Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2007) in Poker Player newspaper.
No-limit poker is puzzling. You don’t just bet or raise, as you do in limit games. You need to figure out how much to wager. That makes no-limit much more complicated, if you intend to play it correctly.
If you hold a big hand, you have something to sell, and you need to charge the right price. A lecture I delivered years ago will help you understand the concepts involved in establishing the best price. And if you carefully consider the advice the next time you’re involved in no-limit hold ’em combat, you’re apt to know how much to charge. Then you’ll make more profitable bets and raises.
Here’s the transcript of that lecture…
How much to bet in no-limit
If you’re a serious or professional player, sooner or later you’re probably going to play no-limit poker. No-limit poker used to be my favorite form of the game, and I spent several years researching it when I developed the first world-class artificially intelligent computer player, called Orac, in the early 1980’s.
Unlike fixed-limit games where you can only bet exactly the amount specified, in no-limit you can bet or raise any amount you want up to however much money and chips you have on the table. By the way, there’s no such thing as the scenario you’ve seen in many Old West movies.
I’m talking about when a player with a six-shooter unexpectedly calls a pot and raises the deed to the ranch. Then – if the opponent can’t come up with anything of equal value – that poor under-funded cowboy loses the pot by default. That’s stupid, and I doubt that it happened very often. All no-limit games that I know about are actually limited by the amount of money you or an opponent has on the table. The risk is never any greater than that.
But, I got sidetracked. Today, I want to talk about an important concept that applies to no-limit. It’s about the appropriate size of bets.
Now, many players and even experts have said that the appropriate size of a typical bet is about the size of the pot. That’s wrong.
I know it’s wrong, because, first, there’s no magical mathematical reason to make this so, and, second, I did a lot of research in developing Orac, including full-handed game analysis. And a smaller than pot-size bet turned out to be the most effective for the vast majority of hands where betting was reasonable, but strength was not overwhelmingly great.
That’s important, so I’ll repeat it: The most reasonable size of a no-limit bet with typical betting hands that are not overwhelmingly strong is less than the size of the pot.
Prepared to suffer
There, I’ve said it, and I’m prepared to suffer the scorn of those who believe that, for some magical reason, the perfect size bet is the same as the size of the pot. Once again, it isn’t. It’s usually less.
Now this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vary your bets with typical strength hands. You need to do that, otherwise you’ll be betting progressively more, by formula, when you have strong hands. An alert opponent could gauge the approximate strength of your hand just by examining the size of your bets.
A small bet would mean a barely bettable hand; a medium bet would mean an average bettable hand; and a large bet would mean a very big hand. You might as well give up poker, if you do that, because you probably won’t win, except against naïve opponents.
What you’ve got to do is apply some camouflage. Sometimes bet more with your barely bettable hands (and sometimes check); sometimes bet more and sometimes less with average bettable hands; and vary the amounts of your bets with your highest quality hands from all-in to small and everywhere in between, while averaging bigger-than-normal wagers.
That’s the secret. Your bets should average amounts that are in tune with the strength of your hands, but they shouldn’t always be in that range.
That way, an opponent can’t rely on your bet size as a pure indication of how strong your hand is; but, on average, you’re risking more in pursuit of more gain with your stronger hands
That’s the way nature intended it. Throw in some prudent bluffs, and you’ve potentially got control of your opponents.
Now, you might ask – what if I bet the same amount all the time? Won’t that take away any chance my opponent has of determining how strong my hand is based on the amount I bet?
The answer is, yes, that would do the trick, but that isn’t the most profitable way to proceed. That’s because when you have weakish betting hands, you don’t want to usually risk a lot if you do decide to bet. And when you have strong hands that might be worth more, you often want to bet a lot. Much of it depends on what your opponent is willing to call – which brings us to our next great concept regarding no limit.
Many players believe that when they have the best hand and are afraid of being drawn out on, they should move all-in – bet everything they have in front of them, bet the ranch. Now that’s often the best bet, especially if your opponent is very likely to call.
After all, when you have the advantage, the more money your opponent calls beyond what’s profitable for him to call, the more money you theoretically earn. And all that theoretically earned money adds up over time and becomes real money, even if you get unlucky in the short term.
So, here’s the key. From a game theory standpoint, the amount you should bet is whatever is exactly break-even for your opponent. It won’t matter if he calls, folds, or raises. In the long run, you’ll both break-even, because you’re both playing the same perfect strategy.
But that doesn’t really happen in poker, because players aren’t perfect. The superior player can take advantage of a lesser opponent by manipulation, through tells, and by maneuvering and betting more efficiently.
So, how much should you really bet? Well, try to estimate the point at which your opponent would get a fair deal if he called. Then add something extra to it and try to sell the hand. If an opponent will often call $1 more than that fair bet, then you’re getting an edge on that extra dollar and that’s profit.
If an opponent will often call $1,000 beyond that break-even point, you’re getting an edge on that extra $1,000. How to price it is an art, just like trying to determine what the most profitable price is to put on a product in your store. If you price it above cost, but too low, you won’t make as much money. And if you price it too high, you won’t sell as many and won’t make as much money, either – just like you won’t get as many calls in poker, by betting too much.
Added note: Keep in mind that if your hand is unbeatable, you can bet huge and make more profit, even if it means fewer calls. Betting $10,000 and being called only 10 percent of the time is still worth $1,000 per wager. Betting $1,000 and being called 90 percent of the time nets only $900 per wager.
Yes, sometimes the most profitable strategy is to move all-in and hope to get called with your strong hands, but often that’s betting too much, and you lose profit in the long run by doing it. Poker is the business of taking risk. If you move all-in simply to avoid that risk, you’re not making the most money possible.
Also, there are rare situations where the most profitable bet is below break even. This can happen when your opponent might make the mistake of folding and you might secure the whole pot, rather than your theoretical share of it, with minimal risk by making a small, teasing bet. Of course, if he calls, he’s getting the best of it, because you didn’t bet enough.
But, usually, you need to bet at least as much as break-even and as much more, giving you an extra edge, as you can sell to your opponent. That’s how to play when you have a hand with an advantage in no-limit. Any other strategy is less profitable. So, why do it?
Again, we’ve learned that, in no-limit poker, the most reasonable average bet for a typical hand with an advantage is usually less than the size of a pot. And we’ve learned that going all-in to secure an edge in no-limit is not always the most profitable play. Often, all-in is too much to make the sale often enough, and you’d be earning a bigger profit by betting less – as long as it’s more than what would be break-even for your opponent to call.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC