Poker Betting Strategy | Understanding Why and When to Bet

Every time you make a bet in poker, you have some intention in mind. The correct poker betting strategy depends on what you try to accomplish with your bet.

However, depending on the situation, your intentions range from bluffing an opponent out of the pot or semi-bluffing, to probe betting or value betting to extracting more chips. Knowing why and when to bet is an essential skill in poker. When you decide to bet, it is also important to be able to size up correctly your bets to achieve your goal.

This tutorial will help you understand better what your bets try to accomplish so that you can size them up accordingly to achieve your goal. It is, of course, important not to associate strongly the bet amount to what you try to accomplish, or your opponents may pick up on the pattern. Let’s take a look at the different bet types.

The value bet

Betting when you are strong is aligned with a fundamental principle of poker. You want to be building big pots when you have a strong hand and keep the pots small when you have a week hand.

Value betting accomplishes the direct benefit of extracting money when you figure to be ahead but also builds up the pot so that you can potentially make bigger bets in subsequent betting rounds. This way, you can maximize the value that you extract from your winning hands.

An additional benefit of the value bet is that it can deny drawing hands the proper odds to stay in the hand and outdraw you. Giving away free cards, especially when your hand is vulnerable and the board is draw-heavy, is dangerous.

When value betting, you want your opponent to call, so you want to make the largest bet that your opponent is likely to call with worse hands. Making medium to large bets (half the pot to full pot or more) is often best for maximizing your gains. Such bets are quite large, but without alarming your opponent about the strength of your hand.

However, knowing your opponent’s tendencies is the key to sizing your value bets. Does your opponent call full-pot bets with medium-strength hands and weak draws? Or does he call medium-size bets with such hands but folds them to big bets? Does he consider an over-bet as the nuts or as a bluff attempt? Players often have patterns and behaviors that are forged into their game and can be exploited by an observant player. So, try out some bets and carefully see how your opponents react!

An example of a value bet

You have T♥T♠ , and on the turn, the board reads J♦4♠4♦T♦. You have a full house and hope someone has made a flush. No need to slowplay. You should bet to start building the pot. If someone has caught a piece of the board, he will pay you off, and by building the pot you also set up a bigger bet on the river.

The probe bet

You do not always know if you are ahead. Many times you have a medium-strength hand that may or may not be best. In such cases, the probe bet achieves extracting some information on where you stand. You can often achieve your purpose by making a rather small to medium probe bet (a third to half the pot).

Similarly to value bets, probe bets can also protect your hand from drawing hands. Furthermore, they help you take control of the betting, avoid larger bets, keep the pot smaller, and potentially get a free card later on so that you can improve!

Probe bets may also have the unexpected bonus of making an opponent that holds a medium-strength hand that is slightly better than yours to fold.

An example of a probe bet

You have Q♥J♠ , and on the flop, the board is K♠4♠J♦. Your opponent checks and you decide to make a probe bet about 40% of the pot to try to find out where you stand. Your opponent calls, the turn is the 5♥ and river the 5♣, pairing the board. You both check, and your opponent shows A♥J♣ and wins with two-pair higher kicker…

Even though you lost, you managed to lose a minimum in a situation where your opponent had you beat!

The bluff

Bluffing means betting to represent a big hand with the intention of making your opponents fold to winning the pot with a weak hand. By bluffing, you can potentially win a pot that you could not have won otherwise. Even though bluffing is an important poker tool, you should not overdo it. Consider bluffing, only if you think there is a fair chance of winning the pot.

Bluffing has the additional benefit of creating an image of you being unpredictable. If all your bets are aligned with what you have, betting when you are strong and checking when you are weak, people around you will start to notice it. They will be able to determine your hand strength from your bets, and you will not be able to extract value with your strong hands. You do not have to bluff all the time to create your table image. Throwing in an occasional bluff will give you an image of being unpredictable, and you will be paid off when you have a big hand!

Ideally, you want your bluffs to be as small as possible so that you can achieve your goal without risking too much money. This doesn’t mean betting the minimum unless you know your opponent is prone to fold to mini-bets. So, knowing your opponent’s tendencies is crucial. For example, many players will fold roughly the same percentage of times if you make a continuation bet of half pot or three-quarters of the pot. Against such players, choosing half pot c-bets is best, as it achieves the same result by risking less.

An example of a bluff

You are on the cut-off with J♥10♠. You raise and get called from the big blind. The flop is Q♦7♠4♥ and your opponent checks. What should you do?

You have missed the flop, but your opponent has possibly missed it too! You have a weak hand and not many chances of improving. This is a good opportunity to make a bluff as your opponent may fold hands stronger than yours, like K♠J♦ or A♦8♠. You bet half pot and your opponent folds.

The semi-bluff

The term semi-bluff was originated by David Sklansky (one of the top authorities of poker and writer of one of the classics “The theory of poker”). It is basically similar to bluffing in that you represent a bigger hand to try to force your opponents to fold and win the pot. However, contrary to a bluff, your hand has the potential of improving. So, a semi-bluff has two ways of succeeding. Your opponents may fold, offering you the pot, or when they call, you may hit your draw and win!

The semi-bluff is somewhere between a bluff and a value bet. The more outs you have, the more chances you have of winning, so your bet is closer to a value bet. The fewer outs you have, the more the bet resembles a pure bluff.

An example of a semi-bluff

You are facing a single opponent and hold 9♠8♠ , and the flop is J♦7♠4♥. You have jack high, but also an inside straight draw, so you have four outs to improve your hand. Your opponent checks. You can put in a semi-bluff to try to win the hand. Your opponent may fold, which is a good outcome. However, if he calls, you may hit your draw on the turn, or get a free card to try to make your hand on the river.

In a nutshell

Understanding why and how much to bet is an essential skill in poker. Depending on your hand, you may want to accomplish different results, ranging from pushing opponents to fold to extracting a maximum amount of money. Additional purposes of your bets include getting information on where you stand, taking control of the action and controlling the size of the pot, protecting your hand, and investing in your table image.

Please post any questions or suggestions that you may have or comment on hand examples from your personal playing experience!

This tutorial is part of the Basic Poker Strategy Course. You can continue to the next tutorial on Continuation Bet!

Once you feel ready, you can test your skills with our Basic Poker Strategy Quiz 🙂

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