When to bet

I don’t know if poker strategy posts are all that interesting, but I like to do them every now and then. With that in mind, which of these statements do you agree with?

You should bet with…

A. Your best hands.

B. Your medium hands.

C. Your worst hands.

Before I try to answer that question, let’s consider a simplified poker situation: our opponent checks to us on the river and we have the option of betting or checking. If we bet, our opponent can call, but not raise. The following chart represents the possible outcomes when we bet.

Let’s consider each of these boxes in turn.

A1. We have the best hand, we bet, and our opponent calls. We win the pot, plus the size of our bet. In this case we get value for having the best hand. Thus, this is known as a value bet.

A2. We have the best hand, we bet, and our opponent folds. In this case the result is the same as if we had checked back. Either way we win the pot and no additional money.

B1. We have the worst hand, we bet, and our opponent calls. We lose the pot plus the size of our bet. Either we were trying to bluff and got looked up; or we thought we had the best hand, but ran into a better hand. The second scenario is sometimes called value cutting.

B2. We have the worst hand, we bet, and our opponent folds. We win the pot, which we would have lost had we checked back. This is a bluff: we got our opponent to fold the best hand.

With that in mind, we can return to the original question: should we be betting our best hands, our medium hands, or our worst hands? Clearly we want to be aiming for the good outcomes, represented by boxes A1. and B2. The hands most likely to land in A1 and B2 are the best hands and the worst hands. If we have the nuts (the best possible hand), no other hand can beat us; thus we’ll land in A1 or A2. Our bet is all potential upside and no downside.

Our best shot at landing in B2 is betting with our worst hands. In the most extreme case, if we bet with the nut low (the worst possible hand), any time our opponent folds we’ll be in B2. If we bet instead with a medium hand, many of those folds would land in A2, meaning our opponent folded a hand that we could have beaten at showdown anyway. Thus, the worst hands are the best candidates for bluffs.

Note the difference between that statement and this one: “You should always bet with your bad hands.” Following that strategy would cause you to bluff way too often. Nonetheless, it’s true that you have more to gain by bluffing with terrible hands than with medium hands.

To answer the original question, you should bet with your best hands and some of your worst hands, but probably not your medium hands. This is an over-simplification that grows more complicated as we go from the simplified river situation suggested here to real poker situations, but it’s an important insight that runs counter to most people’s first intuition, to bet with their best hands and some of their medium hands.

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