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 Bluff magazine.

“How do you always know when to bet?” Alex asked me during our draw poker game three and a half decades ago. He had called with two small pair after drawing one card and pretending to be trying for a flush. I had daringly bet jacks and sixes and been rewarded. I still remember his question vividly, because I was little known in the poker world back in 1972, and the question tickled my ego.

I don’t remember exactly what I told Alex. Pretty much, I just babbled. This happened while I was having a particularly lucky run of cards and couldn’t seem to make a wrong decision, no matter what. Sometimes poker goes like that. Back then, I was still formulating many of my poker concepts. Had someone asked me that same question today, I likely would have responded something like this: “It’s not easy to know when to bet in a poker game, unless you first ask why you should bet.”

Method for deciding

You see, I teach that a great method of making quality decisions in poker is to start with the assumption that you already know what you’re going to do. For instance, I can begin with the assumption that I’m always going to move all-in in a no-limit hold ’em game. That decision will stand unless I can find valid reasons to do something else. Or I can pre-decide that I’m always going to fold unless I find superior reasons to call or to raise. When I treat my decision-making that way, I never need to examine the merits of the initial choice — to move all-in or to fold in those two examples. All my mental energy is focused on finding holes in the original decision that are powerful enough to change my mind. In the absence of such contrary evidence, I stick with the original decision. And once that decision has been vetoed, I use my time to attack the new best choice and see if a third option might be better still.

No, I don’t always use this method when I play poker. But sometimes I do. And it’s an excellent exercise for improving your poker game, because you begin to understand poker more analytically.

Suppose we’re in a hold ’em game, we’ve just seen the flop, and now it’s up to us to act first. Let’s say we always start with the assumption that we’re going to check. In order to bet, we must veto our automatic decision to check. In other words, during the brief moments we’re allotted to analyze the situation and make a decision, we must find enough logical motivation to bet that overwhelms our predisposition to check.

A betting guide

Here are some valid reasons to bet:

  1. You have the best hand and are hoping for a call.
  2. You’re trying to win the pot by bluffing.
  3. You don’t have the best hand right now, but you have superb chances of connecting.
  4. You’d like to chase one or more players out of the pot and play to the showdown short-handed.
  5. You’re trying to create or maintain a lively image.
  6. You’re hoping that by making a small no-limit bet, you’ll avoid having to call a larger one.
  7. You’re last to act and by betting on this round, you’re hoping everyone will check to you on the next.

All that and more is important to weigh in your quest to override your preliminary decision to check. But there’s one more thing that didn’t make the list that ranks much higher in importance than anything you’ve seen. And it’s simply this: Your opponent is making it safe for you to bet!

Alex’s mistake

That’s what Alex had done so many years ago. Opponents make it safe for you to bet medium-strong hands whenever they try to prevent your bet. There are several subtle methods your foes routinely use to stop you from betting. Often they’ll prematurely reach for their chips, threatening to call, which was the tell I spotted in Alex’s case. Or they may stare intently at their cards, broadcasting falsely that they have a strong hand that merits such a profound gaze. Or they may stare you down in a threatening manner.

Whenever I see these signs, I know my opponent is probably hoping I don’t bet. And that means I can bet weaker hands for value than I would otherwise. I knew that if Alex were trying for a straight or a flush and had missed, he wouldn’t go out of his way to prevent my bet. My bet wouldn’t much matter to him. And if he had tried for a straight or flush and connected, he would have welcomed my bet and not have acted to prevent it.

See if you can profit from these same signs in your next game. — 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 “When it’s safe to bet in poker”

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  1. If you always fold to a pre-flop raise, I want to play with you. No set, no bet? Ditto.

    1. Hi, JT —

      Thanks for your first comment at Poker1.

      If you want to respond to a particular person, the way you did it is okay (typing directly into the “Leave a reply box”). But it’s a little better to click “Reply” beneath the comment to which you’re responding. That way your comment gets indented beneath the original one in the conversation. In this case, it’s obvious you’re responding to Ray, immediately above.

      Hope you enjoy your Poker1 adventures!

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

    2. I never said I fold to a pre flop raise. I said I never raise pre flop and only with draws I fold. One of poker greatest coined the phrase DRAWS ARE DEATH.Remember only 5% win online.You had better be smart and different.OziMikeCaro

  2. My way of playing is to never raise pre flop.Raising is INSANE.You must connect with any hand anyway and when you do very disguised.However unimproved PAIRS on flop even AA are very vulnerable.Holdem begins on flop.No SET no BET.I never call a raise with a DRAW.Not even AK.If you hit an Ace or a KING still only one pair and can lose whole stack.One pair BEWARE.Not the way to play according to most pros but a simple basic strategy demands fewer decisions.KISS-Keep It Simple Stupid.Ozi Mike Caro.

    1. Ray,

      We all need to find the style that we are most comfortable with. Obviously, playing conservatively (to make an understatement) is most comfortable for you, and many people do succeed with a generally tight playing style.

      That said, it’s important to remember the axiom about poker being a game of people played with cards. If you are limp-calling with AA and KK (which, by the way, is exactly HOW to lose with them) and folding top pair top kicker, overpairs, and draws that are mathematically correct to call (which sometimes are so strong they are actually favorites against a made hand), then your opponents will quickly pick up on this and adjust accordingly. The result will be that they will bet you out of every single hand, aside from very the few times that you flop a set, straight, or flush– in which cases, you will never get a dime out of them.

      You can take this advice or leave it. (Trust me, I wouldn’t offer it to you if you played with me. I’d be happy to rob you all day and fold any time you bet.) But I’m sure you’ll improve your results if you open your game up just a smidgen– say, from uber-ultra-puckered-tight, to just ultra-puckered-tight.

      Until then, as Mike Sexton says, may all of your monsters be cards, and your live cards be… wait, how’s it go?

      1. Hi, Bryan —

        Let me briefly barge into this conversation to thank you for posting your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

        Only this first comment requires the short wait for approval (which has already happened). From now on you can make comments without delay.

        Welcome to P1.

        Straight Flushes,
        Mike Caro

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