What’s the right size for a no-limit poker bet?


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Casino Player.


In limit poker games, there’s only one permitted size for each bet and each raise. In no-limit games, you can bet anything from the size of the big blind on up to as many chips as you have on the table.

If you’ve watched a lot of Old West movies, you’ve probably seen someone bet and another opponent suddenly raise $50,000 or so. And the poor cowboy who made the bet is forced to squirm and say something like, “I don’t have enough money to call.”

“Well, I guess, I win then,” says the raiser, beginning to rake in an enormous pot.

“Wait! I call you with the deed to grandpa’s ranch.”

Always win

If poker had really been played like that, the player with the greatest resources could always win any pot by betting more than an opponent could afford. It would be as silly in real life as it is in the movies.

That’s why no-limit poker is played table stakes. If you have $1 million on the table and the most any opponent has is $5,000, then the biggest possible bet will be $5,000. You can wager the $1 million for show, but most of it won’t count.

So, no-limit isn’t really what the name implies. It is range limit. In a no-limit game with $25 and $50 blinds, you can bet anything from $50 on up to the maximum you have on the table that an opponent can equal. And here’s where it gets complicated.

Argument

There’s a popular argument that says that limit poker is actually more skillful than no-limit, because no-limit results center on just a few big bets. And, in no-limit, if you hold a big hand, you should usually “protect” it by moving all-in for all your chips. This is not true.

No-limit is much more complex and requires more skill than limit. Period.

When you play limit, you are only faced with decisions about whether to bet, raise, or call an exact amount. These limit bets lose their intimidation factor as the pot grows proportionally large. Maybe you’d like to bet $3,000 into a $2,000 pot, but you can’t. You can only bet $200.

It’s different

But no-limit is much different. You don’t just decide whether to bet or raise, you must decide how much. And that changes everything.

What’s a correct bet? Conventional wisdom says that an average bet is the size of the pot. That’s convenient, but I don’t like it.

For me, an average bet with a typical hand, strong enough to wager, but not unbeatable, will be less than the size of the pot. About two-thirds works well for me. I average bigger bets or slightly smaller ones in direct relation to the strength of my hands.

Deception

Notice I said that I average bigger bets. You can’t use a straight-line formula — with bigger hands resulting in correspondingly bigger bets — or opponents can gauge the strength of your hands by how much you bet. You need deception, but bigger hands should merit bigger bets, on average.

That brings us to another no-limit theory I dispute. It says that in no-limit games you should make your bets the same size, regardless of the strength of your hand.

That doesn’t compute. The thinking is that if you make all bets the same size, opponents won’t be able to infer the strength of your hand by the amount you wager.

Price tag

This theory fails, because when you choose the size of a bet, it’s like putting a price tag on something you’re selling in a store. More valuable stuff costs more. To price hands otherwise runs contrary to both common-sense and analytical poker reality.

Do as I recommend. Bigger hands equal bigger bets.

Throw in bluffs, too. And sometimes you’ll act deceptively to trap opponents when you hold those monster cards. Put that all together and no-limit is more sophisticated, more demanding, and more skillful than limit.

Final advice

Some players believe the best thing to do with a powerful hand is to move all-in, making your opponents pay the maximum should they try to draw out on you. This is wrong, too.

When you have a strong hand, you have something to sell. You want the best price possible.

If you hold two pair after the turn in hold ’em and your opponent is trying for a flush in a $10,000 pot, it’s about 4-to-1 against him drawing out on you. If you bet $2,500, he’ll be facing a pot of $12,500 (the original $10,000 plus your $2,500 bet) and it will cost him $2,500 to call.

You’re offering him pot odds of 5-to-1. You’re losing money on the sale – selling too cheaply.

The trick

The trick is to make your bet high enough so that your opponent isn’t getting the best of it by calling. Then add as much to that as you think will bring you the most long-term profit. Make your price is as high as possible without reaching the point where your opponent will call so infrequently that you would have earned more with a smaller wager.

When you hold that winning hand in no-limit, your bet should be large enough that your opponent isn’t getting the advantage by calling. Then see if you can price it higher for extra profit.

One of the key skills in no-limit poker is getting your opponents to pay too much. But if you always go all-in or price your hand too high, they might not buy. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

8 thoughts on “What’s the right size for a no-limit poker bet?”

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    1. So, where’s the fallacy if they still call?

      If you’re selling too cheap, that means the opponent is getting a good deal by calling the bet. You priced it too low.

      If you mean that they still call if you bet more than break even, that’s good. You got a higher price than the true value and the odds are now favorable to you.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  1. Hey Mike– Break a leg in your seminars– (I know IT will be a great Show!)— Still been extra busy; but hope to contac you soon. (::) C C>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

  2. Good article, Mike. But you missed a very important component of the game: Check-raise! This is very intimidating and it also gets a lot if “dead money” into the pot! If i’m holding the nuts, and I’m playing against an aggressive player, better for me to check, let my opponent make a big bet, then either call or raise. The bottom line is that less aggression equals more profit!! I invite your comments.

    1. Wouldn’t check-raising, as well as check-calling the flop and turn fall under ” And sometimes you’ll act deceptively to trap opponents when you hold those monster cards. Put that all together and no-limit is more sophisticated, more demanding, and more skillful than limit.”

      Sometimes less aggression equals more profit. Sometimes more aggression equals more profit. I remember when I was in love with check raising. At this point I’m known for doing that with the people I play with regularly, even though I rarely do it anymore. I’m not sure of the percentage of the times I lead out vs. the times I check-call or check raise, but I try to mix it up as much as possible with the people I regularly play with.

      When I’m in a game where I don’t know players well, I usually lead out. So much has been written and broadcast on disguising the strenght of your hand, and so many bluffs have been televised, that absent other information a lot of people go back to what they have read and seen on TV and that is act strong when you’re weak and act weak when you’re strong. Hitting them with the ol’ double whammy is fun, especially when they exclaim that betting out isn’t proper.

      Poker’s fun!

  3. Hi Mike,

    A situation that often comes up is when I hold a medium strength hand in position on a draw heavy flop. I will bet the flop and get checked called by someone. Now I am not certain if my opponent is on a draw or has a made hand stronger than mine. If the turn is a blank and he checks, I will often check behind for pot control, not wanting to get committed, and fear of getting check-raised. Often I’ll be happy to check it down with this type of holding.

    So if, indeed, he was on a draw, I would have given him a free card, which by many is viewed as a “mistake.” So my question, is it really a mistake? For example, in 2/5 NLHE with $500 effective stack sizes, I hold QQ on a board of Ks7s3d7d and my opponent has Js10s and the pot is $150. If I check, and assuming I always fold when the flush comes and my opponent bets (no reverse implied odds), I will still win about 80% of the time and show a profit over time even if it is a smaller profit than if I had bet the turn.

    Flopped Sets,
    Greg

    1. I’d like to see Mike’s reply to this as well but I’m sure the short anwser is “it depends”.

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