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Don’t Be Afraid to Bet Big

by Matt Matros |  Published: Jan 23, 2013

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Matt MatrosFellow Card Player columnist Ed Miller preaches making big bets with big hands. This great piece of advice is nowhere more relevant than on the river. A mediocre no-limit hold’em player often falls into the trap of thinking, “all the cards have come, therefore I don’t have to protect my hand anymore, therefore I don’t have to bet as much.” This reasoning can lead to a failure to even make a bet with medium-strength hands, and to not betting large enough with big hands. Both of these mistakes will prove costly in the long run.

It’s true that there are more reasons to bet your hand on the flop and turn than on the river. Flop bets and turn bets can get called by draws, whereas river bets can only get called by some kind of made hand. (We’ve all seen bizarre river situations where someone bluffs, gets called, and wins, but those are rare exceptions.) The thing is, bad players still love to call with bad hands, especially on the river. After all, if they call on an earlier street, they may still have to call again. If they call on the river and win, they get the pot! Trust your judgment, analyze your opponent’s likely holdings, and if you think there’s a decent chance your overpair or top pair or even middle pair is the best hand, you should bet it for value on the end.

A corollary to this idea is that when you have a big hand, you should make a big bet. Why? Again, because people like to call. Calling is way more fun than folding — who wants to just give up? It’s human nature to be curious, and it’s human nature to think one’s own hand is better than someone else’s. Nobody likes folding (least of all me), but good players train themselves to do it when necessary. Bad players give in to human nature and call. So bet big!

Even if your opponent is more likely to call a smaller bet, a big bet is often a better play. Let’s say your opponent has a hand like second pair and you’re holding the nuts. You reasonably estimate that if you bet 2,000 there’s an 80 percent chance your opponent will call, but only a 20 percent chance he will call if you bet 10,000. In the long run you’re earning 1,600 (2,000*.8) from the small bet, and 2,000 (10,000*.2) from the big bet. Betting 10,000 is the higher value move.

If you’re thinking about giving the big river bet a try, consider what kinds of hands your opponent will call with. On some boards, you’ll get calls almost regardless of your bet sizing. I played a hand in the recently completed Borgata Fall Poker Open main event that illustrates what I mean. My opponent raised on the button, and I called on the big blind with king-queen. The flop of T-9-8 went check-check, and I made my straight when the turn brought a jack. I bet 7,000, and my opponent called. With 29,000 in the pot, the river brought another jack and I had to decide how much to bet. The tempting play would be to bet small, “trying to get paid.” But let’s consider what my opponent — a straightforward amateur player — would do with certain hands. If he’d called on the turn with a queen, he would likely feel obliged to call a very big bet on the river. And if he’d called on the turn with one pair, he would be hard-pressed to call a river bet of any size. Finally, if he’d called the turn with two pair and filled up on the end, I would have to fold to his raise (again, because he was straightforward) and I would lose whatever I bet. So how much to make it?

Based on the above analysis, a bet big is the way to go. I would lose more if I ran into a big hand, but those are the breaks. His possible full houses were J-8, J-9, or J-10 (he seemed far too straightforward to check the flop with a set), while his possible straights were Q-8, Q-9, Q-10, A-Q, Q-Q, Q-7 suited, or maybe even worse suited queens. Looking at the combinations makes it clear that my opponent was more likely to have a queen-high straight than a full house. Therefore I needed to play my hand as if it were the nuts — by betting big — and then make a frustrating fold if he happened to come over the top. But how big is big? Is two-thirds pot big? Three-quarters? Full pot? Our stacks were big enough that I felt I could get away with a bet of 31,000 into the 29,000 chip pot. When my opponent called immediately, I was sure that even my overbet was too small. I probably could’ve got away with 37,000 or more before my opponent even thought about making a big laydown.

If you find your value bets getting called often on the river, try making them bigger. You don’t have to immediately switch to the home run ball if that makes you uncomfortable, but gradually increase your sizing until you stop getting calls. If your opponents are anything like mine, you’ll find yourself betting bigger and bigger and still getting paid off — which will mean a lot more money going into your pocket. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player, and a three-time WSOP bracelet winner. He is also a featured coach for cardrunners.com.