Poker hands you should almost never bet

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Casino Player.

Did you know there are poker hands you should almost never bet? Advanced poker players understand that there’s no absolute right answer for every situation. They know that if you have an unbeatable hand and must act first, usually you should bet, but sometimes you should check. They also know that if they have a hopeless hand, usually they should check, but once in a while they should be brave and bet, counting on their bluff to win the pot.

This is called mixing up your decisions, and doing so is important against astute opponents. You simply can’t win at no-limit poker by being predictable. Let’s say you never bet your weak hands. That means you never bluff. And as a consequence of never bluffing, your observant opponents will realize that they never need to call with medium-strength hands in an attempt to catch a bluff. They don’t need to “keep you honest,” because you already are always honest. Unless they hold a strong hand, they’ll simply fold whenever you bet. It’s your own failure to mix things up that taxes away your profit.

Varying your bets according to strength

If you only make large no-limit bets with your very best hands, wise opponents will become aware of this trait, too. It’s good advice in no-limit poker to bet more as the strength of your hand increases. With small advantages, small bets are in order. With more significant advantages, try bigger bets, but not huge ones. And with unbeatable hands, try to make your largest bets, even all-in ones.

Fine. But if you follow that advice religiously, there’s a problem. Alert opponents can guess the strength of your hand simply by taking the size of your bet into account. If you follow that formula, you might as well show your hand to your observant opponent after you bet, because there’s not much mystery. In order to be less predictable, you need to do this: Bet biggest with you best hands, bet medium with your semi-strong hand, and bet small with hands that have very marginal advantages. But don’t do it in a transparent way.

To make this work, you need to randomize. You shouldn’t always bet in accordance with the strength of your hands. Sometimes with unbeatable hands, you should check, bet small or bet an average amount. But usually, you should bet big. If you do this, the average size of your bets with superior hands will be large, but the exact amount will vary. You won’t be predictable. The same goes for medium-strong hands. Usually bet a medium amount, but sometimes bet larger or smaller. You want the average for medium hands to be medium. And sometimes with tiny advantages, you’ll bet larger – occasionally, but very rarely, going all-in. Again the trick is to average small bets with these lesser advantages, but not to always bet small. It’s the average size of the bet that matters. You must also keep in mind that some advantages are too small to risk betting at all.

The formula I use

That’s the formula I use for winning through no-limit wagering. There are two other concepts at play here. One is that when you have the better hand, you want to bet enough to make an opposing call exactly break-even in the long run, plus you need to add enough to that size, if possible, to make your opponent take the worst of it. This extra amount added to the wager is your profit on the “sale” of your hand. Some players are more likely to call than others, and against them you can add more to the size of the bet. Remember: The extra amount added to what would make a decision about a coin flip for your opponent will result in your long-term profit.

The other major concept in regard to no-limit wagering is that there are some hands you simply shouldn’t bet. Let’s say you were playing one-card poker from a three-card deck made up of just an ace, a king, and a queen. Clearly, you can always bet an ace, anticipating that a king might call, hoping you’re bluffing with a queen. And also, you should sometimes bluff with a queen, hoping a king will fold, fearing you hold an ace. But if you hold the exact one-card middle hand – a king – you should never bet. That’s because if an opponent holds an ace, you’ll always be called or raised and always lose. And if an opponent holds a queen, you’ll never get called, so your bet is useless and obviously not worth the risk.

And that turns out to be a commanding concept governing no-limit poker – and limit poker, too. You should seldom make a bet with a hand that is exactly (or even approximately) average for the situation. Even some professionals cost themselves money by violating that powerful truth. Don’t do it. — 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.


4 thoughts on “Poker hands you should almost never bet”

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  1. Good post Mike.  I agree, you definitely have to vary your bet sizes in different situations.  Everybody loves to steal from predictable players. 
    James there are different types of "nut flush draws".  If you hold an ace or a high card over anything on the flop you may have more than just the 9 suited outs.  So how much you should call is still a situational answer.  But I will say if there is a potential straight out there I will definitely be less likely to call.  Just my opinion

  2. the 3 cards i understand. How do we know if we have an average hand?
    Offtopic question:
    Without using implied odds, I flop nut flush draw, $35 pot, whats the max bet I should call? I just want to make sure I am doing this right lol.

    1. Assuming your nut flush draw includes 1 live over card, you have 12 outs and are almost even money to make your hand with 2 cards to come. It is almost 26% to make the hand just on the turn, so you are a 3:1 dog. With no implied odds, and no fold equity (so shoving over the top is out of the question), you can call roughly $12.

      1. Actually if you’re 26% to win with the next card, you can call $18 (roughly a half pot-size bet) without thinking about implied odds.

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