Barreling is one of poker’s most fundamental skills. Whether you’re firing once, twice or all three times, whether it’s for value or as a bluff, you need a working barreling strategy to win in this game. Ed Miller joins us on this week’s podcast with a simplified barreling strategy that anyone can use: “When they check, you bet.” Of course, the profit is in the details, so don’t miss this week’s podcast.
Ed Miller: You check? I bet. That’s my strategy in a nutshell. And that’s pretty much it. It sounds aggressive, but really, it’s not in that it’s almost always right in these games that are nitty like this or that have nitty tendencies. That is almost always the right play. If someone checks to you, you really almost always should bet. If they call and check again, you really should bet. You should just keep doing that. I’m going to kind of go over the foundation to that.
But here, I want to present a concept, and this is something that’s a little bit different than what’s in the book, but this is a very valuable idea also. That in every hand you play, and this is every hand, any time … You’re not going to know this pre-flop, so I kind of think of pre-flop as different. It’s not really different, but I kind of think of it as different. Pre-flop is just, you kinda play this pre-written pre-flop strategy that gets you into post-flop situations, in situations that you’re going to be able to take advantage of.
But once the flop hits, you have a lot more information about where the hand is headed. You’ve got the board texture, which is critical, and then you’ve got extra data points about whether your opponents are betting or checking on the flop, possibly even bet sizing on the flop. Once the flop hits, you’re going to have a lot more information to try to answer this question.
And the question is, “Does my opponent want to play for stacks?” That’s the question. You should ask that question of yourself every single time you see a flop. Does my opponent want to play for stacks? Because there’s three answers, right?
One is yes, your opponent wants to play for stacks. If your opponent wants to play for stacks, guess what? You’ve got to stop barreling. You don’t bluff. You don’t bluff. Don’t bluff into someone who wants to play for stacks. I know that’s kind of, “Duh,” but I see this all the time to where people will flop big draws. Like they’ll flop a pair and a flush draw or they’ll flop a combo straight flush draw, or they’ll flop just a flush draw with over cards or something.
And they’ll just see that hand on the flop and they’ll be like, “Oh, man. This hand is so big. I got to just shove with it.” But the thing is if your opponent is giving you significant clues that they want to play for stacks, don’t shove with that hand. Don’t do that. Why would you do that? Why would you shove with a draw? Even if it’s a strong draw, why would you shove with a draw if you’re almost sure you’re going to get called? Because then you’ve completely devalued that hand, right? You’re just playing it for its equity. It’s equity is not going to be more than 50% likely because it might be more than 50% against exactly one pair, but sometimes you’re going to run into a set when you only have 25% equity or whatever. On average, in these situations, it’s really rare that when you get it in with one of these bluffing hands you’re going to have more than 50% equity. So what you’re doing is your taking this good hand and you’re locking in a loss with it, which really doesn’t make any sense to me.
Now I know, you never know 100%, that they are not going to fold, and sometimes people surprise you and okay, okay, okay. But if there’s significant money behind, which is really what I’m talking about in these spots where there’s $500, $1000 behind, typically you’re going to perform much better with those hands if you just call on the flop, you see a turn card and maybe your opponent is going to see turn and river cards and decide they don’t want to play for stacks anymore, even if you miss your hand.
The point is, if the answer to the question, “Does my opponent want to play for stacks?” … If the answer is yes, then you stop barreling. Period. Don’t bluff. In fact, don’t bet unless you have a huge hand yourself. A hand that’s even better than the type of hand your opponent might want to play for stacks. And even if you have a huge hand, sometimes you want to check raise or check it anyway. So the point is, if someone wants to play for stacks, you should put a screeching halt on all your betting from that point forward.
Now, get to the more common answer, which is no, my opponent does not want to play for stacks. I know this is like dirt simple, but it’s really true. If the answer is no, then you keep barreling and bet until everyone folds. I mean it sounds simple, but people don’t do that. Most hands, most people don’t want to … Think about yourself. Do you want to play for stacks on most hands when you see a flop? I mean the answer is no, right? You raised with ace, queen. You get called. The flop comes nine, six, six. Do you want to play for stacks? No. You’ve got pocket jacks. The flop comes king, ten, seven. Do you want to play for stacks? No. Most hands, you do not want to play for stacks.
So, if you don’t want to play for stacks most of the time, guess what? Your opponents, who are kind of competent and are actively trying to avoid getting stacked with second best hands, they don’t want to play for stacks either. This is the most common scenario is “no”, people don’t want to play for stacks. And if your opponents don’t want to play for stacks then guess how you beat them? You make them play for stacks. That’s it. You just keep betting until they fold because they will.
I’m spending time on this. It’s only one little sentence on my PowerPoint here but this is like really, really, really the point is most people most of the time do not want to play for stacks, which means you can win almost every pot just if you keep betting. Just don’t stop betting. I mean that’s it. But take that seriously. Like rewind for two minutes and listen to my rant again about how you should not stop betting and just keep getting because that’s the point.
Okay. Now the third answer is that you don’t know and this is going to be the case a lot of the time on the flop. You don’t really know if they want to play for stacks yet or not. There’s only been one bet. You have one data point. You have one bet size piece of information. You have one flop texture. They might want to play for stacks. They might not.
So what do you do in that case? Well, the answer is you keep barreling. It’s the same as “no”, and I’ll go into depth on that a little bit more in a second. But you keep barreling, for now. The first reason is you don’t want to give your opponents a hint that you don’t have the nuts, right? Part of the problem with abandoning your barreling early is it becomes difficult to wrap hands like the nuts later in the hand. And even though bluffing is not all about what you can wrap and what you can’t wrap, you don’t want to create situation after situation where your bluffing in situations where you really just can’t have the hand that you’re representing because if you did, you would’ve just bet the whole hand.
So that’s the first problem. That’s the first reason to keep barreling is just to keep that open. And the second reason to keep barreling is you want to build the pot in anticipation of getting more information and clarification on the next street because when you build up a pot while it’s still ambiguous, now when you get the information you’re looking for, you’re now going to have a bigger pot that you’re making a good decision in and when you make a good decision in a bigger pot, it’s worth more money to you. This is a point that I think a lot of people don’t understand, but you want to build those pots early if you’re going to get information to play them late.
Why would you want to play for a $10 limped pot or $30 limped pot, and check it on the flop and oh, you just got information that your hand is good. Great, you’re going to bet and take it and you won $30 bucks. Or do you want to raise pre-flop, get two calls, have a $60 pot, bet $50 on the flop, get called on the spot, now it’s $160 pot, and your opponent is going to tell you how to play in that $160 pot. Isn’t that more valuable to you? To have $160 pot where you’re playing a game where you have a significant edge versus playing a $30 pot where you’re playing a game with a significant edge. I mean this is a point. So you need to build these pots early and you need to keep barreling. There’s really way more upside to that strategy than downside.
Okay. So when you don’t know. There were three answers. One you’re “yes”, your opponent wants to play for stacks and that’s when you shut down. Two is “no”, your opponent doesn’t want to play for stacks and that’s when you just bet and raise until they fold. And then three is you don’t know. Some of the hands in their range, they will want to play for stacks, but most the hands they probably won’t want to play for stacks. So that’s principle number one. Is that most of the time, your opponent is not going to want to play for stacks and that’s just because good hands are rare. Usually, when it starts out as “don’t know” on the flop, it’s going to end up as a “no” by the river. That’s the first thing to keep in mind. Usually, “don’t know” will turn into “no”.
Second, is most opponents do not have the patience to be deceptive. And this is a really, really important point. This is a very true at $2/$5. It’s less true as you move up. But it’s very true at $2/$5, so rely on it because it’s extremely valuable. At $2/$5, players are going to live in fear of being drawn out on. So any time they have a hand, a strong hand, that they do want to play for stacks, they are worried you’re going to hit a flush and beat them. And then, that they’re going to get caught with the second best hand, and pay you off on the river, which is their worst nightmare. So that’s really their fear, right? Their fear is, first of all, they don’t want to get drawn out on. But second of all, they really, really, really do not want to get drawn out on and then pay off $500 on the river. That’s really what they don’t want to have happen. A lot of $2/$5 players are living in fear of that.
What they’re going to do is there going to come at you earlier in the hand, certainly before the river, with their stack worthy the hand. They’re going to make sure they get in a big bet or raise by the turn, by the end of the turn betting. And if they don’t, that’s a pretty good sign, a lot of times, that your opponent does not have a hand that they want to play for stacks.
Third, the math says you have to be nowhere near certain of your read to keep barreling. This is the other point. I think people think about the math in a way that’s a little bit flawed here. They think, “Well, gee, it’s super-duper expensive to keep barreling and then get caught.” I mean you flop whatever, nothing, and then you bet $30 on the flop and get called in bet 90 on the turn, you get called, and then you bet $300 on the river and you get called. And gee, you just flushed $420 down the toilet but that’s not the right way to look at that. Because at each point along the way, you had a chance to win the pot. So each of those bets is subsidized by the fact that you could have picked up the pot immediately.
If you’re also doing this with hands which have a chance to draw out, then on those flop and turn bets, frequently they’re free or better than free, which means you should make keep making them. Because the combined chance that your opponent folds immediately along with the chance that you end up hitting your hand subsidizes that bet so much that it’s a plus EV situation on its own. In other words, not only are you building the pot occasionally for a river barrel, but you’re doing so in a way that causes you to profit over the long term.
Now, now that you’re making flop and turn barrels that are profitable, let’s look at that final river barrel. Now your bluffing into a pot and you’re getting on odds. So usually, let’s say there’s $500 in a pot. And this is a pot that you built, in a way, again, that I’ll emphasize, that is plus EV along the way. So this pot, you didn’t have to pay to build this pot. This pot paid to build itself, paid you, something like that. Anyways, so this pot exists. It’s a $500 on the end. You can usually bluff $300, $350, $400 into that pot. You can give yourself some odds while still making a bet that’s big enough to get people off all of these hands that they don’t want to play for stack.
Which means, you don’t even have to be 50-50 on your read to fire that final barrel profit of lead because you’re betting $300 or $400 to win $500. So you only have to succeed like 40% of the time sometimes to make that barrel profitable. A lot of people think about it completely the other way, right? They want to win like 80% or 90% of the time for them to think about bluffing the river, when that’s really not right it all, right? 50-50 is fine. 50-50 means fire the bluff.
So that’s kind of the three things about “don’t know”, is first of all, “don’t know” usually ends up as “no” in these games. You can see that just by watching and seeing how many pots don’t go to showdown, how many pots in on the turn, how many pots end, in a $2/$5 game, end with just $100 bet, which is not that big in it $2/$5 game, but yet the pot ends. So first is “don’t know” usually ends up as “no”.
Second, is most of the time when it’s going to be “yes” your opponents aren’t going to hide that from you. They are going to tell you by putting in action by the end of the turn because they are worried about getting drawn out on and having to call a final river bet with the second best hand and since that’s their worst fear, they’re going to do the thing stops that from happening but that thing also happens to warn you when you shouldn’t be barreling the river.
The third thing says, okay, failing all that, it’s usually going to be “no”, they don’t want to play for stacks. Two is if it is “yes”, they usually tell you. Failing all that, you still only have to be right 50% of the time, okay? Hopefully that’s my case for why this kind of ruthless strategy of just firing at people is really, really, really successful in all of these games where people are “solid” or nitty or any of that. You just keep betting.
Here’s an example. An opponent opens for $20. Another player calls. You’re on the button. You’ve got seven, five suited. You call with that hand, right? You could three bet actually, it’s not the worst position to three bet, but it’s kind of opponent dependent and yada yada. Let’s say you call this time. I’d usually call. I think I wouldn’t usually three bet with that hand. Okay. So lines fold. There is $67 in the pot and $1000 behind. The flop comes nine, eight, four with one of your suits, so you’ve got a gut shot. Not the world’s best gut shot, but it’s a gut shot, and a backdoor flush draw. So the pre-flop raiser checks … The pre-flop raiser checked, this is a board that is not necessarily good for a pre-flop raiser and that player checks. So that’s good news. The next player bets 35 into $67, so it’s like a half pot bet. You call with your gut shot and the raiser calls. There’s is $172 in the pot now.
Here’s the time to ask yourself the question. Does anyone want to play for stacks? It’s a good question. Pre-flop raiser, I would say probably not. Normally, in these games, a pre-flop raiser is not going to check and call a flop like this if they want to play for stacks, especially if the stacks are deep like $1000. If they flopped a set, typically they’re either going to bet the flop or they’re going to check raise here after a bet and a call. If they have a hand like kings or queens or aces or something that they might be willing to play for stacks for $1000, usually they’re going to put, again, more flop action in. They’re going to be worried about getting drawn out on the turn.
So, yeah. So the check and call I would say is a “probably not”. It’s not a definite “no”. They can have those hands I just said, but the flop action kind of makes that less likely and the answer’s usually “no”. Usually. Those two things combined make it a “probably not” for the pre-flop raiser. So the flop better is a “don’t know”. You don’t know. All he did was bet, so he could want to play for stacks. You don’t know. But again, most hands that you’re going to bet on this flop are not going to want to end up playing for stacks. Turn is the queen of hearts. The pre-flop raiser checks again and the next player bets 70 into the 172 pot. He bet 35 on the flop and now he got called into spots and now he’s betting 70 on the turn. The question is do these players want to play for stacks now?
The turn board is nine, eight, four, queen, with two diamonds. You’ve got seven, five, so you’ve got that gut shot. Your opponent just bet $70 into a $172 pot after betting $35 into a $67 pot on the flop. Does anyone want to play for stacks?
Here’s my answer. My answer’s “probably not”. The pre-flop raiser is still a “probably not”. They were a “probably not” on the flop. The queen possibly improves that situation, but even with ace, queen most $2/$5 players are not going to want to play for $1000 stacks on a board like this even on with ace, queen. They’re going to worry you have jack, ten. They’re going to worry you flopped a set, yada yada. The flush is going to come and they’re going to be convinced you had a flush draw. Whatever it is, most of the times, this type of player, is going to be worried about playing for $1000 with just one pair.
The pre-flop raiser probably doesn’t have his queen, probably has something else. Pre-flop raiser’s still a “probably not”. I think the better is also a “probably not”. The reason is it has to do with the bet size. If the bet size were bigger, if he’d bet $140 in $172 pot, my answer would be kind of a “maybe” almost to “yes” on playing for stacks because that’s a big bet. It’s a bet that says I’m not scared of ace, queen … $140, $150 … I’m not worried that the pre-flop raiser might aspect the queen. I’m not worried that I got called in two spots really. I want to protect my hand whatever it is. There’s a good chance that’s two pair, nine, eight, it’s a flopped set, pocket nines, pocket eights, pocket fours. It’s possibly jack, ten, possibly. A bigger bet size is a “probably yes,” which kind of to me means that a smaller bed size is a “probably no”.
Because with those hands, most people are going to want to shade that turn a little bit bigger. To me, this turn bet says, I’ve got ten, nine. I’ve got Jack, nine. I’ve got ten, eight. I’ve got nine, eight. Sorry, not nine, eight. I’ve got Jack, eight maybe so I’ve got those pair and gut shot hands that I want to see the river with and I don’t want to pay a ton of price to see that, so I’m going to just bet out for $70 instead of having to check and then watch this maniac pressing on the button who bets every time someone checks. Have them bet $180 at me. I’m going to just bet $70 and try to see the river with my hand.
Or they’ve got … They called with a gut shot on the flop like queen, ten or queen, jack and now they’ve got top pair. So he’s like, “okay, well I’ll bet $70.” That’s not the likeliest scenario. Or he’s got a hand like jacks or tens, pocket jacks or pocket tens. A lot of those type of hands are going to want to see the river or if it’s a flush draw maybe. It might still be a flush draw.
Here’s the thing is that most of these type of hands that might at $70 in this situation, are not going to want to play for stacks. The pre-flop raiser’s probably not going to want to play for stacks. So given that, my answer is I’m going to raise. I raise, I would raise small here, and the reason I would raise small is because whoever bet the turn, the $70 better on the turn, probably wants to see the river. The reason he’s betting $70 and not checking is because he’s got some hand that wants to see a river card. He’s got all those hands that I rattled off that are like pair plus straight draw or maybe a flush draw or something like that. He wants to see the river. He’s probably going to see the river, but what I would do is I would raise small because that’s a bet he’s going to call. So I’m going to raise, he’s going to call.
The purpose of the raise is not to win the pot immediately, though sometimes it will, but usually it won’t. The purpose of the raise is to do two things. One is it’s, again, to make it believable that you have a nut hand. You raised the turn. You called the flop. You raised the turn. That’s what people do with nutted hands. So that’s what you’re doing. He’s not going to worry so much about the fact that you did it only a small raise, he’s going to just say, “Oh, you raised the turn. You could have the nuts.” Second reason is to build this pot. This is a pot your opponent at, at this point, is probably not going to win, right? They probably do not want to play for stacks.
The river probably will not hit their hand and the cards that are dangerous will be obvious: tens, jacks. Those are dangerous cards. Those are really the dangerous ones are tens and jacks. Because those cards are going to improve a lot of the hands that your opponent is going to show up with after this action. Most of the time, your opponent is going to miss the river card and then is going to not want to play for stacks. Most of the time, you are going to end up winning this pot with a river bet, which means don’t you want to make it bigger? Right? That’s why we choose a small raise size on the turn. It allows you to wrap the nuts on the river very credibly and it also puts more money in the pot that ultimately you’re probably going to end up winning.
I would raise anywhere from a minimum raise of $140 to about $180, right. You want to make this kind of an easy call with any of the types of hands that I was discussing before. If you get re-raised, here’s the other reason keep the raise size small, is every once in a while you’re going to get re-raised. Your read is wrong. He does want to play for stacks. He’s got jack, ten. He’s got whatever. Okay. Then great. Somebody wants to play for stacks and now you get away from it without having to commit on the river. This is what I meant by my point number two is that people will usually tell you by the turn if they want to play for stacks and especially if you raise the turn, they’re going to say, “He might want to play for stacks. I want to play for stacks. Let’s get the money in.”
This gives you kind of a cheap idea, and answer, to do they want to play for stacks or not? If they don’t re-raise you, the answer really is “probably no”. Therefore, if you get re-raised, you just fold. If you get called, then you’re planning to barrel most of the river cards and it’s going to be profitable. Like a five of hearts on the river or something. You’re going to bet that card. You’re going to bet it for about $400 and you’re going to find your opponent with J9 is going to fold.