Varying Your Opening Bet Size
September 20, 2021
When the amount that can be bet is selected by the player rather than specified by the structure of the game (as is done in fixed-limit poker), it conveys information that is helpful in determining what the bettor is likely to have. In these days of extensive Internet poker-playing, where you cannot see your opponent and may well know nothing about how he plays, his bet size may well be the most pertinent guide in figuring out what he holds. A person’s betting tempo, which is often important in live play, is not really available. (An Internet player who takes a long time to act may be away from his computer getting a drink of water, for all you know.)
In no-limit hold’em, you can bet whatever you want. A player is often torn between betting what he believes to be the perfect amount for his situation or some other sum that will conceal his holding better than making the precise optimum-size bet. Which should he choose?
In preflop betting, a standard-size raise in no-limit hold’em is the size of the pot. In a normal structure of two blinds, with the small blind half the big, this is three and a half times the size of the big blind. For example, in a $5-$10 blind structure, a pot-size opening raise is to $35. This amount is computed by calling $10 (making the pot size $25), and then raising $25, for a total bet of $35. Naturally, you put the whole amount in at once, or use some other method that avoids the string-bet violation of making a call before announcing a raise.
Tournament structures often use an ante in the later stages of the event to supplement the blinds. With antes added, three and a half times the big blind will be considerably short of the pot size — and considerably short of the best amount to raise. You shouldn’t give opponents a cheap shot at a large amount of money. For example, with $100-$200 blinds, a pot-size raise is $700. If this same structure has a $25 ante supplementing the blinds — a common ante for this structure — in an eighthanded game, an open-raise the size of the pot would be $900, because there is $200 added in ante money. When the tournament structure starts using an ante, a good rule of thumb is to increase your regular open-raise amount by the size of the big blind.
There appears to be a school of thought that says you should always open for a pot-size raise (unless going all in with a short stack), so opponents will never know anything about the nature of your hand from your wagered amount. I am not a faculty member of that school. There are too many times I would want to do something other than opening for this prescribed amount. Let me explain why I vary my amount for open-raising, and how I select it.
A poker qiu qiu player has two main goals when raising preflop. One is to get more money into the pot because he has a good hand. The other is to capture the blind money by having everyone fold. The latter goal is far more important in tournament play than in a money game, because capturing those big tournament blinds often results in a sizable increase in your stack. So, it should be obvious that you need to alter your play for tournaments by raising a greater amount. Even so, I do not stick to the pot-size raise in either setting.
It is true that no matter what your position when open-raising, both of the goals mentioned previously are at work. But as your open-raise occurs in later and later position, the ratio of importance of each goal differs. A raise from up front shows a good hand, one that desires a larger amount in the pot. In a full game, if there is a reasonable amount of money in my stack, my raise will be made with premium hands like A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, A-K, or 8-7 suited. (Of course, I am not claiming an 8-7 suited is a premium hand. The use of an 8-7 here is generic, meaning I open-raise with a piece of near garbage every once in a while to avoid being too predictable. In the same vein, I sometimes limp with one of the above premium hands.) Since my goal is more building a pot than winning the blinds, my raise will be in the moderate range of three to four times the big blind.
This is a good spot to mention that opening for only double the big blind is not an established part of my arsenal, even though I have experimented with it a little in cheap no-limit hold’em Internet money games. I tell my students to at least triple the big blind if they decide to open-raise, as my experience with only doubling the big blind has not shown any worthwhile results, even though doubling is not such a bad poker play. You see the play of doubling the big blind a lot on the Internet, because there is a button that does this (as opposed to a sliding bet-size selector). In the same vein, I prefer sites that do not have a “pot-size raise” button, because it encourages good poker and makes the game tougher. There is some argument for such a button in a pot-limit game (allowing you to bet the maximum quickly), but not in no-limit.
In late position, I will open-raise with a wide range of hands, many of which are shabby enough that a fold by the blinds would not disturb me in the least. I use a slightly larger amount here, four to five times the big blind, with the purpose of getting called less often. Even though I usually raise from the cutoff or button position, I sometimes limp. This is likely to be early in a tournament, to find out if a person in the blind is going to automatically raise because I showed weakness. If he is quick to pounce, I might limp from the button when holding a big pair against him later on in the event.
In middle position, I may open-raise for anywhere from three to five times the big blind, depending mainly on how many chips my hand actually grabs. In other words, I vary the sum in a mostly random fashion.
As you see, the amount of my open-raise is affected by position. Another factor is whether my stack size might commit me to calling a reraise if I open for a large amount. For example, if I have a short stack of only 12 times the big blind, open-raising for five times the big blind is quite committal, as a reraise of seven times the big blind, putting me all in, might force me to shut my eyes and call. Merely tripling the big blind would mean an all-in reraise is now nine times the big blind, and I have more flexibility in whether to call or fold. Of course, my opponent may be more likely to put me all in if he sees I have the wiggle room to fold; there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The quality of my hand seldom enters into my decision of how much to raise. In fact, with rare exceptions, whether I have pocket aces or pocket fives, the amount will be the same. One of the biggest no-limit hold’em mistakes is to raise a smaller amount (looking to get action) with your strong hands — or, as some rookies do, use a formula that the bigger your hand, the bigger your bet size. Don’t determine your wager amount by the strength of your hand.
If I open for three times the big blind from early position on a hand, then four times the big blind later on in the same game, you cannot draw any conclusion about what I hold. Anyone who reads too much into my bet amount is leaving himself open to making a decision based on a faulty conception. I do not believe that varying the size of my open-raise makes me any more readable than a player who mechanically opens for the size of the pot, because I do not give away the nature of my hand by the amount of my raise.
Just out of curiosity, what does a person who tries to use the pot-size formula do when playing with $10-$15 blinds? Only on some Internet sites can he open for the precise figure of $52.50. In a live game, does the poor guy have to either limp or throw his hand away in disgust? Will the frustration of being unable to make a formula-size raise put him on tilt?
Always raising a pot-size amount strikes me as being too routine. It also seems a bit paranoid, as if you’re fearful that your opponents are better than you and might have X-ray vision.
I recall a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It makes perfectly good sense to vary your bet size in no-limit hold’em instead of stubbornly sticking to a fixed formula. You are better off being flexible. As long as you do not make your preflop raise-size decision according to the strength of your hand, no one will be able to make a good judgment about what you hold by the amount selected. You will be free to tailor your tool to the situation.