Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.
Some of the biggest money I’ve earned in poker has come from letting opponents hang themselves. When I have a big advantage, I usually want my opponents to bet for me. Very often, in no-limit poker games with a huge hand against aggressive foes, you sacrifice profit by betting large. Of course, in theory, the larger your hand, the more you should bet, on average. This unarguable truth is so frustrating to some players that they decide to make similar-sized bets almost all the time.
By structuring most of their bets to be approximately equal, relative to the size of the pot, they make it more difficult for observant opponents to gauge how strong their hands are. Indeed, if you always made bets that directly corresponded to the power of your hands, astute opponents could figure out what they were up against, just by counting the chips you wagered. The more you bet, the stronger your hand.
Although choosing to almost always bet similar amounts makes you less predictable, it isn’t a good solution. Solid strategy still dictates that you bet more with your stronger hands and less with your weaker ones. This should be pretty obvious when you think about products you buy in stores. Toasters cost more than tiddlywinks. And televisions cost more than either. By the way, whatever happened to tiddlywinks? Fifty years ago, I was the neighborhood champion, winning as much as 28-cents in a single session. But, once again, I’ve lost my train of thought. Where was I? Oh, yeah, in stores, stuff that has greater value costs more.
So, is that my message for today: Never pay more for tiddlywinks than for a television? Hell, no! There’s more to it than that, so please listen closely. In poker, you’re selling things, just like you would be if you owned a store. Specifically, you’re selling your hands. And although you’ll bluff sometimes, most of your profit will come from getting paid when opponents call — when they buy the hands that beat them. It’s important that you think about poker exactly that way.
The difference is that in a store, people know what they’re paying for and in poker they don’t. The secrecy and suspense in poker is what makes your pricing strategy different. You’re in the business of selling locked trunks filled with rags at auctions, hoping people will buy them thinking there might be $1 million inside. Okay, that’s not a glamorous way to describe the poker profession, but it’s my way.
Now, we’ve already said that you can’t make bets that are always proportional to the strength of your hands. That could make your game too readable. But we also know that you want to bet bigger with stronger advantages and smaller with slighter advantages. How? You do it by randomizing the size of your bets so that you’re sometimes betting small or checking with huge hands and sometimes betting large with small hands. But, while you’re doing that, you’re still making big bets much more often when you have powerful cards. So, on average, you’re pricing your hands relative to their actual value, while still remaining deceptive.
Fine. But, in hold ’em, when you begin with a pair of aces against most real-life opponents, you’ll make more money if you bet a little less before the flop than you would with a smaller pair, like queens or jacks. Although this slaps poker theory right on the butt, I’ve found this to be true most of the time. You might think that you shouldn’t bet as much with queens, because you want to reduce risk. But actually, against typical players, you want to bet enough to discourage players who hold aces and kings (with the exception of big hands that will call, anyway) from entering the pot. If you can do that and occasionally face only smaller pairs, you’ll make more money on average at typical tables.
Just as dead
One problem with this theory, though, is that you’ll sometimes chase some aces and kings out and not others. That’s actually bad, because if one ace or king calls, you usually want all of them to call. If they connect, you’re just as dead losing to one pair of kings as two. A semi-good thing about making a reasonably large raise as the first player wagering with queens is that you’ll often win the blinds. I know, that doesn’t seem good, but it’s actually a fairly acceptable outcome. If the blinds are $50 and $100, that often exceeds, equals, or nearly equals your expected average profit. In general, you’ll make more profit with queens if you play against fewer opponents or win the blinds immediately. Because of that, I often raise about two-and-a-half times the size of the blinds with a pair of queens or jacks to start. Remember, this advice is based on the way I perceive that most opponents actually play and on the assumption that you have a commanding image. Against perfect opponents, you should still average larger bets before the flop with aces than with queens.
If you hold aces, then a smaller raise — and sometimes no raise at all — usually wins the most money. That’s because you want a lot of opponents contesting. True, you have a greater chance of losing against more opponents, but when you win you’ll enjoy much larger profits. On balance, more opponents equals more money in the long run. By raising small, I’m encouraging opponents to come it. And against aggressive opponents, I’m encouraging them to reraise! Whether I’m starting with aces or have just flopped two big pair, trips, or better, I want those too-lively foes to build their own pots. Usually, I’ll make more money by letting them aggress. I want them to hang themselves, and I’ve got to give them rope.
This means I’m always conscious of how many chips an opponent has. If I bet too large against an aggressive opponent, he may run out of rope, not having enough chips left to try to raise me out of the pot with a speculative hand or a bluff. And I want him to be able to attempt that. So I check or bet small. I’m a tease: Here’s the rope; show me a trick.
Put it all together and, with the right image against standard everyday opponents, more money is lost than won by betting too large with powerful hands. Remember, until the final betting round, if you tease and don’t get a reaction, you can still bet next time. — MC