Five Weak Reasons to Bet (and One Weak Reason Not To)
In my previous columns I strongly state that there are only two fundamental reasons to bet — for value or as a bluff. Yet there are many other reasons experts often cite as reasons to bet. Today I will show why these are not primary reasons to bet. Indeed, they can often lead us astray.
A reminder — we're focusing primarily on low-stakes live cash games such as are played in Las Vegas (defined as "Donkey Poker" in an earlier column).
Here are five such "weak" reasons for betting, especially in such low-stakes live games, followed by one more weak reason not to bet.
1. Don't Bet for Information
We often hear a player say something like "I bet to see where I was." This sounds reasonable since we know that poker is a game of incomplete information. It's natural to want to know as much as possible. But this is actually a weak reason for betting.
Suppose we flop second pair, and bet to "see where we are." Will we get useful information when the villain folds? Not really, since the hand is now finished. "I was ahead. Perhaps I should have checked or bet less."
Suppose the villain calls. Do we glean much useful information now? All we really know is that the villain has a hand with which he is willing to call. Are we ahead or behind? Is the villain floating? Trapping? Is this information worth a negative-EV bet?
Suppose the villain raises. Now the information seems to be "I was behind and wasted my bet." Or is it really? Perhaps we were ahead and the villain was bluffing. Villains often lie, so the "information" isn't always what it seems to be! Is this information worth the cost?
Of course, we will sometimes get useful information from the villain's response to our bet, but it should not be the main reason we make a bet. It's mostly just a useful side benefit. We will also get useful information with a check and when the villain checks or bets on the next street. Information will come our way with patience, ideally after +EV decisions.
2. Don't Bet to Protect Your Hand
There are two circumstances when a player might "bet to protect" his hand. The first is obviously incorrect. The second is much more subtle.
We often hear an opponent say "I shoved to keep him from drawing out on me." The mistake here is not the betting, but the overbetting of his hand. Most of us have seen many examples of this mistake.
A player has pocket jacks and opens to $25 in a Vegas $1/$2 game, when he would normally open to $12. He is trying to "protect" his jacks by overbetting. He doesn't really want anyone to call. But this overbet just makes it more likely he will only be called by a superior range, which is not the outcome he should want for a value bet.
Suppose a player has pocket kings and opens to $15, getting two callers. The flop comes and he shoves for $140 into the $40 pot. Again, he thinks he is protecting his hand against the draws. But he is really just folding out inferior combos that might have provided him with value if he had bet a smaller amount.
When we have a hand we can value bet, our goal is to bet the optimal amount — that is, the amount that returns the highest long-term profit. We don't try to "protect" our hand; we try to charge our opponents for the right to chase us.
These examples refer to a weak player's tendency to overbet to protect a value hand. But sometimes such players will try to protect a weak hand against a villain's equity by making a negative-EV bet.
Suppose a player has on a board. His bet will certainly be called by any superior hand. He might also be called by and a few other random hands. So he doesn't appear to have a value bet opportunity. But he is worried that a check gives a free card to someone with an ace or a queen. So he bets, thinking he is protecting his hand. He wants to deny those villains their (slim) equity.
This is wrong-headed. His first thought should be "will my bet be the ++EV play," not "should I bet to protect my equity."
We sometimes hear an expert say that a player has bet to protect his hand. To some extent, this may simply be a sloppy semantics problem. He might really mean "he has a value bet opportunity here, and his bet will charge his opponent for the right to chase him." This is a much more awkward phrasing, so the expert uses the short-cut phrase.
The problem with the "bet-to-protect" meme is that it plants an incorrect concept in the minds of many players. In reality, betting rarely actually protects our hand. Does a bet protect us against a superior combo? Not often. Do we want inferior combos to fold to our value bet? No, we want them to call. Are we protected when they call? Nope, but we make more money when they do.
We should not bet to protect our hand — we should bet to maximize our EV.
3. Don't Make Blocking Bets
A blocking bet is usually a small bet made to discourage a villain from making a larger one.
For example, suppose we are on the river with a hand we think is likely to be behind the villain's calling range. If we check, we expect the villain to bet $50 into the $100 pot, so we bet only $25, hoping the villain will just call. Our bet is designed to let us see the showdown more cheaply.
The problem with this strategy is twofold. First, we should bet for value when we are ahead of the villain's calling range. We should then bet the optimal amount, usually more than the size of a blocking bet. Otherwise we should not bet at all unless we have a profitable bluff opportunity. We should then size our bet to achieve sufficient fold equity.
The second problem is that our out-of-position blocking bet is often obvious to an observant villain. He may realize that we are either milking a very strong hand or unsure about a weak one. When this villain can eliminate our strong hands by our previous actions, he can exploit our blocking bet by bluff-raising.
We should banish the very idea of making a blocking bet — think "value" or "bluff," and otherwise check.
4. Don't Bet for Balance
Balancing our play is an important concept in medium-stakes online games. This is one consequence of online tracking programs which allow savvy players to determine precisely how we play. Data mining is a real threat online, even at the low stakes $0.50/$1.00 NLH games.
But balancing concepts do not often apply to low-stakes live cash games, where it is virtually impossible to track a particular villain's stats. Consequently, we rarely should bet (or check) merely to balance our range. Instead, we should always make our best EV play, based on our current circumstances.
If we are considering a bluff, then we bluff because it makes the most money, not to balance our range for some future situation. Our bluffs are rarely revealed, anyway. And when they are, low-stakes live players will rarely adjust to them.
Live NLH is a very slow-moving game. The same bluffing situation rarely comes up within the practical memory timescale of most villains. Rather than taking a line to balance our play against the multitude of players who don't notice, we should adjust to the rare player who has adjusted to us. Then we can exploit him by an appropriate counter-adjustment.
Our primary thought should be "exploitation," not "balance."
5. Don't Bet to Manipulate Your Image
Image manipulating is a somewhat controversial topic. Loose-aggressive players often claim that their short term negative-EV plays induce their opponents to make mistakes in future hands, making it a long term +EV play.
I suspect that this argument may be the result of a cognitive bias, looking for a reason to justify the style that they want to play. In any case, I disagree with the idea of betting to manipulate your image, at least for low-stakes live games.
The main problem is too few low-stakes players pay close attention to what we are doing. They usually play on the first level (caring mostly about their own hand strength). They don't adapt to our play unless we make it extreme. Therefore... we shouldn't waste chips advertising to the oblivious!
And even if a few villains can be exploited this way, these opportunities will be few and far between. We would need to make lots of these negative-EV plays in order to get noticed since most of our hands are never revealed. So we make many negative-EV plays in the hope that we will eventually realize a big positive-EV result that balances the ledger. This is just wishful thinking. Few low-stakes players are skillful enough to pull this off.
A much better strategy is to own the image we have generated by playing our strong exploitive game. Then we exploit our own image when the opportunity arises.
Finally... Don't "Not-Bet" for Pot Control
I have discussed several weak reasons for betting. But there is a related weak reason for not betting.
We often hear a player say "I checked behind for pot control." What he is really saying is that he checked because he was afraid he might be behind. He thinks he has a one-street hand, so he checks to minimize his risk. He wants to see a cheap showdown. This is a weak reason to "not-bet."
Suppose a player has on an flop. He believes he only has a one-street hand, so he checks behind for pot control. But there is usually a value bet opportunity here, since many inferior combos will call. So a bet should be +EV. Although a check behind might also be +EV, the player's decision should be based on what he thinks will make the most money in the hand.
Suppose he value bets and gets called, and the turn is the . Now his hand has transformed into a possible three-street hand, which he can maximally exploit. If he had checked the flop, he would have lost some of this value. If the turn is the , he can consider checking behind if he believes he doesn't have a value bet opportunity.
We should make each play based on what we believe will make the most money in the hand. We should not automatically think "I have a one-street hand, so I'll check."
Steve Selbrede has been playing poker for 20 years and writing about it since 2012. He is the author of five books, The Statistics of Poker, Beat the Donks, Donkey Poker Volume 1: Preflop, Donkey Poker Volume 2: Postflop, and Donkey Poker Volume 3: Hand Reading.