When it’s safe to bet in poker


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Casino Player.


Many professional poker players pride themselves on never missing a bet. Let me explain what “missing a bet” means. At world class levels, players carefully analyze whether they would make a long-range profit by betting, if they had to make that same wager over and over again forever.

If the answer is yes, they conclude they’d lose money by not betting, whether or not it turns out to be the most profitable decision on this particular play. That thinking is not theoretically sound.

If you decide to check in a situation where a wager would return a net gain, pros are apt to comment that you “missed a bet.” It means you skipped the opportunity to bet and make money. You acted too timidly, in their minds.

There are lots of times where you clearly should bet, and if you don’t I agree that you missed a bet. But the common practice is to become too aggressive for fear of missing a bet. The result is that most pros bet too often in their quest to control the game.

Whole story

But if a bet would show a long range profit, why isn’t it right to make it? It’s because a measurement of the profit that results from that bet doesn’t tell the whole story.

Often, even though you’ll earn money by betting, you’ll earn even more money by checking. This happens when by checking you give your opponent the opportunity to make a mistake. You should deliberately “miss a bet” quite regularly when an opponent is aggressive and likely to do the betting for you. That way, you get the value of betting and make your hand more deceptive. There is built-in value in deception.

In short, you need to weigh the long-range value of betting against the long-range value of checking before you decide which to do.

One huge factor governing whether you should bet is safety. Maybe there’s little chance your opponent will bet or maybe he’s already checked and you’re last to act. Let’s imagine that the latter is the case. It’s the final round of betting, your only opponent has checked to you, and you now must decide whether betting your marginally strong hand would be profitable.

Fear

You fear three things: (1) That your opponent will call with a stronger hand and win in the showdown; (2) that your opponent will raise with a stronger hand and you’ll end up calling and losing more money; and (3) that your opponent will raise with a weaker hand, but you’ll fold and lose the entire pot while holding the better hand.

You must also estimate the percentage of times you think your opponent will call and lose in determining whether betting that marginal hand is the most profitable choice. Here’s the truth. Most pros make money by betting when it seems right to them to bet. Over years of experience, they’ve pretty much learned when a bet will be long-range profitable.

But they could make even more money just by dividing the situations into two categories. The first is when you have no clue whether this is an especially good betting opportunity. The second is when your opponent is making it safe for you to bet.

I’m teaching you today that, with marginal hands, if you simply bet when you have an indication that it’s safe and check otherwise, you’ll increase your expectation of profit enormously. Over thousands of attempts, you’ll make money when it seems safe and lose money on all the remaining instances combined. Yes, if you always bet in both these situations – safe and unsure — you’ll come out ahead. But, if you’re discriminating and only bet on the times I’m about to recommend, you’ll eliminate many losing wagers and make considerably more money.

Clues

Here’s the trick. Study your opponent and look for these clues:

(1)   Your opponent is conspicuously looking at his cards. This is a tell that means: “You better not bet, because I might have something.”

(2)   The player is subtly reaching toward his chips. This is also an attempt to warn you not to bet. Don’t be fooled by it.

(3)   Your opponent is staring at you. On balance, players staring at you are less threatening. In contrast, players staring away usually are deliberately acting uninterested, hoping you’ll bet.

If you see one or more of these things, go ahead and bet. You’ll seldom be facing a strong hand. But if you don’t see any of those three tells, check and show your hand down.

I’ll repeat: If your opponent is studying his cards, reaching toward his chips, or looking at you, then bet; otherwise check. Follow that simple formula when you hold a marginally bet-worthy hand. — 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.

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  1. “Often, even though you’ll earn money by betting, you’ll earn even more money by checking. This happens when by checking you give your opponent the opportunity to make a mistake. You should deliberately “miss a bet” quite regularly when an opponent is aggressive and likely to do the betting for you. That way, you get the value of betting and make your hand more deceptive. There is built-in value in deception.”
    —————————-

    What’s also true, on the river, since the concern is profit over a large number of hands, is that if you check a good hand that could have been drawn out on, when your opponents see that, they are less likely to bet the river with non-nut hands themselves when you check to them and less likely to bluff if they know you check made hands you’ll call with. Online, we don’t see the tells referred to here, but we often play many hands with the same opponents, so these behaviors do pay off over time.

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