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Head Games: Know Why You’re Betting. Contrary to Popular Opinion, It’s Rarely For Information.

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jul 25, 2012

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The Pros: Tony Dunst, Dan O’Brien, and David Chicotsky

Craig Tapscott: Many players response when asked, “So why did you raise in that spot?” is commonly, “I was betting for information.” That’s pretty vague. Can you share how a player must understand the motivation for every bet they make and the variables surrounding betting strategies?

Tony Dunst: The problem with “betting for information” is there are more cost efficient ways of acquiring that information. Essentially, all bets and raises boil down to being done for one of two purposes: either for gaining value, or as a bluff. Sometimes a bet or raise accomplishes multiple purposes, including gaining information about your opponent’s range, but it should never be the sole reason you make a bet. The best way to gain a sense of how your opponent is likely to play his hand is through observation, both of him at the table and of the general flow of knowledge within the poker community. You should be able to draw some assumptions about his thought process based on his age, where the bulk of his play has been, his manner, his dress, and then adjust it as you witness more of his play. Paying attention to hands after you fold preflop is crucial. Also you need to train yourself to focus on the action as much as possible when you’re out of the hand so you have the maximum sense of your opponents’ tendencies when you get involved with them. 

Dan O’Brien: Understanding why we’re betting starts with assigning a range of possible hands to our opponent based on each of the decisions he has made thus far in the hand. Daniel Negreanu once said, “Every hand tells a story.” This is an extremely valuable phrase to keep in mind as we play out a hand. With each play our opponent makes, we should be able to narrow his range of hands until we have a manageable idea of what he could be holding. We also need to get in our opponent’s head, and try to imagine his thought process and what he might think our range of hands could be. Once we have an idea of these two values, we’re ready to act. We can bet for value. We can bet as a bluff. We can bet to protect a marginal holding. There are even more complex situations where we can bet to potentially get value from some worse hands while potentially bluffing some better hands. There are too many unique situations to count, but as long as we are considering all of the factors and deducing logically sound motivations for our actions, we’ll be a step ahead of the vast majority of our opponents.

David Chicotsky: Many players go into robot-mode and make a bet or a raise without solid reasoning. Sometimes a raise will be to get a fold, other times you are raising with the hope of getting called. It is also possible to raise someone on one street with the intention of checking through a further street for pot-control. It’s good to have baselines to work with, like let’s say betting half of the pot on the flop, but it’s imperative that you’re willing to make adjustments specifically tailored to your opponent and the goals you’d like to achieve in the hand. The idea of betting for information has been looked down upon by the newer generation of players and for many reasons rightly so. Though it is worth noting that when playing against mediocre competition it’s possible to gain a vast amount of information by making a bet. For example, if I have top pair on a dry flop against an amateur, it’s very unlikely he will just call with two pair or better. Most amateur or mediocre players can’t control their reactions, leading them to almost always raise the flop if they feel they are winning. So, if I am in a situation where I’m up against a weak player, I might want to vet the strength of my hand by betting the flop – expecting a call from my opponent to mean I’m almost always winning and a raise/check-raise to mean I’m almost always beat. This won’t work as well against thinking players or opponents capable of making moves on the flop, but against straightforward ABC players these types of situations do arise.

Craig Tapscott: What are the many misconceptions players make in regards to what value betting actually is and how they miss opportunities to increase their stack?

Tony Dunst: Value betting is simply betting or raising because you think you have the best hand and you think your opponent can call with a worse one. However, becoming excellent at value betting requires a great deal of hand reading and opponent reading. You need to think deeply throughout the hand about what portion of your opponents range can call a value bet, which portion will fold to it, and whether he’s capable of bluff-raising you at some point and what you would do in that scenario. By the time you get to the river, any value bet made should have a clear sense of what kind of hands will be calling, what kind will be raising, and what kind will be folding. And when you’re considering value betting, you also need to consider whether your opponent’s range is made up of more hands that bet or call a bet. If it contains more hands that bet than call a bet, you may be better off checking than going for the value bet (depending on the scenario). You also need to be very aware of how your opponent perceives certain betting patterns, and how you can tailor your value bets to sizes that stand the most likelihood of getting paid off. 

Dan O’Brien: Knowing when to bet for value may be the most important aspect of poker. I’ve seen countless situations where a player checks down two pair because a flush got there, or a flush because the board paired, or even an obviously good second pair because an overcard came on the river. These are situations where we need to go back to understanding the range of possible hands our opponent may be holding and avoid being fearful of every hand out there that could beat us. If we bet pocket tens on an eight-high flop and get a call, we shouldn’t be particularly worried about a queen on the turn. There just aren’t many holdings calling us on the flop that contain a queen. Even if our opponent has called us on the flop and turn with a flush draw out there and the river brings the possible flush, sometimes it’s still best to bet – especially in position. If our hand is strong enough and there are enough weaker hands our opponent will call with, we can still fire here to get value from our hand. Weak opponents will almost never check-raise as a bluff, and even top pros rarely make this play, so you can feel comfortable betting for value and folding to a raise.

David Chicotsky: One common misconception about value betting is that value bets are typically smaller bets designed to sucker a player into calling with mid-to-low strength hands. Especially against tougher competition, it’s not uncommon to see a player make a very large bet on the river, a large value-bet. It’s almost a good rule of thumb that in a tournament, the better the player is as a whole, the bigger they will bet on the river with very good hands for value. Most beginners to intermediate players will favor making smaller value bets on the river, as they are more concerned with making sure they get called. A common mistake for many players is not betting the river when it’s checked to them, due to other possible hands that could have them beat.