Continuation Bets in Tournament Play
Continuation bets in tournament poker are valuable, but they are only going to make a truly significant difference once play begins getting shorter stacked. There are few similarities in the inherent functions and benefits of c-bets when you compare their application in tournament vs. cash game play. With all of that said, however, they are still a skill that you'll need to learn how to use. And beyond this, even when the return is going to be relatively small, there's a return nonetheless. Continuation bets are just another element of tournament play, even if they aren't going to always make the biggest difference in the world.
The first thing that needs to be understood about continuation bets is that they are used only when a player hasn't improved their hand (or otherwise would prefer to take down the pot right away). Technically you can make a continuation bet with a made hand as well, but they aren't usually referenced in this context. For the sake of this specific article, assume that a c-bet means a bet that is looking to take down a pot and not get a call. There are a number of different things that we are going to analyze in this article, with the focus being on when to c-bet and how to c-bet. From the outset, continuation betting is a simplistic skill, but it's definitely much deeper than this. Continuation bets are the type of thing that can seem so harmless yet are perfectly capable of sucking you into a big loss.
When to Continuation Bet
The first thing that needs to be in place for a continuation bet post-flop is a raise pre-flop. This could mean that you opened the action with a raise or re-raised another player's open. Once you have taken this approach as the aggressor, you now have the upper hand in that you can use this prior aggressive play to get away with moves post-flop. If players have seen you raise and re-raise, they are going to reasonably expect that you have an above average hand. Regardless of the flop, they are going to generally feel like they are beat and will be careful with you in the hand. This type of information will allow you to better control the action.
Since you have assumed the role of an aggressive player pre-flop, there's no reason that you shouldn't be taking advantage of its benefits post-flop. A continuation bet should be the next assumed step when you make an open raise. If you are going to raise pre-flop only to shut down on flops where you miss, you might as well not even raise pre-flop at all. You are going to be sacrificing so much easy money just because you are essentially playing with scared money.
With all of this said about how you should almost always be c-betting when you raise pre-flop, there's a notable exception to this rule. The assumed c-bet is going to take place when you are playing out of position and act first. If you are in position, however, checking back on the flop could easily make much more sense. If a player was thinking at all, they would check any flop where they made a hand because they know that you are prone to betting. Knowing this, you should be apprehensive of anyone who calls a raise pre-flop and then checks the flop. There's certainly a good chance that they would fold to your continuation bet anyway, but you need to measure the risk and reward.
A check back controls the size of the pot and keeps you at the helm. A bet will cost you money when called and cost you a card when raised. A check will give you another card and a chance to catch up. Plus, if you manage to get a fold after betting in position, it usually means you were ahead the whole time. Betting in this spot should be reserved for the times where you think you are both behind and are likely to get a fold. If both of these circumstances aren't in play, c-betting isn't necessarily going to be the best move. Remember, position changes everything.
How to Continuation Bet
How to continuation bet is what players struggle with the most. Even if they know they are in a spot where a c-bet makes sense, they might not know how much to bet. Without proper bet sizing you are going to either force too few folds or cost yourself too much money when you are called. Your continuation bets are going to end up being called a fair amount of the time, so you need to be cutting your losses wherever possible.
Continuation bets should be sized in a way that's intimidating to the other player, but cost effective for you. If you raised to 200 pre-flop and got one call, betting 150 or 200 on the flop wouldn't make sense. Betting 500 would be overkill, but 300 would work just fine. At this number, you are betting a reasonable size of the pot which would indicate that you are strong, but you aren't wasting chips those times where you are called.
Sometimes you'll be able to spot players who give up at the sight of any bet. Needless to say, these are the most ideal targets of continuation bets. These players will regularly look at the flop, see that they missed, and then muck regardless of how much you bet. You could fire 100 chips into that same 400 chip pot referenced above and reasonably expect to fold. The reason that these players are so easy to beat is because their call will also be indicative of a time to shut down. The way you should look at beating these players is that even a small bet will work, so anything above and beyond this is a total waste no matter how you look at it.
In the end you are going to have the bulk of players who require you to make decent sized bets to get them off their hand and the minority who folds to everything. Cater your strategy to work against a player's particular continuation betting defense and you'll be in great shape.
Unique Tournament Dynamics
Because pots tend to be much smaller in the earlier stages of tournaments, you are going to receive the most benefit from c-bets later on in an event. Pots aren't going to be truly worth fighting too hard for until the blinds start to really climb. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't be aiming to win every pot that you reasonably can, but that you should not put such a heavy emphasis on what are largely irrelevant pots.
When play is winding down, a c-bet could easily allow you to increase your stack by a good percentage. Because of this, you should be reducing your exposure to risk. When the blinds are high, people tend to shove or fold. Use this to your advantage by placing much smaller continuation bets than you would otherwise. If you aren't going to get a fold with a (relatively) small bet, you probably weren't going to with a big one either. Be aggressive but always remain careful and time your bets as well as possible.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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