Betting: When, Why and How

In this article, I aim to improve your knowledge when it comes to understanding the foremost theoretical reasons for betting both before and after the flop. I will provide strategy for betting patterns after the flop. As well as applied examples and mathematics in order to clearly illustrate critical learning points. By the end I hope that you will have a thorough understanding of how to approach poker betting situations within your own games in an attempt to improve their overall poker ability on the felt.

How to Bet in Poker

Poker: A game of stealing blinds

Understanding why we bet in poker is one of the most fundamental concepts that poker players of any ability must learn. The two players to the direct left of the dealer button must post the blinds respectively before the hand commences, with the small blind being worth half of the value of the big blind. The blinds effectively act as a ‘tax’, which each player must pay once per orbit in order to be dealt into the game. If no blinds existed in poker then it would make no sense for anybody to put chips in the pot preflop without the best hand i.e pocket aces since there is no value to them of betting any other hands since they stand to gain nothing.

After the preflop betting, we see a flop and players act in turn starting with the player to the direct left of the dealer with a clockwise progression.  It is after the flop (postflop) that the reasons for betting become somewhat more sophisticated and one of the first stages of improving your poker game is realizing that we don’t only bet in poker when we believe that we have a better hand than our opponent. But before we get into the intricacies of postflop betting, it makes sense to first understand the meaning of absolute and relative hand strength.

Absolute vs Relative Hand Strength

Understanding absolute hand strength is very simple; it is quite literally what the two cards you hold combined with the community cards give you. For example, A2 on a flop of A27 gives you two pairs. K♥Q♥ on J♥9♥3♥ gives you a flush. Whereby A6 on QJ4 gives you just ace high. I expect that most of you here will be familiar with the different hand rankings of poker and which ones are better than others. If not, then before continuing I urge you to visit the ‘Poker Hands’ article on our site, which will explain all you need to know. It goes without saying that the higher up the poker hands rankings order a hand is, the stronger it is and the more difficult it is to make. For example, the probability of flopping one pair is 32.3%, two pairs just 4% and a flush only 0.84% of the time!

Conversely, relative hand strength is more of a gray area for poker players and relates to how strong your hand is in absolute terms relative to what community cards the board is displaying. To illustrate, I will present the following situations.

When to Bet in Poker

Scenario 1:

Holecards: K♥J♥        Flop: J♦ 2♥ 9♦             Turn: 3♣         River: 4♥

Holecards: K♥J♥        Flop: A♠ J♦ 4♣             Turn: 4♦         River: T♦

Scenario 2:

Holecards: A♣7♥        Flop: A♥ 2♦ 7♣          Turn: 6♦         River: 9♠

Holecards: A♣7♥        Flop: A♥ K♦ 7♣           Turn: K♦         River: 8♥

Scenario 3:

Holecards: J♠T♠         Flop: A♠ 9♠ K♣           Turn: 6♠         River: 2♣

Holecards: J♠T♠         Flop: A♠ K♠ A♥           Turn: 9♠         River: K♣

In the first scenario we see that both boards give our player a pair of jacks by the river, which is the hand’s absolute strength. However, we can see that on the second board our pair of jacks is much weaker relatively speaking. If our opponent holds any 4, A or two diamond cards we can be beaten. This will in turn influence how we may want to strategise our betting after the flop.

Scenario 2 and 3 illustrates how our hand’s relative strength can change given how the board changes. The second board in Scenario 2 shows that our flopped two pair of aces and sevens is much weaker. Since on the turn, the king pairs the board and our hand loses to any ace with a second unpaired card (kicker) greater than a seven or any king. Likewise, in Scenario 3 on the first board our turned flush is a very strong hand by the river only losing to higher flushes, but on the second board loses to any ace or king which makes a full house.

Reasons to bet: Postflop

The most fundamental reason to bet post flop is because we believe that our hand is stronger than our opponent’s. This is known as a value bet since we are trying to get our opponent to put more money in the pot against our holding whereby we expect to be able to win at showdown after the river. Since correctly value betting and making your opponent put money in the pot with a losing hand is the main way we profit from poker, its importance cannot be exaggerated enough. However, as illustrated by the above scenarios, it is imperative that as a player you must know when you should no longer value bet due to the changeability of the board on later streets. Value betting hands that are too weak (also called value betting too thinly) will lead to you losing money in the long run.

The second reason that we may wish to bet postflop is in order to protect our equity or thin the field. The easiest way to explain what this means is to use a classic poker example where a player’s pocket aces are cracked on the river by a gutshot (one card) straight draw! Since the cards your opponent holds have a chance of beating yours and winning the pot, they have what is known as ‘equity’ in the pot, simply the probability that by the river their holding wins at showdown.

In the cases of pocket aces as an overpair versus a naked gutshot, the chance of the straight draw on the flop winning by the river is roughly 16%. In many cases, if the pocket aces was to bet on the flop, turn or river the gutshot would fold their equity in the pot and aces would win without showdown and as a result protecting their equity in the pot.

Postflop Buff

Finally, a player may wish to bet postflop as a bluff. Without going too in depth about other topics I wish to cover at a later date (such as semi-bluffing, value-bluffing and blockers), a bluff is when we bet trying to make our opponent fold a better hand so that we can win what money is already in the pot. This is similar to why we raise preflop to steal the blinds. However, it is less important than correct value betting since we are relying upon our opponents to make folds that they simply may, or should, not do. One of the great skills of poker is knowing how and when you can make your opponent fold a better hand and is often what separates the good from the world-class players. It is a skill that increases in importance as you improve and move up stakes.

Postflop betting strategy: The continuation bet

Finally, we reach what is possibly the most basic but arguably most powerful tool in any poker player’s arsenal the continuation bet or c-bet. The c-bet is simply when, as the preflop raiser, you continue your aggression by betting on the flop. Since poker is essentially a game of applied statistics we will approach the c-bet from a mathematical standpoint in order to illustrate it’s effectiveness. We will revisit content covered in our site’s article entitled ‘Poker odds, implied odds and pot size’ which I advise any of you to read if you have not done so already.

Calculating your Bet

Let us say for argument’s sake that we raise preflop to 3 big blinds (3bb) from the button after it folds around to us and we get one caller, the player acting last in the big blind itself. We see a flop of: K♥ 2♣ 7♠ and the pot is 6.5bb, if we were to c-bet this board to a reasonable size of 3bb our opponent must fold just 31.5% of the time in order to make it a profitable play, the calculation of which is (where x is probability player folds):

Postflop Betting

Since we saw earlier that you flop a pair only 32.3% of the time and then further consider that there are no draws on the board that a player may call with and most players may be aggressive with holdings preflop such as AK it is clear why the continuation bet is such a strong part of any poker player’s arsenal. If you are still not convinced, then it should be of note that this break-even calculation does not take into consideration the equity that our own hands have in the pot, such as when we hold KQ and stand to win at showdown a high percentage of the time.

Betting Conclusion

Knowing when, why and how to bet in poker is instrumental in your endeavor to make a profit. Hopefully, this article has helped you understand the principals behind why we bet, how the understanding of relative hand strength can aid you in betting post flop and basic poker strategy that will enable you to profit from your opponents the next time you are on the felt. Good luck at the tables!

Patrick Sekinger is from the UK and is an avid poker enthusiast, currently playing both live and online as a professional poker player. Patrick plays all formats of NLHE, however specialises in 100bb cash games and you will find him regularly playing in the small stakes games on Pokerstars.

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