The Reasons for Betting

I hope you’re ready for this, because we’re about to define our entire poker existence. It’s a single word: why? Poor players never question their decisions. Average players start to ask themselves “why” but have wildly insufficient answers. When I’m coaching students, this is one of the first things I see that needs fixing. A student makes a bet, and I ask him why he’s betting. Common answers include: “I’m pretty sure I have the best hand,” “I’m gaining information to see where I’m at,” or “I’m betting to protect my hand.” The problem is that those aren’t reasons for betting. Things like information or protection may be side effects of betting, but they’re not reasons. So what are the reasons for betting? There are only three. In order to justify a bet or raise at any time, we’ll need to rely on these three (and only these three) reasons. We’ll deal with the first two first:

  1. Value. This is defined as betting to get called (or raised) by a worse hand. Betting just because you probably have the best hand is NOT sufficient to bet for value.
  2. Bluff. This is defined as betting to get a better hand to fold. Betting just because you can’t win any other way is NOT sufficient to bet as a bluff.

These two are pretty simple. They rely on mistakes our opponents make—either calling too much or folding too much. It’s human nature to call too much. We’re curious beings and we want to see what the other guy holds, what the turn card will be, whether or not we hit our flush on the river.
People are more inclined to make the mistake of calling too much than the mistake of folding too much. Therefore, Reason #1 for betting will dominate our bets. Value-betting is, was, and always will be the best way to make money. At a micro-stakes game, let’s say $25nl, nearly everyone at the table will call absurdly often, so Reason #2 for betting becomes more or less useless. At $5000nl, nearly everyone at the table will be good enough to avoid paying off your value bets too often, and thus reason #1 decreases in utility and reason #2 becomes more important. In general, though, even regulars at high stakes games are more likely to make bad calls than bad folds as a general rule.

So what about c-betting? Let’s say we raised KQo on the button, and the big blind (a loose, passive player who won’t fold ANY pair on the flop) calls us. The flop comes down A75r. He checks to us. This is a very standard bet. Why?

Hmm. We can’t get called by any worse hands (QJ isn’t coming along for the ride). Even a hand like 86 is roughly a coin-flip against us in terms of equity. So we can’t bet for value. Sticking with our assumption that he’s not folding any pairs, we can’t bet as a bluff either as we have the best non-pair hand possible. Yet we still bet. Why?

3. Capitalization of Dead Money. This is defined as making the opponent fold, whether his hand is better or worse, and collecting the money in the pot. This is obviously a fair amount trickier than Reasons #1 or #2. What makes this mysterious third reason work?*

We make him fold his equity share in the pot. On the A75 flop where we hold KQ, if the opponent holds JT, his six-outer still has a strong amount of equity to draw out. Making him fold that equity share is good. (One exception would be if the villain is likely to bluff AND our hand is strong enough to call a potential bluff. On this A75 board, if we check behind on the flop, villain is likely to check all of his air-type hands and bet all of his pair-or-better hands. Thus, villain is unlikely to bluff and our hand isn’t strong enough to be a bluff catcher, so we can’t check behind. More on this concept later in the chapter “Showdown Theory”.)

The dead money more than compensates for the times when we’re called and lose. I was playing at a high stakes table with a very famous, extremely loose-aggressive player named Cole. He was deepstacked in the CO, covered by the Button. Cole raised, the Button 3-bet, he 4-bet, the Button 5-bet, and he shoved all-in. The Button folded, and Cole showed T9o. Cole obviously wasn’t raising all-in for value (hard to get called by nine-high). Nor could he be confident about making the Button fold anything good, as Cole is famously loose and aggressive—nobody folds anything good to Cole. Yet he still raised. Why? After the button 5-bets, there is a lot of dead money in the pot. Cole only needs the Button to fold a relatively small percentage of the time to make the shove correct

As games get more aggressive, more people are bluffing and putting money in with weaker hands. That equates to the presence of more dead money in the pot. In small stakes games, c-betting may be the extent of your reason #3 betting (as in KQ on an A75 board). This is because people rarely get out of line and make plays without some kind of hand. In higher stakes, more aggressive games, you’ll need to capitalize on dead money if you want to turn a profit.

Additionally, Reason #3 is rarely (possibly never)** a primary reason for betting. Often times it is used as a complimentary reason for Reasons #1 and #2. For example, let’s say we have the nut flush draw on a T♠8♠4♣K♣ board and we decide to bet the turn. Well, we’re betting for Reason #2, hoping for him to fold a hand like JT or A8. He may have a worse hand, such as a worse flush draw, which we don’t want him to fold necessarily. However, the fact that there is money in the pot, and we might get him to fold a hand like JT means that it’s not so bad for him to fold a worse hand. Another example might be a situation where we have KT and the board is T♠6♠5♣J♣. Betting again might be slightly too thin.. However, getting him to fold straight draws, flush draws, and random floats is good for us, especially if we think he usually takes a free card with his draws if we check.

In general, dead money compensates for the “thinness” of either Reason #1 or Reason #2. For example, a bluff might be too thin (i.e. villain calls us too often) when the pot is 50bb. However, if the pot were 100bb, a bluff has more value because there’s more dead money to make. Similarly, a thin value bet might be too thin with a small pot size, but with a larger pot the dead money compensates. In this sense, we’re always betting for Reason #1 or Reason #2, but Reason #3 is always involved. Even when we raise preflop, we’re either raising as a bluff or for value, but our raise is compensated by the dead money—dead money that we call “the blinds”.

So what about protection? Is this not a reason for betting?

The answer is no—protection is a consequence of betting. Let’s say our hand is red QQ on a Q♠T♠9♣ board. We bet for value—there are many worse hands that will call or raise us. The fact that we’re charging draws and “protecting” is nice, but it’s hardly the original motivation for our bet. Now let’s say we hold 6♥6♦ on a Q♥9♥3♣ board. We can bet there to collect dead money, but we’re hardly “protecting”. Most draws are either 50/50 with us or are a significant favorite (A♥J♥ comes to mind). The moral of the story is that when we have a set of queens, our hand needs protection, but it needs value first and foremost. When we have a pair of sixes, our hand doesn’t really need protection because it’s not very strong. All we have is a pair of sixes. It seems pretty dumb to protect ourselves from A♥J♥ when A♥J♥ is a favorite over us. Instead, we might bet 66 on the Q♥9♥3♣ board as a thin bluff (against hands like 77 or 88) or for thin value (against a hand like A♥4♥), but mostly to collect dead money against a hand like A♣T♣ that will fold its 6-outer on the flop.

What about information? Let’s say we have QJ on a QT5r board against a very loose-passive player. We bet for value. If he calls, we have the information that our hand is probably best and we can keep betting for value. If he raises, we have the information that our hand is behind his range and we should fold. However, the bet is still good even if that happens, because it was for value. The real problem with betting for information occurs when someone bets a hand like KK on an A22 board. Well, every time we’re called we’re behind, so we lose some money (more on this later). Every time he folds we were ahead. He plays perfectly. And, if he’s not making any mistakes, we’re not making any money. If we’re betting for information instead of one of the three reasons, we’re usually isolating ourselves with better hands and folding out worse hands. In short, we’re making mistakes and our opponent isn’t. And that’s bad.

However, let’s consider the KK on A22 example again. Let’s start with a two assumptions: 1) if we bet, villain never calls with a worse hand, and 2) if we check, villain NEVER bluffs. In this case, it may still be correct to bet to collect dead money. Let’s say that villain holds a hand like 44. If he’s never bluffing when we check, we’re simply giving him infinite odds to catch his 4. So, betting to make 44 fold there is a good thing, because we make him fold his equity share in a spot where he only puts money in the pot when he’s value betting. Obviously, these two assumptions are never this concrete—sometimes we can bet KK for value on an A22 board against smaller pairs, and sometimes our villain will bluff us like crazy if we check. But, we need to remain conscious of dead money as it applies to these types of situations.

So now we have the three reasons. Any time you’re betting, ask yourself, “Why am I betting?” Once you realize that there are only three answers, poker will suddenly make a lot more sense.

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