Let us first outline the only pure motives for making a bet in poker before we examine some common flawed reasons for which players bet and raise every day at the expense of their win-rate.
Good Reason 1 – Value
Let's face it. Value-betting is our bread and butter. It's the nine-to-five job that pays the bills and without it we would quickly go broke. The so-called 'reverse player' who slowplays all of his big hands and bluffs uncontrollably loses heavily mainly due to never building a big enough pot with a strong hand. It's simple – all else being equal, a strong hand wants to inject money into the pot so that it might profit handsomely at showdown.
The definition of a value-bet is a bet made where Hero expects to be ahead of Villain's range the times that Villain calls that bet. A value-bet is not just a bet made because we think we have the best hand or even because we are ahead of Villain's range. If Hero held K-K and Villain had a range of [5-4o, 6-5o, A-A], Hero would not be able to value bet on the river on 7-7-7-J-J. If he were to bet, he would only be getting called by a better hand. It is true; however, that Hero has the best hand most of the time, or in other words, that he is ahead of Villain's range. Value is all about the state of affairs after our opponent calls, not before. Pot building because we are ahead when called is a fantastic reason to bet and by far the most significant staple of a healthy game.
Good Reason 2 – Bluffing
Bluffing can be a satisfactory reason to bet, but not all bluffs are defensible or profitable. In order to make a profit from a pure bluff (one with no equity to improve) Hero needs Villain to be folding more than risk / (risk + reward) % of the time. Should he make a half-pot sized bet, Villain must release his hand 1 / (1 + 2) = 33% of the time for Hero to break even on the bet. If Hero's fold equity exceeds this target, it does not mean that betting is the most profitable line, but merely a profitable one. It is also essential that the hands from which we are trying to elicit a fold are better hands than ours. There is no EV to gain on the river by betting and folding out a hand against which we would win at showdown by checking behind.
Bluffing is a good idea whenever we can target better hands and cause them to fold more than our target percentage. Pre-flop, bluffing is higher EV when our hand has prospects of flopping well. J7s is a much better 3-bet bluff than 62o. On the flop, having a gut-shot makes bluffing more favourable than not having one. Opponents who fold too much will make bluffing a very lucrative proposition. Just be sure that the majority of the hands you want Villain to fold will often beat you at showdown if they are allowed to get there.
Good Reason 3 – Protection
Protection, contrary to popular opinion is not about "charging a flush draw." When we bet the flop and Villain calls with a strong draw, his pot odds and implied odds will almost always make him correct to call. This might be described as a thin value bet, but it is not a protection bet. Betting for protection concerns making Villain fold, not better hands this time, but worse hands.
On the flop, in late position, ranges are normally still fairly wide and fairly weak. This means that on dry textures such as 7-4-2 rainbow, a hand like AJ-o is best quite often. There is clearly very little value to be gleaned from continuation-betting this hand, and the very notion of a bluff should strike you as absurd, since most Villains will be reluctant to fold anything stronger. Many of you will still bet here, however, and correctly so. In betting, you are causing Villain to fold a lot of hands that could have caught up and won the pot had we allowed them a free card. This bet is good because it is a valid protection bet. Whenever we have the best hand very frequently and think that Villain will often hold a hand with six or more outs against us, we start to gain significantly by making him fold worse hands.
Protection betting can only thrive in an environment where our hand is frequently best and frequently vulnerable. On A-K-Q rainbow there is little point to betting Q-J. Our hand is good less often here and our equity is very stable in that, if we are ahead, we are far ahead. Villain is drawing nearly dead with 9-8s and has just two outs with 6-6.
Bad Reason 1 – Information
Betting to "find out where you're at" is a bit like cutting off your foot to see if it hurts. On some boards, this misguided motive might coincidentally lead to making a profitable bet. If we bet 5-5 on 4-4-2 for information, we might well end up making a good value/protection bet depending on Villain. Like I said at the beginning, bad reasons can stumble upon good bets, but they won't do it reliably.
If we bet K-9 against a very tight player on A-K-3 we are just playing terribly. Sure, when he calls you will have found out that you are beat, but you will have invested a bet which, when called leaves you with very little equity. At the same time, you gained very little protection as Villain's folding range was drawing extremely thin. It does not help to know where you are if you have just paid an unnecessary price to find out. Betting for this reason is motivated by an emotional desire to simplify the spot. What this often equates to is losing X to prevent you from losing X. This is clearly an illogical catastrophe.
Bad Reason 2 – To Represent The….
The flush, the ace, the king, the straight, the trips – none of it matters if Villain is not hand reading or not in the mood to fold. The reason that I hate this reason to bet so much is that it usually assumes some sort of psychological knowledge about an unknown opponent. Just like the previous bad reason to bet, there are accidentally good representing bets. Hero bets the turn on 8-6-3-K to "rep the king" and sure enough Villain is folding more of his range than he should be. All that Hero has done is made a good bluff. The fact that Villain is folding too often will usually not be down to an overly specific and unjustified thought like: "My opponent has the King." Rather, it is just that he deems his hand too weak to call.
As we saw, bluffing can be a great way to make money from opponents who fold, but the notion of representing something is outdated and redundant. By all means make a good bluff, but stop trying to manipulate your unknown opponents' thoughts. Putting someone on solely a top pair hand when they make this kind of bet is ludicrous and therefore so is the attempt to instigate such a belief.
Bad Reason 3 – To Not Give Up the Lead
This is meaningless nonsense. Giving up the lead may or may not be a good thing depending on whether any of the good reasons to bet are present. The idea that having the betting lead carries any relevance to the EV of a hand out with these three reasons is the problem here. Button raises pre-flop and big-blind calls. Heads up on a flop of K-K-6r what actually makes it a good idea for button to c-bet with 7-7? It's mainly protection, but there is a pinch of thin value involved against many opponents. By preventing his opponent from seeing the next card for free, button collects all of the pot the times big-blind is folding. Button has made a good protection bet. Any bet at all necessarily keeps the lead.
Therefore, betting "to keep the lead" is a meaningless tautology. It's a bit like me saying: "I am going drink from this glass in order to swallow the contents." If the bottle contains a fine whisky, then my choice is clearly a good one. If it contains Diet Coke, then I have made an error. [Ed note: These views are Pete's alone and don't represent the views of PokerStars School. We love all fizzy drinks!] The point is that the reasoning is useless and does not help me to make the choice to drink. Similarly in poker, betting to keep the lead may accidentally result in a good value-bet, bluff or protection bet being made, but it could just as easily result in a bad bet going in.
It is amazing how these three simple good reasons to bet can save the aspiring player from making so many pointless and -EV bets. Give it a try and see how accurate your betting choices will become. The bad reasons will not always cost you, but they do distort the picture and lead to a shaky decision making process. Avoid them at all costs. Sometimes they appear to make sense, but this is only because one of the good reasons to bet is hidden within.