Stop! Tell me why you’re betting

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:

  1. I want my opponent to call so I can win more money.
  2. 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.)
  3. It would be to my advantage to drive at least some of my opponents out of the pot.
  4. My opponent probably needs to improve, and I want him to pay for the privilege.
  5. By betting right now, I will gain an advantage on later betting rounds.
  6. This bet will help me establish a psychological image that will help me win more money in the future.
  7. 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

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.


6 thoughts on “Stop! Tell me why you’re betting”

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  1. I also bet to lose AA < AK, KK < KK, (less suckouts)

    summary – I bet to lose 82% edge to 18% over and over and over .
    at least some of those hands have reason to call

    When I bet AQ, flop straight and King 3 off calls every street to river, that is even more fun!

  2. In my 6 years of analysis, I’m going to have to disagree with the “Mad Genius”. This particular topic of a “specialty” of mine and I speak of it often. Even as you look at the 7 reasons you propose, there are still only 3 reasons to bet. In order of most common use:
    1) Get people off the pot.
    2) Pad/Grow the pot because you have a reason expectation of winning the hand.
    3) Get information about your opponents perception of their strength.

    Your points 2 and 3 fit into #1, point 1 fits into #2, and points 4, 5 and 6 fit into #3. #7 doesn’t make any sense. If it did, I assume it fits into #3. Points 5 and 6 are the same thing.

    On a side note, if you are playing in a friendly “fun” game with an extremely low (or free) buy-in, just a recreational game with close friends, either move my point #1 to the 3rd postion or remove it altogether. You’re generally not going to bet someone off a pot if they worse thing that happens is that they loose their $5 or get to go home and go to bed. Removing point #1 really changes most people’s game strategy.

    1. Hi, Big Money — Those are good thoughts. In fact, I actually DO sometimes present shorter lists of reasons to bet. But this is a seven-reason list. We could also have a one-reason list: Because betting is better than any alternative.

      Numbers 5 and 6 aren’t quite the same. One addresses the short-term strategic implications and one the long-term psychological implications, but they aren’t fully defined, and I can see how they might be confusing.

      Let me explain number 7 (“I’m better off betting than checking and calling”), which you say doesn’t make sense to you. Often you’ll hold a moderately strong hand that might get called by weaker hands. If you check, those weaker hands might not bet and you’ll lose that potential profit. However, you’re still going to lose to hands that have you beat, whether you check and call or bet and get called. In that case, betting is often preferable, but you also need to consider other factors, including being raised and the chances that an opponent won’t bet a superior hand.

      You’re right that some of the points could be consolidated into broader categories. Thanks for sharing your ideas, for making your first comment, and for joining our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  3. Love the article Mike, and it really helps to stop and think why you are betting, just like you said. I’m going to try this on my next game!

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