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Bet Sizing and Value Betting

by Ed Miller |  Published: Oct 12, 2016

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I’m doing a series of companion articles to my most recent book, The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players. It’s a step-by-step guide to mastering the live no-limit hold’em games that you will find in most cardrooms around the world.

In the last chapter on playing $1-$2 games, I emphasize how important it is to learn how to value bet effectively. Without a good value betting game, you won’t win the big pots with your good hands you need to counter-balance all the beats you will inevitably take.

But while knowing when to try a value bet and when not to is a critical skill, it’s also important to size your value bets strategically. If you play $1-$2 or $2-$5 for any length of time, you will see numerous grossly oversized and undersized value bets from your opponents. If you can get the hang of some simple sizing heuristics for value bets, you’ll end up winning a lot more often.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll assume that you already have a good idea about when you should (and shouldn’t) try a value bet and focus only on the sizing. Having said that, here are a few tips.

Tip 1. Think of a few target hands, and size your bets to win the maximum from these particular hands.

Theoretically, the best possible bet size is the one that maximizes your profit against all possible hands your opponents can hold. Unfortunately, trying to calculate this number in the few seconds you have to make a decision is all but impossible. Thankfully, a shortcut exists that gets you fairly close to the right answer, most of the time. Instead of worrying about every possible hand your opponent can have, think about the two or three hands you would most like your opponent to have.

For example, say you hold A-A on a K-7-3-9-3 board. What are the hands you most wish your opponent had?

I’d say hands like K-7, K-9, A-K, and K-Q. These are the hands you beat that still might be willing to call a pretty good-sized bet. Holding other hands you beat—such as 9-7 or K-5—your opponent might be willing to call a small bet, but most decent players would get scared off by a good-sized bet.

The thing is, in these situations it’s usually better to ignore these fringe possibilities and target your sizing to the hands you hope your opponent has. In general, I’d rather get $100 or $150 from a player holding K-9 who got counterfeited than try to squeeze $30 out of a bad king or 9-7.

So absent a physical read in these situations, I tend to pick a few key hands, and I size based on the assumption that my opponent holds one of these hands. I don’t want to pretend this is a perfect rule of thumb—it can get you into trouble sometimes on certain board types. As with everything in poker, you have to use your brain and consider whether this heuristic makes sense each time you have a decision to make. But it’s a good, simple rule I use frequently to help make river sizing decisions.

Tip 2. On early streets, size your bets to keep in hands that have little chance to draw out on you.

There’s one flop and turn bet-sizing rule I hear more than any other—you want to price out the draws.

I don’t like this rule.

It’s not that it’s wrong — obviously if your opponent shows you her cards and you see she’s drawing to a flush, you want to bet an amount that makes it wrong for her to draw.
The problem with this rule is that it’s in direct tension with two other important bet-sizing rules. These are:

You don’t want to risk too much with a hand that could be already beaten.

You want to price in hands that are drawing dead or nearly dead.

The first rule is both obvious and very important. It makes no sense to try to protect your top pair from a flush draw when your opponent actually holds a set.

Now your opponent is not going to show you her set any more than she’s going to show you her flush draw. So you’re not going to know whether you should be giving up (because she has a set) or betting big (to price out the draw).

In practice, this means you have to split the difference, betting an amount that is fairly good to charge a draw if that’s what she’s got, while also not creating a disaster if she’s got a set.

Rule two, however, often gets overlooked and is often just as important as the other two. If you have K-Q on a Q-8-7-5 board with a possible flush draw, there are two classes of hands that you can make money from. First, you can make money from drawing hands that are 25 percent or worse to make their hand by the river. Second, you can make money from weaker made hands (perhaps including those that have weak draws as well). These are hands like Q-10 and Q-9 and 9-9 and 9-8.

The thing is, you can make money from the draws only once — on the turn. You can make money from the weaker made hands twice — both on the turn and river. Furthermore, the made hands generally have less chance to draw out on you, so not only can you get two bets from them, but you also win these bets more frequently.

It’s usually more important to size your bets small enough so you can get action from weaker made hands rather than big enough so that no draws have odds to draw out. This isn’t to say you should make your bets as small as possible. Of course not. You should follow Tip 1 — think of the two or three made hands you’d most like to have call you down, and size your bets to target those hands.

Tip 3. Don’t let other players’ bet sizing constrain your thinking.

If you play enough no-limit, you will see your opponents make lots of bets. It’s easy to become unconsciously accustomed to certain bet sizes in certain situations. Before you know it, you’ve bet $70, and if I asked you why, the honest answer would be, “Well, that’s about what people bet here.”

Fight that impulse. Be creative with bet sizing, especially on the river. If there’s $100 in the pot, but you think your opponents might call $300 with the hands you are targeting, then bet $300. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen anyone else do it.

If a bad card comes on the river, and you think your opponent won’t call any more than $30 with the hands you are targeting, then bet $30.

There’s no right or wrong number. The right bet size depends first on your opponent and second on the hands you’re targeting. If you think about each situation logically, you will make better sizing decisions and will win bigger pots over the long-term. ♠

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