Cash game strategy: When should you c-bet if you’ve missed the flop?

Live cash game pro Bart Hanson explains when you should and shouldn’t continuation bet with air in cash games

One of the most common situations in no-limit hold’em is when you raise preflop, either with a value hand or as a steal, and you miss the flop. But how do you determine whether you are going to continuation bet bluff? The best way is to use something I like to call the C-bet Matrix. It will help you determine if you should fire that c-bet or just check and give up. 

The C-bet Matrix is made up of nine c-bet factors and your table image. Simply put, you rank the c-bet factors from one to ten and add it to your image, which you also rank from one to ten. When you look at each of these factors, one would be the worst possible situation to c-bet and ten would be the best possible time to c-bet. You then add that score to your table image, which you also rank from one (the worst image possible) to ten (the God Image, where everyone fears you).

The nine c-bet factors

1. Number of players in the hand 

The most important factor and it should be obvious that, generally, the fewer players the better. The sweet spot is one or two players calling your raise preflop. Any more players and the rating goes down. However, it’s not necessarily better to have only one caller. Sometimes it can look stronger to bet into two players. If you’re new to NLHE and you’re still getting your feet wet, it’s never a terrible idea to shut it down when you miss the flop and three or more players have called your raise.

2. Board texture 

It’s important to play off your opponent’s range. There are two types of boards that are good to c-bet bluff:

  •  One and done boards: where there’s one high card with two lower disconnected cards like A-7-2 or K-7-3. Generally speaking, you should fire once into these kinds of boards.
  •  Multi-barrel boards such as T-4-2, 9-2-3 or T-2-2. Plan on firing more than one bullet, especially if scare cards hit the turn. Scare cards are usually overcards, but they could be low blanks. For example, the flop is 8-7-2 rainbow and you fire into two people. The first guy folds and the last guy to act calls. Because he was the last to act, he could easily be calling you light. The turn is a Three. We know the Three didn’t complete a straight draw and in all likelihood it didn’t give your opponent two pair, so firing again might get your opponent off a Seven, an Eight or a low pocket pair like 4-4.

3. Stack Sizes

This is one of the most overlooked factors, especially important in smaller cash games that have capped buy-ins. You really need to pay attention to what your opponent’s stack size is. Against the short stacks, you have to decrease the amount of time you c-bet bluff because…

  •  Opponents will check-jam on you a lot forcing you into awful spots where you are pot committed.
  • You don’t have the ability to multi-barrel even if the board dictates it is the best play.

4. Equity within your own hand

Simply put, the more equity you have in your hand postflop, the more you should be c-bet bluffing. 

5. Position 

C-bet bluffing in position is much better than c-bet bluffing out of position. Being last to act is a huge advantage.

6. Your opponent’s range preflop 

Evaluate what kind of hand your opponent is calling preflop with. As always, the more information you have on your opponent, the better. What is his limp-calling range? What is his flat-calling range?

7. Skill level of your opponent 

This is not necessarily something you need to worry about at the lower limits, but if you’re in a tough game against tough competition, factoring in the skill level of your opponent is important because your good opponent is not playing fit or fold. He knows you’re probably going to c-bet a T-4-2 rainbow board, so when you do, he can float in position with a plan to take it away on a later street.

8. Your own VPIP 

Essentially, if you aren’t opening very often, it makes sense that when you do open, your range is significantly stronger than others. This allows you to c-bet bluff more often because you should be getting more respect from your opponents. Be aware that some opponents just aren’t paying attention.

9. How sticky your opponent is 

We all know players who will literally call with any pair, any draw, any gutshot. You should be c-bet bluffing these guys less often and value-betting thinly more often. Depending on how sticky your opponent is, you might double-barrel these guys more if you think they are the type to call the flop with anything, but fold the turn when they don’t improve. 

Adding it up

Take all these factors into account and try to figure out the situation. What does it all add up to? If the combined score for both your image and the c-bet factor is in the top 50% – for example, your image is a four and the c-bet factor is a six – then you should fire the c-bet. If the c-bet factor is a two, you’ll need a God-like image – eight or higher – to fire the c-bet.

Your image is important when determining whether to c-bet bluff or not. And I’ll take it further. Being aware of how each player at the table perceives you is important. For example, if I’m losing badly, my image might be a two to opponents I’ve been with all day. But, let’s say, an opponent shows up late, hasn’t seen me lose a pot and in fact, the last time we played, I absolutely owned his soul. What’s my image specifically to him? Maybe a seven?

Clearly this isn’t an exact science, but if you get an idea of what factors go into the decision, you should feel a lot more comfortable the next time the most common situation in NLHE comes up.

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