Why You Need to Size Your Poker Bets Properly

Players compete. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

Have you ever taken a moment to consider why you do the things you do? I don’t mean this in the psychological sense – there will be no TED Talk today. I’m talking about sound, practical reasons for the actions you take. Consider your poker betting; do you have a road map to navigate the streets, or are you just throwing a handful of chips out there because it seems right?

Unless you’re an experienced player who’s been down these streets before, you need to think very carefully about what you’re doing before you act. This is even more important when you’re playing a “big bet” game like No-Limit Texas Hold’em. The No-Limit structure means you can bet (or raise) anywhere from the minimum to your entire stack. Each bet size will cause your opponents to react in different ways, so if you want to provoke the right response, you need to choose the right amount at the right time.

The Book of Matthew

Not that long ago, Matthew Janda (author of the 2013 must-read Applications of No-Limit Hold’em) gave this problem some serious thought. He boiled everything down to two reasons for betting:

1. Get your opponents to fold
2. Make the pot bigger, in case you win

That’s it. The trick in No-Limit games – or even Pot-Limit for that matter – is to size your bets appropriately for the reason you have in mind. If it’s Reason No. 1, larger bet sizes give your opponents more incentive to muck their hand rather than chase. If it’s Reason No. 2, bigger bets obviously make the pot bigger, but smaller bets give your opponents more incentive to call, which also puts more chips in play.

Keep in mind these two reasons are not mutually exclusive. A good semi-bluff will often get your opponent to fold the better hand, and if they call (or raise) instead, you can still out-draw them by the river and win a larger pot. The combined value of both potential outcomes should make this play profitable in the long run – if you size your bet correctly.

I’m All About Value

To improve your understanding of which sizes to use, think about what happens when your opponent bets pot on the river. In order for you to break even in the long run, and thus prevent your opponent from exploiting you, the math says you should call that bet 50 percent of the time. If your opponent bets half-pot, you should call two-thirds of the time, and if they bet twice the pot, your calling frequency should dip to one-third.

Now think about the other side of that equation. Let’s say you’re the one making that pot-size bet; in order for you to break even, you should only be bluffing one-third of the time. A half-pot bet is balanced out by having 25 percent bluffs in your range, and betting twice the pot is balanced by having 40 percent bluffs. In short, the more you’re bluffing in a certain spot, the bigger your bet size should be.

That’s if you’re playing so-called GTO (Game Theory Optimal) poker. In the real world, your opponents will have some holes in their poker strategy that you can exploit. Maybe they call too much, in which case you can jack up your bet size when you have a value hand. Maybe they fold too much, in which case you can make your bluffs smaller and less risky. Most players fall into that first category, especially at the lower stakes, so pay attention, identify these calling stations as soon as possible, and get those chips in the middle.