This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Why do you bet? Look, I’m not trying to put you on the spot or make you feel uncomfortable. I really want to know. Sometimes we get in the habit of playing poker automatically, without really examining our motives for betting. I’ve done this myself.
But it can sometimes be dangerous to bet for no particular reason, just out of routine. When poker grows automatic, when we’ve played too many hours and each hour seems like the last, that’s the time to ask today’s compelling question.
Yes, my friends, next time you feel your fingers reaching for your chips without your permission, stop before you extend that arm and drop perfectly good money into the pot. Ask yourself, “Why am I betting?” It’s a simple question, isn’t it?
Seven good reasons to bet. Your answer to that question should be one of the following:
- I want my opponent to call so I can win more money.
- I’m hoping I can win the pot right now. (Hoping to win a pot is not the same as trying to win a pot. You should never try to win a pot just for the sake of winning it. You should make the decision that has the highest long-term profit expectation. If winning the pot right now will result in more profit than alternative decisions, fine. But don’t let an emotional attachment to the pot influence you.)
- It would be to my advantage to drive at least some of my opponents out of the pot.
- My opponent probably needs to improve, and I want him to pay for the privilege.
- By betting right now, I will gain an advantage on later betting rounds.
- This bet will help me establish a psychological image that will help me win more money in the future.
- I’m better off betting than checking and calling or checking and raising.
That’s a very carefully thought out list. Sure, you can add to it, but almost anything you might add will either fit into one of my seven categories or it isn’t important.
Art dared to disrespect the Mad Genius. I once showed this list to Art, an expert player from northern Nevada. And the bastard scoffed. I mean, how rude could he be? Can you imagine another player scoffing at the Mad Genius What nerve! And then he tapped me on the shoulder in a fatherly and annoying way.
“Mike,” he said, “you’re forgetting the best reason of all to bet.”
“What’s that?” I wanted to know.
“You’re forgetting that a lot of times you bet because you have the best hand!”
Well, I stared this guy down, man to man, gunslinger to gunslinger. “Art,” I challenged, “you’re wrong! Having the best hand isn’t a reason to bet a hand. It’s an observation about a hand.”
And, guess what? That turns out to be a critical point about poker. The strength of your hand is never a cause of action. It is only one factor in evaluating what action to take. Ultimately, all poker decisions – calling, betting, bluffing, raising, sandbagging, checking, passing – must be based on the premise that you have something to gain. Gaining should be the cause of action.
You might hold the best hand and choose not to bet because you’ll make more money by checking and raising, or by checking and calling, or setting up a future-betting-round trap.
What’s to gain? If you throw a hand away, what do you have to gain? Simple. You gain the money you did not lose. Think about it. If a hand is unprofitable, that means it will cost you money to play it. Let’s say it would cost you $15, on average. Fine. Let’s also say you have $5,000 in your bankroll right now. If you play that hand, your bankroll is only theoretically worth $4,985. But if you throw the hand away and get up right now, you’ll have a full $5,000. The difference is $15, and you gain it by passing.
Every poker action – unless the situation is exactly break-even – should be designed to gain something. So, we can expand today’s question and ask, anytime we do anything in poker, “What am I gaining by doing this?” If you can’t answer that question, don’t take that action.
Looking at today’s seven reasons to bet, a few of them need clarification. Number three, in particular, can be a dangerous betting motive if not used by a very experienced player. That’s because chasing players out of pots is easier said than done. Still more difficult is calculating whether you really are better off limiting the field. My research suggests that – unless this action is likely to let you win the pot without a showdown by eliminating everyone at some point – you should often let all opponents stay in. Not always, but often. So, this particular reason for betting can be ignored (unless you’re a very knowledgeable player) without significantly changing your prospects of winning.
Similarly, numbers five and six are difficult to grasp. These primarily psychological weapons are best used by experts.
The number seven reason to bet is: It’s better to bet than to check and call. This is usually an important reason to bet only if (1) your opponent isn’t a heavy bluffer (which would give you an advantage to check and call), (2) you’re fairly certain your opponent will call with a weak hand, and (3) your opponent will bet into you, forcing you to call, if he has you beat. If these conditions prevail, checking a fairly strong hand is terrible.
Final thought. Actually, if you’re not yet a professional-level player, all you need to worry about are the first two reasons to bet listed. Either you want to win more money, or you want to win the pot outright. The point of today’s discussion, though, is not whether you should bet or not bet. The point, instead, is whether you know why you’re betting. Simply pausing and asking yourself the question can do miracles to your bankroll. — MC