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Why Before What?
The (only) two reasons you should bet in poker
"When you know your why, you will know your way.” — Michael Hyatt
Knowing why to bet in poker is just as important as betting the correct amount. In fact, some would say it's more important. Knowing the why means you can and will make the correct adjustments to your line as the hand progresses. In this post, I discuss the two primary reasons we bet in poker, some secondary reasons that are also valid, and one important reason not to bet, too.
What is Our Why?
Every single decision we make—and every single action we perform—at a poker table should have a sound, logical, +EV reason behind it. For example, imagine that we are dealt KTo on the button and the action folds to us. The standard play most of us would make is to open-raise.
If you were to pause the action and ask a beginner why he or she is raising in this situation, they often can’t give you a reason. They might be new to the game and are working from a starting hand chart. The chart says to raise in late position if the action is folded to you when we hold KTo, so this we do. While this approach is fine when we’re first learning poker, it's not sufficient. If we want to master the game—and actually start winning consistently—we have to dig deeper and understand why the chart says KTo is an open-raising hand in late position.
I’m an advocate of beginners using starting hand charts. Newbies have to bootstrap their game, and a reasonably tight starting hand chart is a good place to start the poker journey. But we can’t continue long following a rote chart without understanding why it recommends raising or calling or folding. Nor can we progress to playing without the chart. Knowing the why in poker is much, much more important than the what.
When we know the why, we can adapt to the flow of the game. We can tighten- or loosen-up based on the types, tendencies, and actions of our individual opponents. Knowing the why means we can learn to adjust our starting hands based on information about the game state and the villains’ actions. Knowing the why means we can tweak and improve our decisions to maximize our expected value, such as by adjusting our bet sizing. And knowing the why means we can minimize the amount of money we lose when we find ourselves up against a villain holding a better hand than ours.
The why always leads to more positive EV decisions.
Okay, fine. So in the example above, why is the standard recommended play to raise with KTo when the action has folded to us preflop? Standard answer: because there aren’t many people left to act, so it’s likely so they will fold, allowing us to win the blinds uncontested.
While KTo is a moderately strong hand, we’re primarily open-raising as a bluff steal. If someone calls our raise, however, we will have position on them post-flop. And, because KTo is moderately strong, it has a reasonable chance of holding up as the best hand on a flop.
Further, if someone re-raises us, knowing that the reason we were open-raising the hand was to bluff-steal allows us to do something as radical as fold. Yes, fold. If we forget the why, we might get stubborn, calling or re-raising with that KTo and then likely finding ourselves in a world of hurt post-flop.
There Are Only Two Ways To Win:
There are two—and only two—ways to win a poker hand. The first is to turn over the best hand at showdown on the river. The second is to have everyone else fold, leaving only us as the last person in the hand. These two ways to win a poker hand lead us to the conclusion that there are two—and only two—primary reasons that we should bet in poker:
Value. We bet because we think our opponents will call with hands weaker than ours, and therefore help build a pot that we can win at showdown.
Bluff. We bet to cause our opponents to fold better hands than ours, which allows us to win the money currently in the pot without having to show our cards.
If neither of these reasons applies, we probably should not bet. Let’s repeat that for clarity: if we can’t justify either a Value or a Bluff bet with our hand, we probably should not be putting any more money into the pot.
In the KTo hand example, we open-raised to accomplish the second result, bluffing: i.e., we would be quite happy if everyone else folded and we won the blinds uncontested. This type of preflop bluff bet from late position is called a “steal.”
If our hand had been something much stronger, like KK, with significantly more preflop pot equity, we still would have open-raised if the action folded to us, but our reason now would have been very different. We would actually want a call or two from the blinds, as this puts more money into the pot while we hold what is most likely the best hand.
The "what" was the same, but the "why" is quite different. In the KK hand, we would bet for Value, while with KTo we would bet as a Bluff. This means we might consider betting a slightly different amount to induce either a call or a re-raise. It also means we're going to react differently if we get a re-raise from one of the players in the blinds.
Other (Sometimes) Valid Reasons to Bet:
Besides Value and Bluff, there are sometimes valid secondary reasons we bet:
Semi-Bluffing. Sometimes our hand lies somewhere between a pure Value hand and a pure Bluff hand. For instance, we might hold KJs in late position and decide to raise when the action folds to us. Our hand may or may not be best, so we’re betting as a combination of Value and Bluff. Poker players says that our hand in this situation has only moderate "pot equity” (i.e., the probability of being the best hand) but the situation also gives us reasonable "fold equity" (I.e., a reasonable chance that the remaining players to act will just fold), so we bet. Our hand might improve and become the best by the time we get to showdown, but we also don’t mind if our opponents just fold now. When we’re betting as a combination of moderate value and bluffing, our bet is known as a “semi-bluff.”
Isolation Bet. If a weak player to our right enters the pot preflop, we can sometimes raise to discourage other players from joining the hand. This is called an “isolation” raise, and it allows us to play heads-up in position against the weaker opponent all by ourselves. But even in this situation, our hand should still have some reasonable amount of pot- and/or fold-equity.
Protection Bet. We can also bet if our hand is probably best, but is also vulnerable; i.e., we suspect our opponent has a drawing hand that can beat ours if he makes his hand. Here, we want to make our opponent pay the price to see any further cards. Said another way, we want to offer our opponent the wrong odds to call with his or her draw. This is called a “protection” bet, or sometimes “betting to deny equity,” but in reality it's nothing more than a specialized type of value bet; we probably have the best hand, and we want to build value and have the other player call, but we also want to give them the wrong mathematical odds to do so.
A Bad Reason to Bet: Information
We should never bet for the primary reason of trying to figure out what your opponent’s hand is. This is called an “information bet,” a “probe bet,” or “betting to find out where you are in a hand.” And it is dumb poker.
Some old school poker players still believe this is a valid reason to put money into the pot, but the math doesn't support the play. While the information you glean from betting is beneficial, it should not be the reason to bet. You should almost always bet because you have a Value hand, are on a Bluff, or are Semi-Bluffing. In cash game, you should never bet for information alone.
Common Pitfalls & Mistakes:
A very common mistake that beginners make is they slow play and/or “trap” with their Value hands. Usually, the best outcome of doing this is we don’t win as much money as we could have if we would have simply bet and built the pot (i.e., get called by inferior hands). The worst outcome of slow playing is our opponent gets to see relatively cheap (or free) flop, turn, and river cards that can improve their hand to better than ours (e.g. if they are drawing to a drawing to a better hand). There is a saying among winning poker professionals that nicely sums this up: “It’s a sin in poker to give your opponent a free card.”
Another common mistake beginners often make is trying to bluff too much at lower stakes tables. Unfortunately, many of the opponents you face at low stakes tables are “calling stations,” i.e., if they have any kind of made hand, weak or strong alike, they will not fold. Worse, many of these players are blissfully unaware of what hands we are representing with our bluff bets. The saying among professional poker players for this situation is: “You can’t bluff a bad player,” and the low stakes games are rife with bad players.
The Bottom Line:
Before we bet, we should always ask ourselves two questions:
First, will we be able to get an opponent holding a worse hand than ours to call if we bet (i.e., Value)?
Second, will we be able to get a villain holding a better hand than ours to fold (i.e., Bluff)?
If we can accurately answer yes to at least one of these questions, then we should bet. If we can’t answer yes to either of these questions, we probably should not bet.
For a beginner, answering these questions can be difficult. This is because we may have not yet learned how to hand read and determine the likelihood that our opponents hold better or worse cards than ours. And this means that bluffing is particularly difficult, and we should focus more on waiting for good cards and betting for Value than we should try Bluffing. This is especially true at small stakes tables, because the players we want to fold when we’re Bluffing are often not good enough to recognize that they should in fact fold.
The bottom line to all of this is we need to know why you are going to bet. If we don't know our “why”, we are guessing at the correct play to make. And guessing should not be some third reason you're betting.