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Big Bets and Short Thinks

by Matt Matros |  Published: Jan 15, 2020

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Matt MatrosMy reputation in the poker world (to the extent that I have one) is that I’m a “math-based” player. I craft a strong core strategy and look to theory over intuition when making decisions at the table… or so the story goes.

To a certain extent, the story is true. I rely on solid fundamentals because it’s impossible to succeed in poker without them, and I’m well aware that some of the world’s best players are the most knowledgeable about game theory. But in the heat of battle, against live competition, I lean on intuition, and “feel-based” play, far more than most people would think.

Many analytical players discount intuition because it’s difficult to quantify. And even if intuition is a real skill, it’s also a hard skill to develop, especially away from the table. But that doesn’t mean strong intuition isn’t incredibly useful in poker. Let’s focus on two of the most practical applications of intuition in our game: deciphering timing and bet-sizing tells.

As a rule, amateur opponents will have far more reliable tells (either physical or otherwise) than more experienced adversaries. For the most part, professionals have simply played too many hands to leak information with their bets, let alone their body language. Amateurs, however, are often trying so hard to make their best decisions, they unconsciously give away the strength of their hand without meaning to.

The most common timing tell is the instabet, which is a bet that happens before the bettor has had a chance to think. The instabet is not merely a fast bet, where a player considers for a few seconds and then goes all-in, but a bet that happens almost simultaneously with the next card or cards being turned up. One second delay, max. This instabet is very often a bluff.

Consider this. If an amateur player were value betting, wouldn’t they at least want to think about how big or small a bet they should make? Wouldn’t they usually want to see if the river card might affect their decision to value bet? But if they were bluffing, it might not matter to them what the river card is, and furthermore they might think their hesitation will come off as a sign of weakness. When you see an instabet, give very strong consideration to calling with anything that can beat a bluff.

There is one important exception to this rule. If a player holds a hand that isn’t worried about free cards (meaning a full house or better in hold’em), they may instabet hoping to get value. They’re excited because they have a very big hand, and they want to get paid off, and they can’t help but bet immediately. If you’re good at reading betting patterns, you’ll often be able to spot when this exception might apply. If not, for now just know that instabets are usually bluffs, and you’ll be way ahead overall by calling such bets, even if occasionally your opponent shows you the nuts.

Another way amateurs tend to leak information is with the size of their bets. You might’ve heard the theory that, when judging tells, strong means weak and weak means strong. The concept is generally sound, but don’t misinterpret it to mean that a big bet is usually a bluff!

Strong when weak generally refers to body language or voice. There is an unconscious instinct to fake power when holding a poor hand, and vice versa. But players can’t fake the size of their bets. And while substantial bets might be bluffs (after all, an opponent has to bet something to make you consider folding), a very large bet, say larger than the size of the pot, almost always indicates a strong hand coming from an amateur. If they’re bluffing, they “know” that a half-pot sized bet (or so) is big enough, and so they almost always select that size. But with a very strong hand, they think, “why not bet as much as possible and get paid off?” Be extremely wary when an amateur makes an overbet, especially on the river.

Following these simple guidelines should help you immensely in trying to decipher bets from your recreational opponents. Every so often, though, you’ll find that your opponent’s tells give you conflicting information. You might, for example, see a very large instabet, where the size of the bet indicates value, but the speed of the bet indicates a bluff. In this instance you should lean toward folding for two reasons.

1) You might be facing the exception cited above, where your opponent has a very big hand and doesn’t care what the next upcard is. 2) When you face an overbet you are, by definition, not getting a very good price to call, which means if the decision is borderline you should often fold. Letting the pot odds guide you in borderline cases (we’re back to “math-based” play again!) is another good rule to follow in every form of poker.

I’m not too big a fan of soul-reading (and I’m certainly not capable of it), but I do feel that intuition—the piecing together of all the clues an opponent might reveal through body language, betting patterns, timing and bet-sizing tells, and yes, your gut instinct—separates good players from great ones, and great players from superstars. Start honing your intuition with your next poker session, and eventually you too can turn this poorly defined skill into an enormous asset. ♠

Matt MatrosMatt Matros is a three-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, poker instructor, and the author of the strategy/memoir The Making of a Poker Player. His new book, The Game Plan, is available now from Amazon. Want to see how the Game Plan would apply to a hand you’ve played? Write Matt at jacksup@mattmatros.com.