Really, did you think about that one before you clicked the raise button? What were you trying to accomplish by raising the stakes? Was it a reflex? Are you reading off a chart? Or did you have a plan?
Too many players make shallow actions. I know people who raise AJo preflop in middle position all the time. Their reasoning: they read to do so on a chart somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with raising AJo in middle position, in the right context. However raising it without a plan is nothing but a recipe for disaster; what are you going to do when the flop falls rags, and you’re up against 2 callers?
Throw away your preflop raise charts. Throw away your hand grouping rule books. You know enough about poker by now that you don’t need those crutches. If you want to really master this game, you’ve got to start putting some long-term thought into every move you make.
Let’s get started.
What Is Betting?
Sounds like a dumb question, right? Betting is betting: raising the stakes, putting money in the pot, making a move. I’m not talking literally, though. What is betting really, underneath the surface? When you place a bet, what does it mean?
It’s an indication of aggression. You’re sending a message to everyone at the table: “if you want to play, you’d better be serious”. Betting is not just something you do when you have a good hand (although poor players often bet only when they’re strong). You can bet any time, with any hand you want. Betting is a way of shaping your opponents’ actions.
You can bet in late position with absolutely nothing, and completely dominate the action in a hand. You can raise preflop from early position and send a message of incredible strength. You can 3bet a loose button player preflop to let him know he’s got to tighten up.
You’re never just putting money into the pot. Betting is not a function of hand strength. Betting is how you communicate with your opponents. Betting is how you shape your image.
The Big Picture: Using The Betting Language
How your opponents react to your aggression will depend on how they view you as a player. Consider the following:
The game is 6-handed No Limit Texas Hold’em. You’ve been at the table for 200 hands, which is a pretty good sample size. The same players have been at the table the whole time. You raise preflop on the button with AJo after a bunch of players limp, and everyone folds. That is, everyone except a really tight player in early position, who 3bets you.
Can you call the 3bet? Can you re-raise? Should you fold? Don’t look at your hand chart—actually think this through. The first thing you want to figure out is how the table perceives your play. This is pretty easy to do. Just think about how you’ve been playing. In this case, you’ve been playing a solid TAG game. You haven’t abused late position advantage too much. Your stack has doubled since you sat down.
The above is how your opponent sees you as a player: solid, TAG, a winner.
So, think about where he’s coming from. He’s decided to 3-bet preflop into a solid TAG player with a double stack. This after limping preflop, no less. He’s a tight and generally passive player; you haven’t seen him raise much at all. He hasn’t donked off any money. In fact, he’s up about 20BBs.
I’ve been talking about betting as a mode of communication. If this exchange between you and your early position opponent were a chat transcript, how would it look? Probably something like this:
You: “I’m raising. You all know I play a solid game, I probably don’t have air here. Don’t mess with me.”
Opponent: “Hey, solid TAG guy. I know you don’t mess around. I know your probable hand range. That said, I’m not afraid of you this time!”
How should you respond? The way we’ve explained it, it should seem pretty obvious. You’ve raised preflop with a hand that isn’t too great, mainly to try and take down the pot. A player who barely shows any aggression 3bets you from early position; he’s at a positional disadvantage, and he knows you’re a good player. It’s almost never worth calling here—let tight passive guy take down the pot!
Your response in a transcript:
You: “Okay, tight passive guy. You never raise. You’re timid and fragile. Yet, you’re showing some real strength here. I’m going to give you credit. I fold.”
A lot of players would push AJo all-in against this guy as a reflex. Most of them would probably lose a lot of money. By thinking about the hand in terms of the ‘betting language’, you were able to make an informed, serious decision.
A Model For Thought
I’ve just run through an example of a pretty standard hand. However it’s not the hand itself I want you to take away from this article. It’s the thought process. The method you should use when deciding when and how to bet. Putting thought behind your actions will never lose you cash; your profits can only increase. Especially considering most of your opponents won’t be thinking at all.
Before you click on the raise button, run through all your options. Consider how your opponents view your game. Consider how your opponents actually play. Try to exploit opponents’ perceptions of your game. Don’t let them exploit your perception of theirs.
Remember: in the end, poker isn’t a game of cards. It’s a game of information, and fundamentally, a psychological battle. Betting isn’t something you just do because you have a hand; it’s a tool you can use to manipulate your opponents.
Try to think in terms of the ‘betting language’ at the tables. You’ll be surprised by two things: first, the amount of success you’ll achieve, and second, how easy the game of poker will become.