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How Much to Bet

The importance of bet sizes in big-bet poker

by Lee H. Jones |  Published: Nov 01, 2006


"If I was ready, willing, and able to pay his regular fee …"

Like most things in life, poker goes through cycles. If the reports I hear are true, back in the '70s and early '80s, no-limit hold'em was the most popular game in Las Vegas casinos. This reminds me, if you haven't read Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez, and Big Deal by Anthony Holden, you are depriving yourself of two literary treats. These two guys are legitimate Writers (with a capital "W") who turned their attention to the poker milieu of Las Vegas before "the boom." Anyway, somewhere in there, limit hold'em took over. Maybe the poker rooms did it, realizing that it would keep the fish in action longer and more money would make it into the drop box. And then for a little more than 15 years, everybody played limit hold'em, and the casinos of Las Vegas and giant card barns of Southern California were filled with $3-$6, $10-$20, and $30-$60 limit hold'em games. Of course, this was all B.C. (Before Chris [Moneymaker]).

Now the pendulum has swung back and everybody wants to play no-limit hold'em all the time. Well, OK. I suspect that eventually many of you enjoy other forms of the game (believe me – they have their own attractions). But today's topic is applicable to any form of big-bet poker, so it's plenty important whether you play no-limit hold'em, pot-limit Omaha, or no-limit triple-draw deuce-to-seven.

Our subject today is bet sizing. That is: "How much should I bet?"

For the moment, let's assume that you (1) think you have the best hand, but (2) your hand is vulnerable to draws. This is the situation in which you routinely find yourself when you're betting. After all, most of the time that you're betting, you think you have a good hand (for example, you're not bluffing). But it's a rare treat to have a hand that you think is virtually bulletproof, no matter what falls on the turn or river.

Your job is to bet an amount that will not offer your opponent correct odds to call. Of course, that's hard to do when you don't know what she has. But you can usually make an educated guess. Let's try an example: You're in a $1-$2 no-limit hold'em cash game. You get K-K in early position and make a very reasonable raise to $10. Most players have about $100 in front of them. You get one cold-caller behind you, a woman who doesn't think the game really starts until you see a flop, but who plays relatively well post-flop. The flop comes very pretty for you: Q-7-4 rainbow. She's a relatively passive player and isn't likely to bet your hand for you, so you decide to bet. Of course, if she missed the flop completely, she's not going to call any bet, so we can forget about that. If she flopped a set of sevens, well, we'll worry about that when she moves in on us. But consider the hands that she might reasonably have that you have to worry about: a queen, and 6-5 (which would give her an open-end straight draw). If she has, for instance, Q-J, she has five outs on the turn. The open-end straight draw gives her eight outs. Let's make her a 3-1 favorite to have a queen instead of 6-5, so we can count her outs as (5+5+5+8)/4 6. With six outs, she's about a 7-1 dog to hit on the turn. There's $23 in the pot when the flop comes down. So, you want to be sure not to offer her 7-1 odds. This is fairly straightforward, as any bet of $4 or more will accomplish that.

However, it's more complex than that, because you want to be sure that you don't offer her good implied odds. Unlike the current pot odds, implied odds allow you (or your opponent, in this case) to think about how much she can win from you if she hits her card. Let's say that you bet only $6 on the flop. She has Q-10 and thinks, "Well, I'm not getting the right price at this moment. But, I'm going to guess that he has an overpair – aces or kings. If a queen or 10 comes on the turn, I'm going to win the rest of that $100 in front of him." So, you have to defend against that, as well. By betting something closer to the pot size, perhaps $15-$20, you make it a bad gamble for her to call. Of course, she might call anyway, but that's fine. It's costing her money (and making you money) if she does.

It's dangerous to make "general rules" about a game as rich in nuances as poker. But if you need a rule of thumb, a bet of two-thirds to three-fourths of the pot is usually about right for a no-limit hold'em game. That prevents all but the biggest of draws from getting the right price – either immediately or based on what your opponents can reasonably expect to win from you if they get there.

There are many subtleties to the art of sizing your bets; perhaps I'll write more about them in a later column. But there are three points I want to touch on before I go:

1. If you're betting the nuts or a pure bluff, your bets should be about the same size. Far too many players (particularly the online crowd) size their bets to their admiration of their hand. So, somebody with A-K will bet $15 into a $23 pot when the flop is K-7-4. He'll bet $10 if he has K-9, and $6 if he has 9-9 and is worried about the king. Needless to say, good players will crush you if you do that. If you're going to bet, keep your bets within a relatively narrow range of pot percentage.

2. The advice about two-thirds to three-fourths of the pot was based on a hold'em game. In a pot-limit Omaha game, you'll generally see people betting the full pot. The main reason for this is: The four cards in Omaha make massive 15-, 18-, and even 20-out draws possible. If there's $100 in the pot, you often want to bet all $100 of it to diminish the odds your opponent is getting.

3. If the stacks are extremely deep compared to the blinds and the pot, the problem becomes more complex. Consider our previous example: You have K-K in a $1-$2 no-limit hold'em game. You make it $10 to go and get a cold-caller. The flop is Q-7-4 and you bet $18. If she calls, trying to hit a five-outer, she's taking much the worst of it when you both have $100 in front of you. But suppose that you each have $1,000 in front of you. Now, it's a completely different situation; the implied odds picture just got very murky. For example, she calls the $18 and the turn is the deuce of the fourth suit. There's $59 in the pot. You bet $45, a reasonable amount. She makes it $250. She's telling you that K-K is no good. Now what? Sizing your bets in a monster-stack environment is a different sort of problem.

This material is not trivial, and you may want to reread some or all of it. But if you're going to play big-bet (pot-limit or no-limit) cash games, this is the bread and butter of successful play; spend the time you need to understand it.

"Who you jiving with that cosmic debris?" spade

Lee Jones is the poker room manager for, and the author of the best-selling book Winning Low Limit Hold'em.