The way you get an edge when you’re still at the 1-2 level is simple. You play tight pre-flop, you refuse to pay off opponents who don’t bluff enough, and you value bet, relying on the fact that 1-2 players are willing to call too frequently with bad hands.
When you begin to tackle 2-5, you encounter opponents who have learned not to call down too frequently with bad hands. But their bad hands haven’t gone away, because these players still play too many hands pre-flop. Instead of calling down with their bad hands, these more sophisticated opponents take occasional stabs at the pot with them, and fold them out the rest of the time.
Our first two skills at the 2-5 level have focused on trying to get these players to fold bad hands. Barreling is how you force them to fold. And understanding board texture allows you to pick your spots to barrel with more precision.
This next skill, making live reads, will help you get opponents to fold. But it’s also the first time we’ll look at opponents who make bets to try to get you to fold improperly.
Live reads is a wide category. It encompasses all the little bits of information available to you at a poker table. Physical tells are the category most people think of when they consider live reads, but for me at least, physical tells aren’t the most important. For me, the most important live read is the bet-sizing tell.
After bet-sizing tells, which I attempt to read on a large percentage of hands I play, I consider a player’s physical appearance. How a player looks can give you useful (though obviously not infallible) clues about the sorts of plays they’re likely to make.
I also use my opponents’ bet-sizing habits to decode certain plays they make. Regular players spend a lot of time together, and their strategies and thought processes rub off. This phenomenon creates little trends where a specific play comes into vogue among regular card room players. If you play enough to be aware of what comes into vogue, you’ll start to decode an opponent’s play.
After bet-sizing, I do consider some physical tells. But I’m not very good at the, “Watch how the arteries pulse in her neck,” kind of thing. The ones I watch for are less dramatic. I use timing tells a fair amount, where you get clues about an opponent’s hand based on how quickly and/or smoothly they act. Beyond that, players give off lots of little clues about their attitude toward their hands. And they often give off these clues after they have mentally given up on a pot.
In other words, players will often subtly reveal they’re planning to fold before you actually commit money to the pot. When one of your main goals is to barrel players off bad hands, this type of tell is very useful.
Unfortunately, while I can describe many different live reads, in this area there’s absolutely no substitute for experience. You’ll have to spend hours and hours at the table with your eyes open to learn how this stuff works.
But I can point you in the right direction, showing the specific things I look for, how I interpret them, and how I use them to make decisions. At the very least, this should put you on the right track to mastering live-read skills.
It’s hard to overstate how important bet-sizing tells can be. For years, I never wrote on this topic, and felt like it wasn’t worth the time. Naturally I thought bet-sizing tells were useful. But it was worked into my game on a subconscious level. When people talk about poker “feel,” using bet-sizing tells were part of my “feel” for a long time. I mistakenly made the assumption that other experienced players had the same feel I had.
Then I started coaching. Students would bring me hands and I would ask them why they didn’t raise a given bet here, or fold to that one there. These were decisions that seemed obvious to me because of how the bets “felt”—information coded into how they were sized. My students in many cases were unable to read the sizes and correctly pull out the information. It was then I realized how important and under-explained the topic was.
Here’s the basic idea. No-limit hold ’em lets players make bets of any size they choose. Typically, 2-5 players don’t have a solid mathematical reason to choose one bet size over another. They size bets based on two factors. First, they use what is “standard” as a guide. If they see people bet around $50 on the flop, they tend to bet $50 on the flop. Second, they alter the standard size based on how they’re feeling about their hand and the situation.
These feelings can run the gamut, but a few are common. First, a player who is concerned about getting drawn out on will often size a bet on the big side. If $50 is the “standard” flop bet, this player might make it $70 instead. The thinking is basically, “Hey, I don’t care if anyone calls. If they all fold, at least I win. And if someone tries to draw out on me, they’re going to have to pay for it.”
For example, say someone holds pocket jacks and the flop comes ten-high with flush and straight draws. This is a situation people will (inaccurately) cheat their bets larger for reasons we’ve discussed earlier in the book.
The second common feeling is caution. As I’ve talked about before, once you get to 2-5, many players are preoccupied with not paying off bets with their second-best hands. The worst thing that could possibly happen, from their perspective, is that they call three times with a hand that was never best. These players invent an array of strategies designed to “see where they’re at.” They want information that tips them off if they’re behind. So they can fold.
In this context, their strategy is rarely pure checking and calling. It usually involves making a bet at some point. This bet is a probe, like a person poking a rattlesnake to see if it’s alive. They want a low-risk way to poke their opponents and see if they like their hands.
A cautious bet will typically shade smaller than the “standard” size. A flop bet that’s usually $50 might become $30 or $35.
We’ve already skimmed the edges of bet-sizing tells without calling them such. In Skill #2—not paying people off—we drew a distinction between a player who made a big turn bet, say $130, and one who made a small turn bet, say $60. The meaning of the small bet might be ambiguous for a typical 1-2 player. But a big bet was far too likely to be the goods to consider trying to catch someone bluffing.
In the terms I use above, players unnecessarily fork their ranges with different bet sizing depending on how they feel about their hand and the board. Typically, “good hands” get one bet size, while “not so good” hands get a smaller one.
This is a terrible way to play no-limit hold ’em, as you permit opponents to fold to your big bets and raise your small ones, ensuring you get the wrong outcome in each case. Before we talk about how to read and utilize bet-sizing tells further, I want to raise a small but important idea about how you size your own bets.
Never vary your bet sizes within a range based on the cards you hold. Almost as bad, is choosing your bet size among two similar options based on what you want your opponent to do (i.e., small for call, big for fold). When you do this, you give away potentially enormous amounts of information. Furthermore, you get very little compensation for it. Mathematically, the difference between betting $70 with a hand you like, and $40 with a hand you like less, gives you relatively little upside. If it works exactly as you want it to, you do only slightly better than if you’d have just bet $50 or $55 with either hand.
The downside to forking your range with bet sizing is potentially disastrous. Players who read and use these tells will absolutely pick you apart—it’s nearly as bad as just showing them your cards.
So don’t do it. In general, pick one bet size and use it for all the hands you intend to bet. Now this bet size can vary depending on the circumstance. If the pot is $200, choose a bigger bet than if the pot were $100. If the board is dynamic (especially if there are lots of drawing hands available), choose a bigger bet than if the board is static. If the stack sizes are deep, choose a bigger bet than if they’re shallow.
In fact, you can even vary the size of your bet based on the strength of your overall range of hands. If you’re in a situation where you’ll have lots of flush draws, and the flush comes in, feel free to bet bigger. And likewise if you’re in a situation where your overall range of hands is somewhat weak, bet smaller. Just don’t bet big when you actually have a flush and smaller when you have just two pair or you’re bluffing.
If you’re certain your opponent can’t decode your bet sizing, you can break my rule here and choose sizes for specific hands. But you should be nearly certain your opponent has no decoding skills. The amount you stand to gain from this practice is small compared to the risk if you’re wrong about your opponent.
Finally, poor bet sizing is a bad habit if your goal is to play 5- 10 and higher. Regulars at the higher stakes have fundamental problems with how they play. For example, just like players at 1- 2, they play too many hands pre-flop. But they’re playing 10-25 instead of 1-2 because they can decipher and ruthlessly punish players who have prominent bet-sizing tells. So work on it. Before you bet, pick a bet size that makes sense given the situation, and all the hands you might have and would be betting. Consistently bet that amount with those presumed hands in your range.
Back to your opponents’ bet-sizing tells. Most regular players at 2-5 will have some sort of exploitable bet-sizing tendencies. These tells are most dramatic when there’s more at stake. In other words, you’ll see tells when emotions are running high, and stacks come into play.
Here’s an example. Two players limp. You make it $25 to go on the button. Both limpers call. There’s $82 in the pot.
The flop comes Q♥9♥3♣. Your opponents check, and you bet $60. The first limper folds, and the second one calls.
The turn is the T♦. Your opponent bets. This is a scenario in which many 2-5 players will fork their range by choosing different bet sizing with different hands.
There’s $202 in the pot. Say your opponent bets $140. This is the “big” bet. Your opponent is betting out because he has a strong hand, and is concerned if he checks, you’ll check it back for a free card. I’d expect to see at least two pair from this opponent.
Now, say your opponent bets $70. This is the “small” bet. Your opponent is betting here because he’s got something—but it’s not good enough that he wants to commit his stack. He doesn’t want you to check it back for a free card (he’d prefer you just fold instead). He also doesn’t want to check and have you bet $160.
His bet is designed to jam you up. The goal is to get a cheap fold or to prevent you from putting him in a tough spot. At this bet size, I’d expect to see a number of pair-plus-draw hands like K-Q, J-9, K-T, A♥3♥, and the like.
Further, his fork isn’t completely clean. There might be a few strong hands sprinkled into his small-bet range. The nuts—K-J in particular—might find its way into this range, since most players are less concerned about getting outdrawn when they hold the nuts. But this player might bet big with the nuts—or might even check it.
Overall, the two bet sizes in this situation fork into two camps: one, strong hands the player is willing to get all-in with (the larger bets); and two, marginal hands the player will likely be willing to fold on the river to a big bet (the smaller bets).
Note how the psychology works in this hand. By the turn, the board is Q♥9♥3♣T♦. There are three cards to a straight on board, as well as a flush draw. Anyone holding a good made hand like two pair or better is concerned about nearly half the deck coming on the river. At the 2-5 level, players try to avoid getting drawn out on in these spots by betting bigger on the turn. And they’re less concerned about concealing the strength of their holdings.
On the flop, it’s often harder to interpret bet sizing. Say a player opens for $20 and you call on the button. There’s $47 in the pot. The flop comes J♥9♥5♦. It’s a draw-heavy flop, but your opponent could bet $20 or $35, and it would be unclear what these bet sizes mean. There’s less at stake on the flop, since stacks are not yet threatened or in play.
If I were tempted to raise this flop bet (maybe I believed the player was betting a weak range into my stronger range), I might be more inclined to raise a $20 bet and less inclined to raise a $35 bet. But in my experience, it’s wrong to use bet sizing on the flop as primary data. It’s better used as a tie-breaker.
Occasionally, you’ll find a player who wants to overbet $70 into $47 on a flop like J♥9♥5♦. This typically means the player has exactly one pair—usually an overpair or top pair, top kicker— and is trying to avoid getting drawn out on. Yet, as the general level of play has improved over the years, I see this particular bet- sizing blunder less frequently.
Even among players who recognize and exploit bet-sizing tells, many don’t take full advantage of them because they’re too eager to be the aggressor. When an opponent bets, they want to “retake the initiative” by raising or calling or betting out of turn on the next street. They look at many post-flop situations as “raise or fold.”
Everything about this line of thinking is wrong. Having the “initiative” is essentially a bogus concept. Very few situations after the flop are truly raise or fold. Calling usually has a strong value and purpose in-between these two options, such that most decisions come down to either a raise or call or a call or fold decision.
Beyond this, there’s another huge problem with wanting to be the aggressor post-flop. If you’re the one betting or raising, then you’re the one potentially giving off bet-sizing tells, and your
opponents have no opportunity to give them to you. This creates an information imbalance that always works against you.
Simply put, if you constantly insist on betting and raising, then your opponents can’t bet, and you can’t glean bet-sizing tells from their actions. Be patient. Learn to draw out hands through the turn and river, and throw the action back so you can catch your opponents in a big bet-sizing error.
Here’s a typical example. Say a player opens for $20, and a player in middle position calls. You’re on the button with A♥7♥. You call. The blinds fold. There’s $67 in the pot.
The flop comes K♥T♥7♦. You have the nut flush draw and bottom pair. The pre-flop raiser bets $35. The next player folds.
Many players are tempted to turn this hand immediately into a bluff. They want to raise here and then, if called, shove the turn. In general, I think this is a suboptimal use of a hand this strong and flexible. Right now you don’t have a lot of information about what the pre-flop raiser has. And, as I said above, bet-sizing tells on the flop are not always that strong. Your opponent has bet only half pot on the flop. But what meaning this has (if any) varies from player to player, and even from card room to card room. This could be a “standard” C-bet with any old hand intended to represent the king. It could also be a hand like A-K or A-A, or even K-K.
Said simply, you don’t yet know. If you raise here, and your opponent does want to play, you could be up against a strong set of hands against which your hand doesn’t have the equity it looks like it should have. Against A-K, for instance, you have just the flush draw and outs for trips. The ace outs are gone. Same thing against A-A. Against a set, you lose the trip outs also, and you have to fade a pair on the board to win with a flush.
Potentially, your hand performs better when you allow your opponent to give you information when he bets his strong hands on the turn. You do this by flat-calling the flop, seeing a turn card, and then looking for a bet-sizing tell.
Say you call. The turn is the 8♣. Your opponent should give you a pretty good idea of his hand strength with how he reacts to this card. If he checks, there’s a good chance he holds a hand like Q-Q, or another hand with which he chose to C-bet, but has given up on, like 6-6 or A-2.
If he bets, his sizing is likely to reveal a great deal. There’s $137 in the pot. If he bets $90 or more, there’s a good chance he’s got what he considers a strong hand that he wants to defend against draws. This range is likely A-K and better. Against this bet size, I would not bluff, since there’s an excellent chance your opponent will simply go with his hand.
Yet, say on this K♥T♥7♦8♣ board your opponent bets just $50 or $60. This bet could be a number of things. It could be a weak king like K♣5♣. It could be a pair-plus-draw hand, like J- T or 9-8. It could be a flush draw weaker than yours.
Against a bet of this size, I would bluff-raise. Many of the hands players put in this $50 or $60 turn-bet range are exactly the hands against which you should be trying to bluff. These are hands that have your pair of sevens beaten but aren’t strong enough to play for stacks. (This is a perfect example of using a bluff strategically to get your opponents off of certain parts of their range.) These are also hands against which you likely have a full complement of outs (flush, trip, and two-pair outs).
By flat-calling the flop and waiting for your opponent to act on the turn, you allow him to give you information that’s potentially useful. If you blast away on the flop, you’re just gambling against your opponent’s entire range.