Vary your hands according to strength
by Mike Caro
Did you know there are poker hands you should almost never bet? Advanced poker players understand that there’s no absolute right answer for every situation. They know that if you have an unbeatable hand and must act first, usually you should bet, but sometimes you should check. They also know that if they have a hopeless hand, usually they should check, but once in a while they should be brave and bet, counting on their bluff to win the pot.
This is called mixing up your decisions, and doing so is important against astute opponents. You simply can’t win at no-limit poker by being predictable. Let’s say you never bet your weak hands. That means you never bluff. And as a consequence of never bluffing, your observant opponents will realize that they never need to call with medium-strength hands in an attempt to catch a bluff. They don’t need to “keep you honest,” because you already are always honest. Unless they hold a strong hand, they’ll simply fold whenever you bet. It’s your own failure to mix things up that taxes away your profit.
If you only make large no-limit bets with your very best hands, wise opponents will become aware of this trait, too. It’s good advice in no-limit poker to bet more as the strength of your hand increases. With small advantages, small bets are in order. With more significant advantages, try bigger bets, but not huge ones. And with unbeatable hands, try to make your largest bets, even all-in ones.
Fine. But if you follow that advice religiously, there’s a problem. Alert opponents can guess the strength of your hand simply by taking the size of your bet into account. If you follow that formula, you might as well show your hand to your observant opponent after you bet, because there’s not much mystery. In order to be less predictable, you need to do this: Bet biggest with you best hands, bet medium with your semi-strong hand, and bet small with hands that have very marginal advantages. But don’t do it in a transparent way.
To make this work, you need to randomize. You shouldn’t always bet in accordance with the strength of your hands. Sometimes with unbeatable hands, you should check, bet small or bet an average amount. But usually, you should bet big. If you do this, the average size of your bets with superior hands will be large, but the exact amount will vary. You won’t be predictable. The same goes for medium-strong hands. Usually bet a medium amount, but sometimes bet larger or smaller. You want the average for medium hands to be medium. And occasionally with tiny advantages, you’ll bet larger—occasionally, but very rarely, going all-in. Again the trick is to average small bets with these lesser advantages, but not to always bet small. It’s the average size of the bet that matters.
The formula I use
That’s the formula I use for winning through no-limit wagering. There are two other concepts at play here. One is that when you have the better hand, you want to bet enough that would make an opposing call exactly break-even in the long run, plus you need to add enough to that size, if possible, to make your opponent take the worst of it. This extra amount added to the wager is your profit on the “sale” of your hand. Some players are more likely to call than others, and against them you can add more to the size of the bet. Remember: The extra amount added to what would make a decision about a coin flip for your opponent will result in your long-term profit.
The other major concept in regard to no-limit wagering is that there are some hands you simply shouldn’t bet. Let’s say you were playing one-card poker from a three-card deck made up of just an ace, a king, and a queen. Clearly, you can always bet an ace, anticipating that a king might call, hoping you’re bluffing with a queen. And also, you should sometimes bluff with a queen, hoping a king will fold, fearing you hold an ace. But if you hold the exact one-card middle hand—a king—you should never bet. That’s because if an opponent holds an ace, you’ll always be called or raised and always lose. And if an opponent holds a queen, you’ll never get called, so your bet is useless and obviously not worth the risk.
And that turns out to be a commanding concept governing no-limit poker and limit poker, too. You should never make a bet with a hand that is exactly average for the situation. Even some professionals cost themselves money by violating that powerful truth. Don’t do it.
Mike Caro, “the Mad Genius of Poker” is today’s foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, with its online campus at Poker1.com. You often can play against him personally at DoylesRoom.com