Discover how to master the art of bet sizing in this extract from Dusty Schmidt and Paul Hoppe’s new book Poker In Practice: Critical Concepts
As the name implies, no-limit hold’em is a game of many possibilities. While there is not literally no-limit (you can’t bet or raise more than the chips you have remaining), you usually have a wide range of potential bet sizes to choose from. Yet, despite the fact that this flexible betting is the defining feature of no-limit poker, most people don’t pay enough attention to bet sizing.
There’s a multi-tabling culture with so many similarities across players. There’s a typical mid-stakes pro approach. Standard play, standard line, in-the-bubble thinking with bet sizing. There are ‘standard bets’ of two-thirds the pot. There are full-pot bets that will be skewed towards either bluffs or monsters. There are half-pot bets which embody a mentality of, ‘I’m not quite sure what to do so I half-pot it.’
There’s an opportunity to exploit this standardised system of betting. It’s ironic, because players are using a standardised system to avoid getting exploited. They’re choosing to limit their arsenal to three weapons. To mix metaphors, they’ve only got three brushes to paint with. They’re limited.
The game is called no-limit. Having a wide variety of bet sizes is an asset. A lot of the time, you can get away with sizing your bets and raises however you want. Most players will not really pound on you based on that bet sizing. Players are often taught these days to have structure in a game that was created not to have structure. No-limit affords you so many different options, but people pare it down to very few options. To get an edge in today’s tough games, it’s not enough to paint with three brushes. You need to constantly observe and adapt. You need to invent new ways to exploit people.
Bet sizing is more of a general concept than a specific play, but it’s so important. Different bet sizes can accomplish different goals. Creative bet sizing can lead to cheaper bluffs or more value.
It’s true that observant players can take advantage of differing bet sizes which telegraph the bettor’s intentions. Fortunately, there are also lots of unobservant players who will not take advantage of your bet sizing. They will not notice whether you bet small for value, as a bluff, or with a well-balanced mixture of both. They will not notice whether your half-pot bets, full-pot bets, or overbets mean different things. Maybe they’ll think about these things a bit, but they won’t draw actionable conclusions. They won’t exploit your tendencies. That’s what makes them so fun to play with.
Be careful with observant players, but don’t be afraid to mix up your sizing against them. As long as you observe their adjustments to your bet sizes, you can make your own adjustments and take advantage of any information you’ve given away. Good for them if they know what you’re thinking. But if you know that they know what you’re thinking…yeah. You can use that.
Three keys to bet sizing
Bet sizing is a complex subject. As we’ve mentioned, it’s the defining characteristic of no-limit hold’em. There’s as much art to it as there is science. But the sizing of every bet can be broken down into three primary considerations:
- What pot odds the bet offers a potential caller.
- How much money is left behind in relation to the pot size (after a call).
- What range of hands someone will use this bet for, or what range of hands your opponents will perceive you have when you make this bet.
Thinking about these three factors will help you with all of your bet-sizing decisions. The first two are basically maths problems. That’s not what we are really focusing on here. Our focus here is to help you learn what your opponents’ bet sizes mean and how your potential bet sizes might be interpreted.
What specific bet sizes mean
We can’t tell you what all the bets you face mean. This is something that will always depend on your opponent’s tendencies, and sometimes even when and where you are playing. But we can give you some thoughts about what many players are doing these days. Here are some observations that Dusty has made in the games he’s currently playing in. They may or may not hold true in the games that you play. Keep your eyes open and make adjustments if your opponents are behaving differently. These plays will keep changing over time, so always keep your eyes peeled and keep thinking about the game.
Whether it comes from in or out of position, a minimum bet of one big blind is something you’ll rarely see from a strong player. That’s not to say that there is never a situation where a min-bet can be justified, but these bets come almost exclusively from weak players. They also almost always represent a weak hand, particularly if the min-bet comes on the turn or river. If your hand has any showdown value whatsoever, at least a call down is warranted. If you’re facing a min-bet and you don’t have anything, or your showdown value is very thin, putting in an overbet raise will almost always win the pot. If you have a strong hand, then it’s probably better to make a raise that your opponent might be able to call. Again, these bets almost invariably come from weak players, so balancing your range should be the last thing on your mind. If the min-bet comes on the flop, then you can either peel with anything and wait for the turn, or make a move now.
- Half pot
Whether the bet is exactly half the size of the pot, a little more or a little less, these bets are typically skewed towards medium-strength made hands or out-of-position draws looking for a cheap card. Recently, people have begun to balance their half-pot continuation bets better. They’ll lead for half pot with a hand like Ad-Qc on Qh-5d-2c. (This is not a bad way to play the hand.) So you can make a play against half-pot bets from players who don’t balance like this, but keep your eyes open. Know your opponents.
- Two-thirds pot
This is a pretty generic c-bet size. Anything from 60% to 80% is sort of the perfect readless bet. It’s never going to be too wrong. This makes it a good default bet size in almost any situation. Most good players will default to this. You could say that other bet sizes can be judged in relation to how they differ from this common bet size. But while this is a good, nondescript bet size, some players will lean towards 80% with their strong hands and 60% with their weaker hands. When you discover a bet-sizing tell like that, exploit it like an Oreo cookie. Yum.
- Full pot
This larger-than-average bet size typically represents a polarized range. It will be used with strong hands in an effort to maximise value. It will also be used as a bluff by players who are trying to get more folds than they think smaller bets will yield. There are players who bet full pot or close to pot most of the time, so make sure that this is an uncommon bet size for your opponent before assuming his range is completely polarised. Further, many good players have been learning to balance their large bets better. For example, if multiple draws whiff, they might bet full pot with their strong one-pair hands, exploiting the fact that they can get called down by several bluff catchers.
Any bet that is substantially larger than the size of the pot is usually indicative of a very polarised range. It’s the nuts, close to the nuts, a hand that feels like the nuts, or a bluff. The only time you’ll see a marginal hand being overbet is when it’s being turned into a bluff.
When thinking about making an unusually sized bet, you must always consider how your opponent will interpret your sizing. Is he observant enough to gain any information from it? If he is observant enough, is he courageous enough to act on that observation? Will the bet size affect what range of hands he’ll call you with? Do you want to encourage or discourage a call?
When someone sees you min-bet, they’re likely to think you’re a weak player. If they know you’re not, they may think you’ve misclicked. While you should rarely bet the minimum, it’s possible that you can find a use for this play. If you min-bet in position and your opponent just calls, in essence you’ve forced them to check twice, which makes the weakness of their hand plain to see.
- Half pot
Strong opponents are likely to interpret a half-pot bet as a sign of weakness early on in a hand, or as a bet looking for a crying call later in the hand. Making your c-bet bluffs smaller against unobservant players can yield as many folds as a larger bet. And betting even less than half pot can often get players to fold their busted draws (which may still beat you) even if they think you’re unlikely to be very strong. Avoid making this sort of underbet against very aggressive, bluff-happy opponents, unless you actually want to induce a raise.
- Two-thirds pot
As mentioned in the last section, this is a pretty good default bet size in most situations. If your opponents are oblivious, you can bet a little bit more with your strong hands and a little bit less with your weak hands. But be careful against stronger opposition. It’s hard to make a big mistake by making most of your bets exactly two-thirds pot, so you should do that if you’re worried about giving a particular opponent too much information.
- Full pot
This is a good bet size for extracting maximum value from weak opponents with inelastic calling ranges. If your opponent is likely to call a pot-sized bet with the same range he’d call a two-thirds pot bet, then go ahead and make the larger bet. This is a solid exploitative play. You can also make your bluffs the size of the pot when you’re against players with very elastic calling ranges. If a full-pot bet will get them to fold a lot of hands that a smaller bet won’t, it can be worthwhile to make the extra investment. Sometimes a pot-sized bet is enough to elicit the, ‘oh crap’ response that we’ll discuss shortly.
Against weak, calling-station types of players, an overbet is often the best way to win the maximum with your best hands. When you think your hand is almost always good and your opponent will call a very large bet with many hands, this is a great way to maximise value. Another great use for the overbet is against players who know that this bet size is a good way to get value out of very strong hands. While they may realise that your range is polarised (either very strong or a total bluff), their emotions will often get the better of them and lead them to fold. Let’s face it. When the plan is to call down against normal bets, our first reaction to an overbet is often, ‘oh crap.’ So when you know that your opponent cannot have a very strong hand (for example, his range is capped), an overbet can be an excellent way to exploit him.
To buy your copy of Poker In Practice: Critical Concepts, with excellent real-life hand examples of how to use the concepts, click here. You can also check out Schmidt and Hoppe’s website www.pokerisaskill.com for much more free strategy content.