Determining How Much to Bet

Utilizing odds to determine how much to bet in no-limit hold’em

There are always two key decisions you must make when taking the initiative in no-limit hold’em while playing a hand. Are you going to play, and if so, how much do you want to bet? The amount of your bet is always very important. If you bet too little with a good hand, you could be inviting your opponent to hit a long shot that might cost you your entire stack. If you bet too much, you might find yourself in a situation in which you are winning only small pots and losing large pots. A key part of the decision in determining how much to bet depends on the pot odds and implied pot odds.

This column looks at how to use odds and probabilities when deciding how much to bet. Realize that other factors such as psychological warfare are important in no-limit. Sometimes we might intentionally bet a big hand small, hoping that our opponents will sense a bluff and try to make a play at us. At other times, we might bet big, trying to indicate a bluff. Both are ways of using psychology during a hand. Putting the psychological part of the game aside, the first step is learning the mathematical foundation of how much you ought to bet. Once you master the foundation, you can then learn more advanced plays in terms of the psychology to use against each individual opponent.

Protecting Your Hand

The amount you bet on the flop is a critical decision in no-limit hold’em. Let’s start with an extreme example just to demonstrate a point. You are heads up in a major poker championship and are dealt J-J. The blinds are $10,000-$20,000 and you raise to $75,000 preflop. A very tricky, loose opponent calls. There is now $150,000 in the pot. The flop comes J-7-3 rainbow. You both have about $880,000 remaining in chips. How much should you bet?

Of course, there are always lots of factors that go into betting in no-limit, but we are going to look at one of the most critical factors, which is protecting your hand. You have flopped top set and the board is relatively harmless. Assume that you decide to slow-play and bet $40,000. Your opponent calls, and the turn card is an 8. Then, in a flurry, you are both all in. You turn over your set, only to look in exasperation as your opponent turns over 10-9 for a straight.

Your opponent was getting almost 5-to-1 pot odds to call on the flop; however, implied pot odds are critical in no-limit, as you can sometimes break your opponent, or vice versa. In this case, your opponent is getting good implied pot odds when he has to call a bet of only $40,000 in hope of hitting his miracle 8. He was 10.5-to-1 against hitting the straight. He must think he can win $420,000 to justify calling. There is already $190,000 in the pot, so he must be able to extract $230,000 more from your stack to justify calling. In this case, if you have a big overpair, there is a good chance that he can take your whole stack if he hits a huge hand. By betting too little, you put your opponent in a position in which it is correct to call. Protecting your hand is crucial to your survival in no-limit hold’em tournaments.

How should you protect a hand? Let’s go back to the example in which you have $880,000 in chips remaining. First, evaluate the flop to identify any dangers. Note that all of the following hands have gutshot possibilities: 10-9, 10-8, 9-8, 6-5, 6-4, and 5-4. This is actually a decent number of hands that you need to worry about. A gutshot is approximately 10.5-to-1 to improve; therefore, if you want to protect your chip stack, you must bet an amount to protect the amount in your stack and what is already in the pot. With $880,000 in chips and $150,000 in the pot, you can divide the total, $1,030,000 by 10.5, which equals roughly $98,000.

If you bet slightly more than this, something like $110,000, you ensure that your opponent is not getting the correct odds to call. If your opponent calls, he is making a mistake. There is no guarantee that you will win, but at least you are forcing your opponent into making a mistake because of the amount you bet. Of course, you could also go all in, which would really discourage a call, but you also want to encourage action in order to give yourself a better chance to win a big pot. This balance of risk and reward is a fine line that is important to evaluate when making decisions.

If your opponent hits a pair on the flop, such as a hand like 8-7 with the J-7-3 flop, he might call, thinking he has the correct implied pot odds to draw to two pair. If he hits two pair or trips, you will break him. When you protect your hand, you actually want your opponent to call, since he is making a mistake in doing so. Note that even if you bet slightly less than $98,000, an opponent should not call, as he cannot be sure that he can extract your entire stack. The $98,000 is simply the mathematical amount that truly protects your hand.

Try to bet amounts that will put your opponents into situations in which they will make mistakes by calling.

There are three steps to take when determining how much to bet to protect your hand:

  1. Calculate the pot odds and the implied pot odds based on the smallest stack between you and your opponent.
  2. Determine potential dangers with the flop versus your hand.
  3. Bet enough that your opponent’s effective implied pot odds do not justify calling, given his odds of improving to the winning hand.

The second step deserves more discussion. A key part of it is understanding the texture of the board. My first book, Internet Texas Hold’em: Winning Strategies From an Internet Pro, looked at various types of flops in detail, and the potential dangers of each. Are flush draws possible? Could someone have an open-end straight draw? What about a gutshot-straight draw? Could our opponent have five outs to two pair or trips? Maybe it is likely that our opponent has only three outs in a scenario in which we both hold top pair (A-K vs. K-Q with a flop of K-8-2). All flops and all hands are not created equal!

Understand that protecting your hand is not always the only consideration. Sometimes you may be unsure that you have the best hand. For example, you might have an overpair and your opponent could have a set. In these cases, you have to balance how much you want to protect your hand with the possible risk that your opponent already has a better hand.

Also realize that protecting against implied pot odds does not always mean protecting your entire stack. You should bet an amount to protect against only the total amount of chips you are willing to commit to the pot. For example, sometimes your opponent might call a bet and hit a draw, and you would fold. In these cases, you are not giving your opponent implied pot odds, since you are not committing more money to the pot.

Odds and probabilities have many applications at the poker table. Psychology is still important, but be sure to use the odds as a foundation to help you make better decisions when determining how much to bet.