For most poker players it’s the first programmed bluff we learn. We raise preflop, get called, and bet the flop. We’ve made a continuation bet or c-bet.
The idea behind the play is simple and effective. By raising preflop we’ve announced we have a strong hand. Continuing the aggression postflop indicates to our opponent we still have a strong hand and they better have hit the flop if they want to continue. Since it’s hard to hit flops in Hold ’em, they are often forced to fold.
Clearly that is a gross over-simplification of what is, in practice, a far more nuanced issue. However, back in 2002 when I was getting my Hold ’em feet wet at a small online site run by androgynous Swedes, the c-bet was my favorite weapon. It just worked!
Then I met MrBooger. He (presumably) was a regular in the online limit games I was playing and knew even less about poker than I did. I’d usually try to sit to the left of MrBooger since he often limped, invariably called my isolation raises, and frequently check-folded to my inevitable flop c-bets. In taking this line it was literally impossible for me to lose in the long run.
Before I got seduced by poker I played chess. There’s an aphorism generally attributed to Lasker, but more likely originating with Ponziani, that is usually quoted as: “If you find a good move, look for a better one.” I’m still not sure if this idea was rattling around my unconscious when I had the troubling realization that my favorite play might not be as clever as I originally thought.
Further study revealed an interesting quirk. MrBooger would occasionally lead the flop in the specific situation described above. This presumably occurred on the minority of occasions when he hit the flop. But far more importantly, if the flop checked through, MrBooger would fire the turn and then nearly always fold if raised. In other words, my brilliant flop c-bet was costing me the big bet I could win on most turns. MrBooger was also using a programmed play of firing at orphans on the turn, but since it’s even harder to turn a made hand than to flop one, most of these bets were bet-folds.
As a result of all this, my c-bets ceased to be automatic. Further, I learned from the standard texts that there were additional spots in LHE where not c-betting had a specific purpose: to set up the delayed c-bet. My arsenal of weapons was growing.
By the time I converted from LHE to NLHE, the poker boom had happened and high-limit cash games were appearing on TV. My poker library was also growing. I particularly enjoyed “Ace On The River” by Barry Greenstein, partly because it combined poker and life wisdom.
When I watched Greenstein play NLHE, both in cash games and in WPT tournaments, I noticed that he played tight. This pleased me since it fed my naturally nitty tendencies. He would rarely enter pots, but when he did it was always for a raise. And then he would c-bet. 100%.
It was at this point that The Universe intervened in the troubling way it has exhibited for the last decade or so that is raising my suspicion that we are living in a simulation.
In Croatian it means “I have to c-bet.” In Latin it means “Delayed c-bet.”
It was starting to look like part of my poker strategy was going to be defined by whether I was a classicist or a Croatian.
I settled on a rather tepid middling strategy which I have revisited on multiple occasions as my poker knowledge has grown. Then Matthew Janda published “No-Limit Hold ’em For Advanced Players” and reading it convinced me that my entire approach needed an overhaul.
Janda asks the critical question: Why do we bet (or raise) at all? The video content at RCP attacks the problem from multiple angles. Top-end and overall range advantage; frequencies as in “Poker’s 1%”; other unexploitable approaches based on balance and GTO ideas and exploitative ones in which “I bet my entire range here” is the guiding principle.
Janda helped me cut through the confusion. In “No-Limit Hold ’em” he gives two reasons for betting or raising: to make the pot bigger in case we win, and to deny our opponent the ability to realize their equity.
These twin prongs provide a remarkably powerful starting point which I have been trying to implement in the $1/2 games I play in Las Vegas. Janda gives an example that is similar to a hand that recently produced passionate discussion between myself and some other Red Chippers.
Hero opens Q♥Q♣ on the button and gets called by Villain in the big blind. The flop comes:
Villain checks. Do we c-bet our queens here?
Janda argues convincingly that we should not. While it’s true that we are likely ahead and that betting (if called) will make the pot bigger, c-betting QQ here is largely irrelevant in denying Villain the ability to realize their equity, simply because the only overcard that can beat us on the turn or river is an ace. To put it another way, if our c-bet causes villain to fold, we are mostly folding out hands that have little chance to beat us, but which may catch up on the turn and pay us off. Janda contrasts the situation in which we hold the 88 where a bet will fold out many twin-overcard combos that have appreciable equity against our hand. (Note this concept was elucidated by Seidman in “Easy Game” a decade before Janda. I’m grateful to persuadeo for pointing out this omission in the original text.)
Chapter 26, Volume 2 of Doug’s “Poker Plays You Can Use,” provides an example of delaying a c-bet until the turn in a typical Las Vegas $1/2 game.
We are on the button with 4♦3♦ and two players limp. We make it $17 to go and the small blind and limpers call. I should point out that this punish is a bit ambitious for my taste, but this is Doug we are talking about and with sufficient control over the table I can see it being profitable. The flop comes:
Everybody checks to us. When faced with a spot like this, it’s critical we remember what our plan for the hand was in the first place. Raising small suited connectors on the button over limpers may win us the pot preflop, or we may get heads up in position with the opportunity to aggressively barrel draws. None of that happened here. We have multiple opponents (who likely follow the plan of “checking to the raiser” when they flop something) and zero equity. Our play is to check.
The turn is the 5♥. Everybody checks to us again.
Now the situation has changed. While the equity we’ve picked up with the gutshot isn’t that much to write home about, the field has checked to us twice. With three or four outs and disinterested opponents, this is a decent spot for a delayed c-bet. Doug fires out a little more than half pot and everyone folds.
I decided I needed Comrade Vape’s input on all this and simultaneously realized that I hadn’t seen him for a while. When I finally tracked him down he looked somewhat pale and bug-eyed. It turns out he’d been engrossed in a fascinating project that I’m expecting to make poker waves in the near future that involves lengthy analyses using Card Runners EV (CREV). This software basically allows the user to generate full hand decision trees for input ranges and run-outs and has been featured in some recent RCP videos including CREV-101 by Adam Jones.
I explained I’d been revisiting the question of c-betting in the context of Janda’s latest tome and described my plan for this article. As cumulus nimbus bellowed from Comrade Vape’s device and expanded above his head, my own enthusiasm balloon for the current piece deflated in inverse proportion.
Thanks to my conversation with Comrade Vape, the article you are now reading differs considerably from its original form and I thank him for his input. In addition to improving the content it reminded me of the importance of having dedicated study partners. That said, any surviving nonsense in this piece is my fault and not his.
One particularly salient point brought up by Comrade Vape is that a true delayed c-bet requires considerable cooperation from our opponents. Indeed, in the opening example of MrBooger, my turn play is not a delayed c-bet since that would only be possible if he checked the turn. And in the example hand from Doug, the delayed c-bet is primarily an opportunistic one based on a favorable turn card and opponents clearly indicating they are weak.
Feeling slightly dim I dug deeper into not c-betting and realized the current article could do no more than scratch a deep and multi-layered patina. There are many additional tactical reasons why one might skip the conventional postflop follow through. Examples include flopping a hand like top set where your blockers make it extremely hard for villain to have top pair, or when your hand has fewer than three streets of value as discussed by Ed Miller in “The Course.” As Ed has also noted, throwing the action to your opponent can have the benefit of gleaning additional information that is lost if you c-bet automatically.
While there are reasons for not c-betting, it’s important to emphasize that c-betting is common because in many situations it is a powerful play. But as I learned from MrBooger and from chess, a good play is not always the best play.