Monday, May 28, 2012

Continuation Betting 101

Long-timer readers of this blog are probably sick of me writing this, but I honestly can’t help myself: It is vitally important to remember that there are two--and only two--primary reasons to bet in poker: 1) to get a worse hand to call (read: Value); and/or 2) to get a better hand to fold (read: Bluff). Yes, there are other, secondary reasons to bet (isolation, giving opp the wrong odds to draw, etc.) but these first two are the biggies. If you can’t figure out which of the two you’re trying to achieve with your bet, you probably should not be betting in the first place. Further, it's important to note that this concept extends to all types of betting, including the ubiquitous flop continuation bet, or cbet.

Definition: a continuation bet is a bet made by the preflop aggressor when nobody has bet before him on the flop. The preflop aggressor is the last player to have put in a raise before the flop.

If you’re the preflop aggressor, making a continuation bet on the flop often makes good sense. Why is this?

For starters, you’ve shown strength by raising, whereas all your opponents have shown weakness by calling. Thus you, the aggressor, are perceived to have a strong range. In this case, your cbet is perceived as a value bet, and it’s difficult for your opponents to stay in the hand unless they also have something strong themselves. Remember that most flops miss everyone, and therefore it's hard to call a flop bet without an actual hand. Hence, the first bet on the flop often takes down a pot. In other words cbetting is primarily done as a bluff (but it can also certainly be done for value).

(A secondary benefit of cbetting when bluffing is keep your opponents from running over you. If you bet the flop whenever you hit, but check whenever you miss, your opponents can (and will) exploit you simply by folding when you bet, but betting when you check. Hence, against observant opponents you need to bet both when you miss and when you hit. This adds a measure of deception to your game, and it makes it very hard for your opponents to know if/when you’ve hit the flop. Remember, at its core, poker is about deception, and getting your opponents to zig when you zag...)

Ah, but this doesn’t mean you should always cbet 100% of the time. There are many times when the situation dictates that you need to check (or call).  As it turns out, there are six primary factors to consider when deciding whether to cbet or not:
  1. Our Own Hand. Most people associate cbets with bluffs on missed flops. However, every once in a while we actually hit a hand. In these cases we should mostly value cbet. ABC poker dictates that with a value hand, you want to build value, and this means betting to build a pot. The only real exception to this is when we hit the flop so hard that we have a virtual lock (e.g., full house, quads, maybe top set on a rainbow dry board, etc.) and we're convinced our opponent is going to fold to any bet we toss out there. If we flop a monster we sometimes need to give our opponent the rope needed to hang themselves. But let's be clear: if we hit an average value hand there is usually a lot of risk in slowplaying. We're also not building actual value. Most of the time when you have a value hand, go ahead and cbet.
  2. Number of Opponents. The more opponents involved in the hand, the better the chance that one of them has hit the flop. On average, we and our opponents miss the flop something like 70% of the time. This means that if you're facing two opponents on the flop, there's only a ~50% chance that both missed it (70% x 70%). With three opponents the probability shrinks to approximately one in three (70% x 70% x 70%). In other words, the more opponents you face, the smaller the chance that a cbet bluff is going to take down the pot. This leads to the oft-cited advice to play straightforward in a multiway pot. You can c-bet more liberally heads-up, but dial it back when two or more opponents are sticking around.
  3. Our Position. If you are the preflop aggressor, are in position, and everybody checks to you, you generally have a decent idea about the strength of their hands. (Although some players will obviously check to the raiser with strong cards and then raise when you cbet.) In general, however, when you have position you should be more inclined to cbet than if you don't. When you are out of position you have no indication as to how your opponents like the flop, so you will have to proceed far more carefully.
  4. Our Image. How our opponents perceive us has a great impact on the success rate of our bluffs (but only if they're actually paying attention and/or playing L2 poker). For example, if we have been been a rock for the past hour at the table, but now raised in early position, a continuation bet on the flop has a good chance of success. On the other hand, if we have played the part of a maniac for that same period of time, and now open raise from the button, the chance are that our opponents see through us is probably pretty good.  (The good news with this, however, is that at L3, we can use this information to our advantage, and make our Value hands look like Bluffs, and vice versa, and therefore induce huge mistakes by our opponents.)
  5. Opponent Tendencies. Any and all information about our opponent tendencies should factor into our decision whether to cbet. For example, if the villain plays fit-or-fold after the flop (meaning he will fold to a cbet unless he hits the flop) we can profitably cbet almost all the time (and do so with smaller than average sized cbets, too, thereby risking less). On the other hand, against a calling station we should forget about cbet bluffing altogether. Postflop stats such as "fold to cbet %" or "flop check raise %" are very useful indicators, especially with larger sample sizes of data.  Notes are even better.  In other words, use your L2 skills to determine how you think the opp will react to your cbet-- before you actually fire out the cbet.
  6. Flop Texture and Ranges. The final thing we need to consider is the board texture and how it connects to the villain's range. If the flop hits our opponent's range but missed us, it rarely make sense to cbet as a bluff.
Finally, it's useful to note that if our opponent is a solid L2 or higher player, he's looking at all these same six factors, too, so you need to include that into your decision to cbet or not. Remember, our opponents aren't (for the most part, anyway) stupid; they're thinking and evaluating and deciding when you're full or it and when you're not.
Okay, that's it for now. There's obviously a lot more to cbetting than just this little introductory primer. In a future post or two, I'll discuss how a program like Flopzilla can help you address factors #5 and #6, above. There are also Implementation factors to consider, such as bet sizing as a function of board texture and villain tendencies. For me, cbetting is an area of my game that I'm currently working hard on to improve; hopefully you can get some benefit from this exercise, too.

All-in for now...

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