When I look back at some of my early success as a poker player, I can't help but think it was mindless aggression that was seeing me turn a profit every month. That's not to say I wasn't doing the right things, I just wasn't entirely sure why I was doing them or why they were right. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot to be said for mindless aggression and I would usually take it over considered passivity any day, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of people who play poker have no idea what they are doing or why it's working.
The most typical situation that demonstrates my point is when a player holds pocket kings, raises it up preflop, gets one caller, the flop comes ace high and they fire a continuation bet. Why are they doing this? Is this to get value from a hand weaker than top pair? There are certainly situations where there is a very good reason to bet this flop. Or is it to get their opponent to fold? So often I'll hear someone justify the move by saying 'I was representing the ace' or 'I was bluffing'.
It just doesn't make any sense at all. If they are indeed representing the ace, then the only hands they will scare off are the ones they are currently crushing. The only hands they could possibly be 'bluffing' are the one hand that won't be going anywhere. I also see players justifying betting out on any flop by saying that you make an immediate profit if your opponent will fold X amount of the time, which is true, however there are so many better ways to make a much bigger long term profit on your hands than by immediately giving your opponent the chance to fold.
Perhaps the worst reason I hear players use to explain why they bet in this sort of spot is to 'see where they are' in the hand. The old excuse of betting for information, that if you bet and get action, your opponent has an ace or better, and you know to continue no further. This is my most disliked reason for betting in any situation, because you are essentially turning your very strong hand into a bluff. You will fold out all the weaker hands who might have bluffed you and only get called when you are behind. There are lots of better ways to play your hand (Including betting out in this spot for value) that will have the pleasant side effect of giving you all the information you need.
It's only when I really started analysing my hands that I realised that I didn't really know why I was betting in certain situations, and working with my coach he got me into a mindset where I always question the merits of a bet in a certain situation before I do it. This started a long time ago with a hand that at the time I considered 'standard' that he soon made me realise was anything but.
In a 6 max $2/$4 no limit game, there was an under the gun raise and I held AQ offsuit in the small blind. I naturally reraised because that's what I always did when I got dealt a half decent hand, the under the gun raiser called me and the flop came Q-J-T rainbow. I bet close to a pot sized amount, because that's what I tended to do when I hit top pair and my opponent reraised all-in, it wasn't much more to call, I did and he showed me a set of jacks.
At the time I suggested to my coach that I'd just been unlucky, but he instead told me I butchered the hand and made an awful continuation bet (We also discussed the merits of reraising an under the gun raise with AQ or flatting with it, but that's a different reason I botched the hand and a story for another day). The reason being is that I made a bet that would only get called if I was beaten. There was actually a ton of hands that beat me on this flop and I would fold out all the ones that didn't. AA,KK,QQ,JJ,TT,QJ,QT,JT are the only hands that would continue on this flop and the only feasible hands I beat were AJ, AT and KQ – however it was very unlikely that these hands would have continued after I reraised pre-flop, plus I had an ace and a queen which reduced the number of combinations of those. I learnt that check-calling was the only way I would have made any extra money in this spot (When I was ahead) and betting was just awful.
It was probably the most eye opening hand I ever had analysed, even though it was a fairly unremarkable hand in itself, and ever since then I have approached betting hands in a different way. Since that hand, there are three questions I always ask myself when I am about to pull the trigger and bet:
Will I get called by worse?
When I have a made hand and I am looking to extract some value, I first try and group together all the likely hands my opponents could have that I beat, and how many of those would call a bet with those hands. Obviously this is VERY opponent specific and a fishy player is going to have a much wider range and call with much worse hands than a tough regular.
The AQ hand above is a perfect example of a made hand that is unlikely to get called by worse hands, but to go the other way, let's say you hold 22 on a 2-J-T flop with two hearts. This is a spot where you certainly will get called by much worse hands – any jack, any ten, any heart draw, any broadway straight draw and any overpair will at least snap your first bet and a great reason to value bet rather than getting tricky.
Contrast this with you holding maybe A-6 offsuit on an A-9-3 flop. Value betting needs to be done with caution on this sort of flop because the ace will scare a lot of solid players off smaller pairs, there are no obvious draws and you are most likely to be called by an ace with a better kicker or better. This is a spot where turning your hand into a bluff catcher will be more profitable, because by check-calling you will give all the hands you crush a chance to put money into the pot when they would otherwise fold. If your opponent is a complete calling station, that changes things a little and it's probably more advisable to bet because he will almost certainly call with a worse pair.
The wider the range of hands your opponent could feasibly call with, the more you should be inclined to bet. A little sub question you also may want to ask yourself here is 'what's the most I could bet and be called by a worse hand' – which is much more complicated, board and opponent specific, but definitely something to bare in mind.
Can I make better hands fold?
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, when you are trying to steal a pot you have to take a look at the board and ask yourself if the community cards have strengthened your opponents perceived range of hands or weakened them. There are some players who will continuation bet just about every flop, which is a massive leak and akin to spewing your chips away.
Just like a draw heavy broadway flop is the ideal sort of spot to value bet a hand because so many worse ones look you up, this also makes them the worst to bluff at. A 9-T-Q flop with two clubs is a terrible flop to bluff at, because there are so many combinations of realistic hands that will snap call: AA,KK,QQ,JJ,TT,99,AQ,KQ,KJ,AT,AJ,QJ,QT and any two cards for a flush draw all spring to mind. If the board is very coordinated then it's usually an awful spot to bluff.
Dry flops are good to bluff, because there are fewer hands that will call you. A flop like K-7-2 or A-9-3 rainbow are great to fire a continuation bet on, because your opponent needs at least an king or ace to continue. There are some dry flops that are also bad to bluff on, mainly low and paired flops like 2-2-6, because nobody is folding any pair in these spots and might even look you up with over cards.
As the board progresses, keep an eye out for 'scare cards' that you realistically could have hit that your opponent won't like. If the board pairs on the turn for example or completes a 4 flush, these are perfect spots to bluff at the pot because they are exactly the sort of cards that make an opponent play 'fit or fold' poker and they will either have it or don't. Big cards on low flops, like a king or ace on a previously 6 high flop can also become massive scare cards that are worth taking a bluff at.
Once you have got into the habit of asking this question, you should also start asking yourself "what's the least I can bet to get them to fold?" Over a long period of time, a big blind or two saved bluffing will massively improve your earn rate. Once again, this is very situation specific but I'd advocate experimenting with your bet sizing all the time to get an idea of what the smallest believable bet could be.
What do I do if I get reraised?
The final question I ask myself is maybe the most overlooked by overly aggressive players. Whenever you make a bet, unless it's an all-in bet, you stand a very good chance of getting reraised. This is where a lot of players become unstuck, they fire a bet out and act surprised when their opponent comes over the top on them and don't know how to respond to it. In particular this is troublesome in online poker, where you have a limited time bank to make your decision, so get into the habit of asking what you would do in the face of a reraise before you put yourself in that situation.
A good example is if you hold pocket kings on an A-6-7 board with two spades against a very loose-passive opponent. This is a spot where I would say that your opponent is capable of calling you with so many hands you beat that value betting your kings is the most profitable course of action, but what do you do if they reraise you? You suddenly are stuck between a rock and a hard place, all of a sudden contemplating that your passive opponent might be semi bluffing you with a draw.
If you decide what you would do before you bet, it makes the hand much easier to play out and you make an objective decision before you get reraised and your heart rate goes up clouding your judgement. If you decide that being reraised means your opponent has at least an ace before you bet, you can safely fold your hand when he does, instead of suddenly and erratically putting him on the only hand you can beat and going broke with your cowboys.
This might also help you determine whether you are better off betting at all, if you have for example a good but not amazing draw on the flop that you would normally bet with, it might not be good enough to call a reraise with and that might sway you towards actually check-calling instead. It might also inform how much you bet, if you have a hand you have decided you don't want to fold to a reraise, you might bet much more with it to pot commit yourself if reraised. Or, you might bet less with a hand so that you can call a reraise without committing too much of your stack or just fold and move on.
There are a million and one other questions one can ask yourself before betting, or before any action in poker, that probably need to be asked, but I have found that these three questions have really kept me out of trouble and helped me avoid spewing my money away. Get into to the habit of asking yourself these questions out loud yourself and I'm sure your decision making process will get a lot easier and a lot less stressful whenever you have a big pot on your hands.