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Beware Of Unforced Bets

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jun 22, 2016


Ed MillerUnforced bets are trouble.

What’s an unforced bet you ask? I’ll do my best to define it, as it’s a little bit nuanced, but once you understand the idea, it becomes very powerful.

First, I’ll start with a bet that is always unforced: a river bet by the player closing the action. Say you’re playing $2-$5 with $500 stacks. You open to $20, and two players call behind you. There’s $67 in the pot.

The flop comes. You bet $40, and only the player on the button calls.

The turn comes. You check, the player on the button bets $70, and you call. There’s $287 in the pot and $370 behind.

The river comes. You check, and your opponent bets $110.

This is an unforced bet. Your opponent could easily have checked to get to showdown. This is what makes a bet unforced—your opponent could have chosen not to bet without risking any of the things players tend to fear (e.g., giving free cards, getting bluffed, losing the initiative, and so on). If he checked it down, the hand would go to showdown.

In general, in small-stakes live games, unforced bets are trouble. Why? Because an unforced bet—by definition—is not made for a defensive or procedural reason (a flop continuation-bet after a preflop raise would be procedural for many players). It’s therefore made for one of only two reasons: As a bluff or because the player is betting for value.

And since small-stakes players tend to bluff too infrequently and tend to be too cautious with their value bets, unforced bets tend to skew toward very strong ranges of hands.
These are the bets you should refuse to pay off. If you see one of these bets, typically you should lay it down and move on to the next hand.

What makes this concept tricky is that many bets people make are “forced” bets. They’re not forced in the sense that someone is sitting behind them demanding that they bet or else. But they’re forced in that the player feels like betting is needed to either keep their standing in the hand or to avoid a bad outcome that would arise from failing to bet.

For example, as I mentioned above, a flop continuation bet after a preflop raise is a “forced” bet. It’s not actually mandatory, of course, but it’s the sort of bet many players make with good and bad hands for the procedural purpose of setting up future play in the hand.

Another “forced” bet is any bet someone makes on the turn after the flop checks through. There are any number of defensive or procedural reasons for players to bet in this situation.

One obvious difference between these examples of forced bets that I’ve made and the unforced example is that the unforced bet above is significantly larger in size than those forced bets. In the unforced example, the player bet $110 on the river. On a flop continuation bet or on a turn bet after the flop checks through, the typical bet size would be in the $20 to $50 range. Much smaller.

This is an important difference, and one I’ve intentionally highlighted in the past. Be more worried about big bets in small-stakes games than small bets. And this is generally true.

But sometimes forced bets can be fairly large, and these bets should not be as scary as large, unforced bets. One of the most common scenarios for this happens when a player moves all-in either on the flop or on the turn. Here’s an example.

It’s a $2-$5 game. Most players are playing with $500 stacks, but the main opponent in this hand has about $350.

The player with $350 opens the pot for $25. One player calls, and you call on the button with A-Q. The blinds fold.

The flop comes Q-10-8 with two hearts. Your opponent bets $35 into the $82 pot. You raise to $100. Your opponent moves all-in for $225 more.

This is a big bet, for sure. But it’s also a forced bet. To understand why, consider how your opponent might be feeling holding a hand like K-Q or Q-J or a big draw.

For most players, on a board like this, these hands would be too strong to consider folding to the flop raise. So the decision is between a flop call, or raise.

A call, however, puts the out of position caller in a bit of a tough position. There’s essentially one bet remaining and two streets of action. To call and to check the turn gives the player in position the absolute option to bet or not. And if that street checks through, checking again gives the in position player a second option—an option to make a menacing, unforced bet.

So most of the out of position players would recognize the negatives of allowing this action and instead will choose the somewhat defensive play of simply shoving all in immediately. Most players would describe this thinking as being “pot-committed.”

As you see from the example, however, this flop bet all-in—while large in size—is also a forced play with a significant portion of the preflop raiser’s hand range. It is, therefore, not a particularly strong bet, and you’d be mad to fold your A-Q to the all-in.

The same concept can hold on the turn.

Let’s say you open the pot for $25 with ASpade Suit JSpade Suit, and two players call behind you. There’s $82 in the pot, and again, one of the players has about $350 remaining.

The flop comes J-9-3 with two hearts. You bet $45, and the button calls. There’s $172 in the pot and $280 behind.

The turn is the 7Club Suit. You bet $80, and your opponent shoves all in for the remaining $92.

Again, this is a forced bet. Your opponent could have a hand like 10-8 or a flopped set, but he could also hold hands like K-J, a flush draw and a pair, or even a hand like J-10, which is top pair with a gutshot-straight draw.

The reason the bet is forced is because your opponent has a hand he feels committed to with only $92 remaining. But he’s concerned that if you have, for instance, a flush or straight draw, that by simply calling your bet, he will be giving you a card too cheaply.
So, because he feels committed to calling $92 on the river should you bet, he simply shoves all-in on the turn.

Again, this is not a bet you should fold A-J to.

Now contrast this situation to one that is identical, except that you are playing $700 stacks. Now your opponent raises your $80 bet to $200 total. This raise would be unforced, since your opponent with a hand like K-J would almost certainly prefer to call. Depending on the opponent, you can seriously consider folding your top pair.

The difference between forced and unforced bets can be subtle at times, but if you master the distinction, you can make much sharper calling and folding decisions when it counts. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site