Many players learn to stick to default bet sizing as a strategy to keep opponents guessing. And it’s a good strategy to have in general, for sure. But like all default strategies, the best result you can expect over the long-term is to be a small winner.
Big profits in poker are made where we deviate from the defaults and make more +EV plays. The default strategy is mostly there to keep us out of trouble, to provide a starting point from which to make adjustments based on the information available.
Before you push out a raise without considering the sizing, you should ponder a number of factors that might cause you to adjust your bet sizing. James “SplitSuit” Sweeney’s new video Bet Sizing Q&A (PRO Members Only) looks at many facets of bet sizing, too many to mention here. So we’re going to focus on just one aspect: How bet sizing adjustments should differ based on the skill of your opponent.
Why Do We Adjust Bet Sizing
Before we discuss how to change your sizing strategy based on player skill level, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with why we adjust from our default in the first place.
At the very heart of the matter, our bet sizing should reflect the size with the most expected value in the long-term. This is fairly obvious — we want to bet the maximum when opponents will call more with worse, and ideally we’d like to bet the minimum it takes to make our opponents fold when we’re bluffing, just in case they show up with a hand.
We never have perfect information in poker, and we will never know the exact amount we need to bet to get our opponent to take a specific action that is more +EV for us. We can get close, but even if we peg a number, that number could change hand-to-hand depending on table dynamics and the ever-changing mental states of your opponents.
Sizing Smaller vs. Bigger
If it’s clear that we need to adjust our bet sizes for maximum profit, when and how to do it is much less clear. And there’s a good reason for that.
Consider bluffs. Sometimes, you want to bet smaller when you bluff, because you want to minimize the amount of money you risk with a hand you will often not be able to continue with. Other times, you want to overbet a bluff, because you’ve put your opponent on a range that will fold most hands to your bigger-than-pot bet.
Conversely, consider value. Sometimes, you want to bet smaller for value, because you want to drag along opponents that have good but not great hands. Other times, you want to overbet for value, because you know your opponent is on tilt vs. you and thinks you’re full of it.
As you can see, the number of variables that come into play when deciding how to size your bet are myriad and always changing. The reasons for sizing smaller or bigger proliferate as well. But one thing doesn’t change: We are basing our sizing adjustments on player profiling.
For the rest of this article, we’ll focus on exactly what we’re looking for when we profile players to determine patterns in their behavior to exploit by adjusting our bet sizing.
Bet Sizing Adjustments vs. Novice Players
In low-stakes games where you’re encountering many unstudied, first-level thinking players. When they make decisions, they are only looking at their cards and the board. Sometimes they will pay attention to their position, the size of the bet and the size of the pot in front of them. And when they do pay attention to bet size, it is not in an analytical way, but more of a reactionary way. If you play low stakes, you know this player type well. Doug Hull did an in-depth study on how these unstudied players think pre-flop and post-flop (PRO Members Only). In short: They are only concerned with winning the pot. They aren’t thinking in terms of expected value. But you are.
Against these types of unskilled players, your bet sizing adjustments can be very transparent. Why not bet less when bluffing to mitigate the cost of being called? They won’t notice. Got the mortal nuts and sense that they’re strong? Overbet the pot for value, they might even shove over you with second nuts.
Adjusting bet sizing versus weak players is therefore a straightforward proposition. Their pain thresholds are well-defined. They won’t notice your adjustments or what they mean, at least for a while. You have them eating out of your hands.
Bet Sizing Adjustments vs. Good Players
Things get considerably trickier when we face good, thinking, studied players. These types of players, of which we assume you’re one, know to balance a default bet size with min raises, underbets, 2/3 pot bets, overbets, and everything in between. We do it with a balanced range that doesn’t telegraph the strength or range of our hands.
Unlike your less savvy opponents, experienced villains will be reading your bet sizing for information. This is where second-level, “I-know-that-they-know” thinking comes into play. You will need to be aware of and focused on the reactions your opponents have to your different bet sizes, because it will evolve over the course of the session.
Have they started upping their “pain threshold” and calling your 10x pre-flop raises wider OOP because they know you’re wide? That might be a good thing. If your post-flop game is tight, you are usually forcing them to make a mistake.
But what if they adjust by doing things like cold-calling your 3-bets, limp-re-raising, and so on? You can use bet sizing adjustments as a tool to achieve the desired outcome by making the same action (raising) with a different sizing that sells a story.
For example, overbetting can send a polarizing and confusing message to your opponent, such as:
(1) “I overbet the pot as a bluff because I know you possess a strong hand and I need to apply maximum pressure to get you to fold.”
(2) “I also overbet the pot for value for the same reason. I know you possess a strong hand and will be tempted to call, because I am bluffing in this spot too.”
By adjusting your bet sizing with these “forked” ranges, you are creating unsure footing for your opponent on the current street and streets to follow.
Always be aware of your current and future risk versus reward options, and stay one step ahead of good players by making higher-risk, higher-reward plays that are difficult for your opponents to read.
Bet Sizing Adjustments in Live Cash
If you use the kinds of muscular per-flop 6x+ raises that many of our coaches advocate, you will often become regarded as somewhere between table captain and annoying guy. You’ll get respect and confrontation in cycles. People will notice your abnormally big bets (for today’s often passive live cash games), but they won’t have the skills to fight back. They will probably begin making more mistakes for greater amounts of money.
Don’t fear the criticism from the table. Don’t listen to the moans and grumbles. It means you’re on the right track.
And you don’t always have to be firing away with a 100% open raise policy. Limping can be profitable in certain circumstances.
Be creative with your bet sizing in live cash and observe the effects it has on each opponents’ reactions to your actions.
Bet Sizing Adjustments Online
Online, bet sizing can tend to be far more robotic because of the buttons which allow for standard-sized raises such as half pot, 2/3 pot, full pot, etc.
Many players will click a button and then alter the bet size for evasion purposes.
But your sizing adjustments online are not terribly different from live. More creative bet sizing executed online can really confuse opponents who are under the pressure of a ticking clock.
Bet Sizing Adjustments in Tournaments
Adjusting bet sizing in tournaments is a completely different animal than cash. With tournament life, ICM, and other unique considerations, like the frequently short stacks, decisions become considerably more mathematical. We see far more players adhering to ‘standard’ bet sizes and push/fold ranges. The exact figures change over time as the game evolves, but there’s a striking uniformity to bet sizing in many tournament settings that you just don’t see as much in cash games.
Again, study what other players are doing, and what story they are trying to sell you with their bet sizing. And think about your own table image with each player, and what they’d be likely to interpret your different bet sizes as. That kind of second-level thinking will give you the edge you need to get small bets in for bluffs and big bets through for value versus even good players.