by the river. This is an extension of the “don’t slowplay three-street hands” concept from above. If you flop a set, for example, your goal is to try to win stacks. You don’t want to start that plan off with a free card. You don’t want to start it off with a small “suck them in” bet either—not if it means you’ll be betting pot or more by the river if you want to get stacks in.

It’s generally easier to get a pot-sized bet or larger called on the flop than the river. So you want to build the pot early and give your opponent something more callable on the river.

For example, say two players limp, and you raise to $10 with 9-9 and $200 stacks. The blinds fold, and the limpers call. There’s $33 in the pot with $190 behind. The flop comes Q-9-2. Your opponents check. You can get all the money in by betting $40, then $60, then $90. Or you can get it in by betting $10, then $50, then $130. You’re more likely to get your flop bet called if you bet $10. But you’re more likely to win stacks if you start with that $40 bet, because a $90 river bet will be called much more often after a $60 turn bet than a $130 river bet after a $50 turn bet.

2. Sometimes you can squeeze in an extra street of value if you shade your bet sizes small. In particular, you can turn some top pair/marginal kicker hands into three-street hands against some opponents. Say two players limp, and you raise to $10 with A-T suited. The blinds fold, and the limpers call. The flop comes A-8-3. Against many players, if you try to use the $40-$60-$90 line from the above hand, you’ll find hands that call you on the river will tend to have you beaten more often than not. The $10- $50-$130 line would be even worse, as that huge river bet would get these players to fold almost all the hands you beat.

Using the above logic, we’d conclude this is a two-street hand. But you might be able to turn it into a three-street hand if you tread lightly with your bet sizing. Say you bet $20-$30-$40. Or you might even try $25-$35-$45. A player on the flop holding A- 2 on our A-8-3 flop won’t be inclined to fold to a $20 or $25 bet. Then each bet is only a little bigger than the last. This player might feel “committed” to calling these smallish bets on later streets because the pot odds become more attractive every time.

This tactic is player-specific. Opponents it works best on tend not to be very sophisticated about how they think and play. These opponents, often loose or just poor players, will generally call most modest-sized bets if they hit the board with top pair. But it’s worth considering when you believe you have just a one- or two- street hand.

3. Don’t bet big with vulnerable hands. If anything, bet smaller. I’m repeating an earlier concept, but it’s important. Many players love to do this. Pre-flop, if they have A-A, they’ll make it $10. But if they have J-J, they’ll make it $15. Secretly, they’re hoping the extra money encourages their opponents to fold so they won’t have to play the hand. On the flop, they’ll bet

$25 with a set, but $40 with a vulnerable top pair. Again, the goal secretly is to encourage people to fold so they can’t draw out.

The only point of having a “good” hand is to win at showdown. If the hand ends before showdown, you might as well have two blank cards. Also, you should want to invest more money in your stronger hands, and less money in your weaker hands. Once you accept these two principles, the idea of betting bigger with more vulnerable hands makes no sense at all.

Most importantly, don’t size your bets this way. In general, you can’t prevent players from drawing out on you, not without shutting down a pot too early and potentially wrecking the real value of your hand. Whatever hands your opponent may have that are weak enough to consider folding (to a big bet), you’d probably prefer he call (a smaller bet) with them instead.

Furthermore, you know from Skill #2 earlier in the book that when your opponents do draw out, it’s no big deal, because you can just fold. Since they don’t protect their value bets with enough bluffs in their range, you just get out of the way when they start betting big.

4. Bet bigger than your opponents do. Commonly, bets from live no-limit hold ’em players are too small. When they flop a set, their bet sizing is too small, and often gives them little-to- no chance to win stacks. There’s no clear rule for how big bets should be. But don’t mimic your opponents’ bet sizing and consider those “standard.” Make sure your average bet is bigger than theirs. A good rule of thumb might be at least a half-pot bet when you flop a monster. This builds the pot so on each subsequent street your bets can help you get stacks in by the river.

Once you gain experience and become more sophisticated with bet-sizing concepts, you can use your opponents’ “standard” bet sizing against them. We’ll cover these ideas later in the book.

5. Don’t worry about tipping your hand strength with your bet sizing—for now. In a 1-2 game, you gain more by choosing appropriate bet sizing relative to your hand strength than you lose by giving out information with your bet sizing. This equation changes when you move up. At 5-10, for instance, you need to be more careful about information revealed through bet sizing. (One of my bread-and-butter profit sources is to use information gained by examining my opponents’ bet-sizing choices.) But at 1-2, I wouldn’t worry too much. Just bet big with your good hands, and smaller with weaker hands. And try not to be too obvious about it.

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