The Theory of Donking

Donk bets are a strange animal. A donk-bet can be defined as a preflop caller betting into a preflop raiser when out of position. There is some discussion of this concept in the chapter about table dynamics, in which I recommend leading with a wide range of value hands into a bad player in multiway pots (the reasons for this being quickly identified as both getting value and preventing the board from being checked through in a spot where the preflop raiser is less likely to bluff given the presence of the fish). However, we’ll often see spots in HU pots where donk-bets become an issue against both good and bad players. And, at times, we may even consider donk-betting ourselves.

In general, donk-betting in a HU pot makes little sense. This is because the preflop raiser is generally expected to continuation-bet the flop. In poker, there are few things that we can count on with a high level of reliability, but the odds are almost always quite good that a preflop raiser will c-bet in a HU pot. So, we can use that to our advantage by taking more check-raise or check-call lines. To start with, the central reason why we would even begin consider donking is if we didn’t think the preflop raiser was likely to c-bet. This is consistent with the multiway pot example from the chapter “Table Dynamics”.

The other considerable issue with donk-betting is that its basic philosophy seems to be flawed. In short, the idea of putting money in the pot with a wide range of hands when OOP against either bad players (unlikely to be bluffed) or good players (unlikely to make bad calls and likely to bluff or value bet against us at appropriate times) seems like a bad one. However, players remain intrigued by the prospect of donk-betting because of the line’s status as a creative, unexpected move.

The most famous proponent of the donk-bet was Doyle Brunson, insisting that taking a bet-3bet line with strong value hands (like sets) is preferable to check-raising. This would be due to the extra money created when our opponents raise and then become tied to the pot, unable to fold overpairs or even top pair. Fortunately for Doyle, he literally wrote the book on playing aggressively and thus most of his opponents were passive and had tight ranges for raising preflop and could easily be value-bet postflop. Unfortunately for us, our opponents often have wide ranges preflop and aren’t easily value-bet postflop. The vast difference in game dynamic between Doyle’s game and our game today makes bet-3betting strong hands a much less viable option.

A more recent, relevant example could require a look at Prahlad Friedman’s hyper-aggressive postflop style, pioneered within the online poker era. To an observer (I can’t claim to know Prahlad’s intentions or understand his play in the same way that he does), Prah’s plan was relatively simple. He would donk out for pot into the preflop raiser, who would often call with a wide range of hands, largely consisting of weak to medium strength pairs and weak to medium strength draws. Prah counted on his opponents raising strong hands on the flop, giving him a chance to fold to flop raises. Then, Prah would fire out a full pot sized bet on a huge number of turn cards, often causing his opponents to fold (and thus winning back the money he’d made on the flop donk). If called, Prah would often then fire out a full pot sized river bet and get a ton of folds there too. The concept was to bloat the pot on early streets in order to win it back later. It wasn’t a bad plan until people made three simple adjustments that quickly turned Prahlad’s strategy from one of the most successful to one of the least almost overnight. First, people started raising a wide range of bluffs on the flop, never allowing Prahlad to continue his aggression on later streets. Secondly, people started calling stronger hands on the flop with the expectation of action on later streets. Thirdly, people started planning on calling all the way down with any pair. These responses worked effectively to snuff out repeated donking as a powerful high stakes strategy.

Which brings us to donking as it stands today. We can divide our discussion of donking into several categories: 1) facing a donk from a non-thinking player, 2) facing a donk from a good player, 3) donking ourselves. Let’s break it down.

Facing a donk from a non-thinking player:

This particular category can actually be split into two subdivisions. The first case we’ll consider will be the question of what to do when a non-thinking (bad) player donks into us for a small portion of the pot. These donk bets range between a min-bet to slightly more than half-pot. In general, there is a simple solution to these bets—raise them all, every single one. The reasons for this are simple*:

  •   It’s not expensive to raise them (their small bet makes our raise small).
  •   A non-thinking player’s range for donking is often so wide that there is sufficient dead money to make a raise with any two cards profitable.

The second case is when a non-thinking player makes a full, pot-sized donk-bet. This is somewhat trickier for us because, while his range could still be sufficiently wide to make raising any two cards profitable, it’s no longer so inexpensive for us to find out. However, there is a very simple solution to this problem. The plan that I’d recommend would be to fold hands without equity to these pot-sized donk-bets. Raise the first hand that has equity and be sure to make a note of your opponent’s action. If he donk-pots and folds to a raise, we should revert to our initial plan and raise any donk-bet, even large sized ones. If he donk-pots and either calls or reraises, we are one step closer to establishing that his donk-pot range is not unreasonably wide.

One of the significant problems with donk-betting, from Doyle’s day to now, is that it’s nearly impossible to balance a donk-betting range properly. Simply put, we all miss the flop far more than we hit it. There’s going to be far more air than strength in the average person’s donking range. Then, when you consider that many players will be inclined to check-raise their strong hands, sometimes a player’s donking range will be entirely air. This is the crux of reason #2 above.

This brings us to our next difficult question—what do we do when a player who’s actually trying to balance donks into us?

Facing a donk-bet from a thinking player:

Thinking players encounter many of the same problems as non-thinking players when they try to incorporate donk-betting into their games. Namely, despite their best attempts to balance flops, many good players still have difficulty properly balancing their donk-bets. This stems from a misguided attempt to balance both a check-raising range and a donk-betting range. Simply put, there aren’t enough strong hands to effectively do both.** We’ll find a similar discussion in the chapter “The Diminishing Medium Value Category”. So, this inability to successfully balance should again encourage us to raise the flop extremely lightly against these donk-bets, even if they’re coming from a thinking player who’s doing his best to maintain a balanced range.

However, there is a significant reason that a good player might donk in a HU pot that we haven’t considered yet. For lack of a better name, we’ll call it The Spazz Factor.

The Spazz Factor is the idea that when a good, thinking player faces a donk, his inclination will be to raise the flop donk with any two cards. Certainly we’ve seen this response endorsed throughout this chapter. So, a good player could conceivably plan on donking the flop against another good player with a variety of value hands and then calling a raise, putting his opponent on a wide range of air hands. This all makes logical sense. The donk-bettor will then, in general, not plan on folding on later streets, expecting an aggressive opponent to keep bluffing with a wide range on a variety of turn cards.

I can think of one hand that particularly exemplifies the Spazz Factor. Two thinking players were playing HU. The button raised, and the BB called with 86s. The flop came down 832r. The BB donked out, and the button raised. The BB called. The turn was an 8. The BB checked, and the button bet out. The BB called. The river was a 4. The BB checked, and the button shoved all-in. The BB called and the button showed Q9o. The button is well known as a big winner in mid and high stakes games. However, sometimes the temptation to spazz out and bluff it off when facing a donk bet is just far too strong.

The general philosophy behind this is that, against a good player, we can get more value from our hands by donk-calling the flop and check-calling down than we can by check-raising. If someone raises all of our donk-bets and continues to bluff on later streets, this is probably true. However, if we check- raise often enough that we get action from a wide range of air hands, check-raising can certainly be as good as donking. It’s just a question of whether or not we decide to try to balance two different ranges or one (in theory, we could never check-raise and always either donk or c/f, but there are a host of problems associated with this as well).

There’s a reasonable response to donk-bets from good players. In general, the difficulties of balancing a donking range are most easily exploited by continuing to raise extremely lightly on the flop.*** However, we need to exhibit some self control and not spazz out once our flop raise is called. It’s a two sided coin—the fact that we shouldn’t be compelled to bluff too much in these turn and river spots means that we should feel comfortable value-betting extremely lightly. We’ll probably be able to get stacks in profitably with a wide range of thin value hands when facing a donk-bettor (we should be betting it off though, things change when the donk-bettor becomes aggressive on later streets. This is, though, generally a rarity). In short, it’s very difficult for our opponents to donk-bet into us effectively when we use these simple adjustments.

Despite the effectiveness of these responses, there are still scenarios where we should consider donking into the preflop raiser ourselves in a HU situation.

Donking into the preflop raiser:

The most critical reason that we don’t usually donk into the preflop raiser is that we waste a piece of controllable information—the near certainty that our opponent, the preflop raiser, will bet the flop. However, some players—especially in HU games—will check back a wide range of hands on the flop.

Two significant factors will influence their decision to check back:

  1. 1)  Board texture. This is perhaps the most important of the factors and will be the key in understanding when to start donking ourselves.
  2. 2)  History. If we’ve been check-raising a lot of flops, we can often expect our opponents to check back more flops. This starts to incline us away from check-raising and bring us towards donking.

Certainly, these two factors compound upon each other. If we’re check-raising a lot of wet flops, board texture and history might combine to make our opponent check back. When we see the preflop raiser checking back the flop, this is something we need to remember. Write down the board texture and positions. Remember what your opponent did on later streets, especially if it got to showdown. All of this will help us craft our donking strategy to most accurately address our opponent’s adjustments.

So let’s consider an example. We’ve check-raised a lot of flops, and now we start to see our opponent checking back on the flop (the fact that we’ve check-raised a lot isn’t necessarily relevant— some players will check back flops regularly even without history). Our opponent raises and we call OOP. The flop is 8♥7♥4♣. Auto-checking here is a mistake, regardless of our holding. Let’s think about a few things:

 Our range for calling OOP (especially in a HU game) will almost certainly be stronger than our opponents range for raising preflop. This means that we’ll often be able to donk for value everything from thin value (9♣8♣) to thick value (77). We can also often use the Spazz Factor as a justification for donking for value in these spots.

  •   Our opponent has demonstrated that they’re not going to bet this flop often. This means that he won’t be creating any aggressive dead money with a flop bet—i.e., when he bets, he’s usually not folding. So, check-raise bluffing is probably a bad idea.
  •   Our opponent has a wide range of hands that both A) totally miss the flop and B) will often fold to a donk. This means that our opponent’s preflop raise has actually turned into passive dead money once our opponent has begun regularly losing the initiative. More simply phrased, he folds his equity often and we collect dead money. This makes donking better than check-raising.
  •   Our opponent has a wide range of hands that will call a bet and fold to action on a lot of turn cards. Essentially, this endorses the Prahlad strategy. It makes our bluffs more effective.

When looking at these factors in connection with each other, we can see the development of a balanced donking range. There are bluffs, semibluffs, thin value bets, and thick value bets. We can no longer rely on check-raising once our opponent decides to regularly start checking back the flop. While we’ve previously discussed some appropriate responses to donk betting, many (most?) players will continue to respond poorly to the move.

Donking into the preflop raiser is one of the oddest and most confusing lines in poker****, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We can understand when to use the donk-bet line and how to respond to it when we see it from both good and bad players. We can shift our check-raising range towards a donking range as our opponent adjusts to us. We can use position to raise donk-bets relentlessly and value-town our opponents on later streets. The concept of leading out into the preflop raiser has been around for decades but remains incompletely understood. Hopefully this chapter will give you confidence to cope with aggressive, donk-betting opponents and help you keep the pressure on players who keep checking back. You don’t need to start donking all the time, but it’s a good move to keep in your arsenal.

  1. *You might be thinking, “If he is folding to our raises, why would we raise our value hands?” The easiest answer to this is that passive players are generally unlikely to continue bluffing on the turn. So, if he’s going to give up with his bluffs anyway, we might as well get value now.
    **This is quite a silly statement from me here. If we reflect upon the chapter “Basic Street Projection” we’ll see that, in any given situation, either donking or check-raising is better for value, and either donking or check-raising is better as a bluff. If we consider “Advanced Street Projection”, we’ll see that they may sometimes share the same line. But, there is no reason why we can’t have a range for both check-raising and donking; it may not be balanced, but if we’re playing exploitative poker it shouldn’t be balanced in the first place.
    ***Of course, some opponents will adjust completely toward value when they sense this—they’ll never donk-bluff and only value-bet. This is easy to respond to: we’ll just fold. It’s also easy to notice this adjustment, as your opponent will more-or-less be forced to stop donk-betting frequently. It’s hard to make value hands, so if he’s only going for value, he’ll only be able to do it from time to time.
    ****This sentence describes the biggest reason why donking should be considered on any flop. Winning poker is about making your opponents commit mistakes. Putting them in an odd, confusing spot is usually the best way to create those mistakes. Donking challenges your opponents to think critically in a way that they’re uncomfortable with—this creates value (but only as long as we understand what we’re doing!)
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