What Bet Sizing Tells You
Bet sizing can tell you a lot in live poker. In general, the level of play in a live format is going to be lesser than what you would normally find in the equivalent stakes online. Because of this, you are going to have a much easier time reading into exactly what a certain size bet might mean. Most of the time you'll need to use context clues in order to effectively try to piece together the puzzle that bet sizing is presenting you with.
You can't take an over bet, for example, out of context and say that they usually mean someone is either exceptionally strong or weak. Instead, you need to see what the action was before, after, and at that exact moment. When you compile all of the information readily available to you, it will be that much easier to assess what bet sizing likely means.
The inherent issue with using bet sizing to determining hand strength is that it requires just the right set of variables. You aren't going to be able to tell a whole lot from most standard open raises. Likewise, without any sort of history in regards to betting tendencies of any given player, you'll have a tough time deciphering what any individual bet could mean. Again this all comes back to using several pieces of information to paint one solidified picture. With all of this said, there are still plenty of ways in which experienced, thinking players can look at bet sizing in order to determine where they are likely to stand in any given hand. This article aims to outline some of the more common situations and what they most frequently mean.
Pre-Flop Bet Sizing
Pre-flop is arguably the toughest time to accurately determine what a specific bet size is likely to mean. The most obvious sort of bet sizing tell in pre-flop situations is the over bet. Players who raise 10x the big blind or re-raise to an astronomical amount are usually in a position of extreme strength. If not extreme strength, the other typical pre-flop over betting hands include TT-QQ and sometimes AK. These are the types of hands that are most definitely strong in and of themselves, but a lot of players don't understand how to play them correctly.
Rather than try to learn proper strategy for these sorts of hands, many live players will instead bomb the pot. They figure that a big bet should earn them a win right then and there. Needless to say, this is very flawed logic, but you can use their missteps to save you money. Where one player is sacrificing potential winnings, in this case the over bettor, there's usually someone who is saving on losses.
One of the more curious yet surprisingly common pre-flop bet sizes is the min raise. A lot of players will make this move with hands in which they want to build the pot just a little bit. Another reason players use to justify this raise is that they want to fend off unwelcome open raises that might put them in an awkward position. Usually a min raise will be indicative of either a suited connector type hand or a small pocket pair. It isn't impossible for min raises to be monster hands either. You should be leery of a min raise, but don't let it scare you away from making a three bet should you be holding a hand that calls for more aggression.
Post-Flop Bet Sizing
Post-flop is when the action and bet sizing will generally provide you with a lot more accurate and complete reads. Where in pre-flop play you had little to work with other than history with opponents, post-flop play has a framework in place that can be used to help more effectively pin down hand strength. If someone has raised or re-raised pre-flop, you are going to learn a lot from how they react to the flop. Maybe it's likely that they bricked, maybe you think they are still strong. Whether you know or not, the one thing that is for sure is that flop action will push you in one direction or the other.
Imagine that you are in middle or late position and make a raise. For the sake of example, just assume that your hand is of decent strength but not aces or kings. It folds around to a player in the blinds who makes a moderate sized 3-bet. Now, this isn't enough to immediately cause you to muck your hand, but it does give some pause for concern. Considering your position, you decide to make the call and see a flop.
Remember, your actual hand strength is largely irrelevant because the main goal is to find out where your opponent stands. The flop comes with all low cards. If the other player had a hand like AQ or AK, they missed completely. If they had a big pocket pair, they are in great shape. The pot size right now is around $160 and the game is $2/$5 NLHE.
Since you are in position, the 3-bettor is first to act. After little thought, he leads out for $50. Now, this is a very small bet. What is it likely to mean? In this case, it probably means that he missed. Think about what most players would do in this spot if they actually had a big pocket pair. Most anyone would fire out a much more sizable bet given the action, the size of the pot, and the board. If the player is sucking you in, they are making a mistake, even if it happens to work this time. Small bets into large pots tend to mean that a player has become very apprehensive for one reason or another.
Over bets in post-flop play are entirely different stories than small bets. These types of moves can mean literally anything. If you had to pick one most likely answer, it would be that an over bet means absolute strength. This is the very reason, though, that over bets also work so well as bluffs. You'll need to have a lot of courage to make these types of bets, but they do work fairly often. In the end, you are frequently going to be in positions where all you beat is a total bluff regardless.
Knowing this, you are going to be able to polarize your opponent's range to one of two things: way ahead and way behind. It's unlikely that you will be facing very many over bets where you both have middle sets or mid-range flushes, for example. Use the action throughout the hand to try and determine what an over bet means. Always be careful, because it could cost you big time if you are wrong. Though it stings when you are wrong, it will sure feel good when you manage to pick off an over bet bluff. The key is to pick off the bluffs just a bit more often than you pay someone off.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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