When to bet in poker

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

You know me, I’ve been a draw poker fan forever. I see no good reason why that form of poker — the traditional game where they wagered the deed to the ranch in those Old West movies — should have fallen from favor.

Back in the late 1970s, just when several world-class players and a few publications proclaimed that I was the best draw poker player alive, everyone quit playing it in public casinos. Did I feel sad? No! I felt flattered that they had retired a game in my honor. Sort of like retiring your number after an outstanding football career, right?

Anyway, subtract the public casinos and draw poker remains the most familiar poker game in America. No, it’s not seven-card stud or hold ’em. How do I know? I’ll tell you. About five years ago, I was spokesman for Canadian Mist whiskey, and we promoted amateur poker tournaments around the country.

What we learned from the first one in Minnesota was that there was no way we were going to be able to use hold ’em as our game of choice. Few casual players knew how to play it, or had ever heard of it. A couple of players proudly boasted that they were familiar with hold ’em, but the game they described was not the game you and I know. While most players did understand seven-card stud, the procedures they were familiar with varied widely. Many played in games where the betting started with just two cards down, instead of two cards down and one up. (Note added 2011: Remember, this was written first written in 1982. Hold ’em is understood by most serious players today, due to its wide exposure on television and online.)

So, we quickly advertised that old-fashioned five-card draw poker would be the tournament game, and everyone was happy.

That’s why I still use draw poker as an example game when teaching many poker concepts. Everyone knows what I’m talking about. While the topic today is about when to bet, and the concepts apply to all games, I’m using draw poker as an example. The following has been slightly modified from a column that first appeared in the April, 1982 issue of Gambling Times magazine…

A quiz about betting.
Let me ask you a question. Suppose you’re playing five-card draw, jacks or better required to open. The game is eight handed and you open in next-to-last position (seventh seat) with a pair of kings. Now the dealer calls. You each draw three. You make kings-up.

Should you bet or check?

If you answered bet, you probably favor an aggressive style of poker frequently advocated in this column. If you said check, you may tend to be cautious, particularly in borderline situations. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Caution is often a valuable tool in poker.

In my heart, I was really hoping that you wouldn’t attempt to answer the question. Poker is a science of blended psychology and mathematics. The best strategy for a given hand is not always simple to discover. Sometimes it requires weighing many things very quickly under the pressure of high-stakes combat.

Here’s what your hand looks like after drawing three…

K♠ K♦ 7♠ 7♦ 4♣

Gee, this is the sort of situation that comes up all the time in draw poker, isn’t it? If you knew what to do at times like this, you’d be on your way to poker stardom. Maybe I can help.

To bet or not to bet?
Here are the ground rules for this discussion. We’re talking about a form of draw poker where a joker is included in the deck. (It counts as an ace or serves to complete a straight or a flush.) The ante is $2 per player; bets are $10 before the draw and $20 after. Now we get to play a game called, “You should be more inclined to bet if. . . ”

Get out your favorite pencil and a piece of paper. For each statement, write “Bet ” if the information makes betting more appetizing. Otherwise, write “Check. ”

  1. Your opponent has only $15 dollars left;
  2. Your opponent would not have come in with less than a pair of aces;
  3. Your opponent will never raise with less than a full house;
  4. Your opponent bluffs a lot;
  5. Your opponent will call with a pair of queens or better;
  6. Your opponent will not call with less than aces-up;
  7. Your opponent always raises with three-of-a-kind;
  8. Your opponent will never raise as a bluff;
  9. Your opponent will raise as a bluff most of the time;
  10. Your opponent never calls unless he helps;
  11. You opponent’s wife is standing behind him;
  12. Your opponent is a timid player who calls readily but seldom takes the initiative;
  13. Your opponent makes an obvious move for his chips before you decide what to do;
  14. Your opponent is looking in the other direction, appearing distracted;
  15. Your opponent is easy to read whenever he bets;
  16. You have discarded an ace;
  17. Your opponent will bluff approximately the right percentage of time if you check to him;
  18. Your opponent has looked at his three new cards and keeps staring at them while waiting for you to act;
  19. Your opponent has been losing heavily and is emotionally upset;
  20. Your opponent has just bought you a cup of coffee.

Answers and analysis.
Now I’ll discuss each of these points, but remember this: The list does not include the most important factor of all. Your image. How your opponent relates to you at the moment – whether he’s confident or intimidated – has a big bearing on whether you should bet. But for this quiz, we’ll assume your image is neutral and not a factor.

Answers

  1. I’ll accept either bet or check, as long as your logic is correct. This was given as the first question to show that even when you’ve listed the factors to be weighed, you won’t necessarily know on which side of the scale to weigh them. A player who has less than the full bet in front of him cannot raise, therefore your bet is safer than usual. However, he may be reluctant to call with his last money, deciding to fold unless he has at least three of a kind. This would make it better to check, since you’ll only get called if you lose.
  2. Bet. Players tend to call with a pair of aces against another three card draw, especially if the bettor has a loose image. Of course, the fact that this opponent can’t improve to losing hands such as queens-up weighs against your bet. Still, all things considered, this goes on the Bet side of the scale.
  3. Bet. You can throw your hand away safely if you get raised.
  4. Check with the intention of calling. Try to lure the bet if you can.
  5. Bet. This is exactly what you’re hoping for.
  6. Check. You’d just be betting into trouble with no prospect of gain.
  7. Check. Unless you can safely lay down your hand to a raise (because your opponent has a tell or because he never bluffs), this can be an expensive bet.
  8. Bet. You won’t have to pay off a raise. This is similar to #3.
  9. Bet with the intention of calling a raise. This very profitable play also works well against aggressive players with strong egos.
  10. Check. Now you have no chance of being called by a lone pair of aces (or less). Being called by a pair of aces is the main reason why a borderline bet with kings-up is profitable.
  11. Check. As discussed in my Mike Caro’s Book of Tells, a player is less likely to bluff or make marginal calls when a friend or relative is watching. Players fear embarrassment.
  12. Bet. Timid players who call a lot but seldom raise are about the easiest opponents you can hope for. Bet all your marginal hands into this breed.
  13. Bet. Again from Mike Caro’s Book of Tells we know that this is normally an act intended to keep us from betting.
  14. Check. Another tell. This player has helped his hand and will bet. Your two-step strategy is simple: 1) Check 2) Pass when your opponent bets.
  15. Check. Maybe he’ll bet and then you’ll know exactly what to do.
  16. Bet, especially if your opponent is likely to begin with aces. The fact that you discarded an ace makes it harder for him to make trips. That means you’re less likely to be raised and, therefore, your bet is safer. (Unfortunately, the presence of an ace in your hand also makes it less likely that the opponent has a pair of aces to call with.)
  17. Bet. If your opponent bets and bluffs the appropriate amount of times from game-theory standpoint, you will not be able to profit after checking. (In fact, you’ll lose money because correct strategy here dictates that you call most of the time —in defense of a bluff — and lose most of the time! An exception would be if this opponent frequently began with less than aces and often bets two small pair for value. Then you’d win a larger than normal share by calling. But that’s beyond the scope of this article.)Anyway, you might as well seize the initiative and bet, provided you have reasonable chances of being called by an inferior hand. If your opponent will frequently fold aces-up (which isn’t likely), you might even consider betting for that reason.
  18. Bet. A classic tell. He doesn’t have anything worth staring at: it’s just an act. Fire into him!
  19. Bet. Emotionally damaged poker players typically call everything that moves.
  20. Check. Players who feel they’ve befriended you won’t make marginal calls. Therefore you have nothing to gain by betting, unless you somehow can get aces-up to fold-which is almost impossible in limit poker.

What have we learned?
What was this lesson about? How to play kings-up? No. Draw poker? No.

My message is: Be aware of as many things about an opponent as you can. Everything you analyze will make your bet, call or raise either more or less favorable. Some things are very important, others have almost no bearing, but everything you consider helps at least a little.

My list did not include all that should be contemplated. In fact, the list did not necessarily contain the most important things. It was merely an example of how disciplined thought can help you make the winning choices.

The most important factor governing whether or not you should bet a marginal hand is how your opponent feels about you. If he considers you wild, crazy and bizarre, he’s more likely to call. If he thinks you’re conservative, your marginal bets will be wasted, but you can successfully bluff more often.

There are four main images I use in a poker game: Crazy, angry, drunk, and professional. (Note: That was written in 1982, I stopped my rare experimentation with angry or drunk images in the early 1990s.) In some future book or column, I’ll explain each of these in detail. The art of conveying the right impression is very important in the poker universe. Several articles and poker books mention no-win advertising plays I’ve supposedly attempted. A lot of these stories are exaggerated.

Nevertheless, crazy and erratic is usually the thing to strive for in a limit game. Your opponents find it very intimidating when they can’t figure out what’s coming next. I have, by actual study, determined that nothing surpasses the hourly profit of a good crazy image.

So, if you ask me, sanity doesn’t make sense.  — MC

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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.

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  1. I'm sad I missed the whole 53 card draw era. I read your draw poker section in super system a while back and it seemed like a great game. 

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