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If you’re a Hold’em newb, you probably think people put way too much stress on betting strategy or that it’s way too complicated to be worth learning. Actually, though, both of these excuses are just plain copouts. For one thing, betting is the focal point of every successful Texas Hold’em strategy. And for another… well, you’re reading Poker Master right now: Do you really expect us not to give you the skinniest skinny on even the toughest strategy problems?
That being said, the following list includes only the most basic principles of betting strategy. Look at it as a kind of “Hold’em Betting 101” on ye olde proverbial stick; our other Hold’em sections will provide you with more in-depth strategies for particular play formats, but for now, just concentrate on these founding principles and see if they don’t help you kick it up a notch:
First off, it’s important to understand what you’re really saying when you place a bet in poker. Unlike more random casino games (say, roulette or craps), betting in any form of poker is a declaration. It says something to the other players and has a strategic effect on their play as well. Either you’re telling them you think you’ve got the best hand at the table and you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is; or you’re saying you think your opponent has a poor hand and he or she will have to fold if forced to wager on it.
In theory, you’re supposed to bet when you have a good hand, and you’re supposed to fold when you don’t. But, as with anything in life, real poker is never as simple as it's supposed to be. Most players play contrary to the good-hand-bet-bad-hand-fold principle in an attempt to keep their opponents guessing and up their chances of winning when they really don’t deserve it. This is all well and good for more experienced players. But our advice for the uninitiated is to keep it frickin’ simple; you didn’t pull any fancy acrobatics when you first learned to walk, so how can you expect to pull off a Jedi mind trick when you first start playing Hold’em? If you're completely fresh to the game, stop reading now and come back to this page once you've had some practice. If you've been through a hand or two and can list the play progression and hand rankings, though, feel free to move on to the next section.
Stealing Blinds: Once you’ve had a good bit of practice, one of the first betting strategies you should learn is “stealing blinds.” Basically, all you have to do for this one is get in on a short-handed table with, say, three or four players and wait till you’re in the Dealer’s position. Then, once the blinds have made their initial bets, you simply raise them twice to three times the Big Blind for the game.
The reason this strategy almost always works is that the Big and Little Blinds have to bet in order to see their hole cards. And, more often than not, they’ve bet on cards that aren’t worth playing and will fold, leaving you with the extra dinero now in the pot. If you were to call the blinds instead, the other players could check, giving them a chance to make out on the flop. This way, though, you’ve made a quick buck or two, and can move on to the next hand—a pretty good strategy if you’ve actually got diddly in the hole.
Stealing: Similar to “stealing blinds,” stealing can have drawbacks at larger tables with more experienced players. For one thing, though a fourth or fifth player at a beginners’ table might get cold feet when the blinds leave, medium- and expert-level players definitely won’t. So the rule of thumb here is to only try to pull off any kind of stealing when you’re a beginner at a beginners’ table. Once you’ve gotten a little more experience, though, you can try stealing at any position to occasionally knock out the blinds and/or keep the other folks at the table guessing.
The real strength of stealing isn’t that it will give you a nice little potshot every time, but that, in expert-level games, the remaining players will think: “Hmmm, ballsy move. I wonder what he’s got.” They’ll know you’ve either got pocket crap or have a great hand and want to force the issue, and you can use their doubts to your advantage. Because no one with pocket aces would, for instance, want to scare off possible bettors who could grow the pot, even the best players can imagine you’re simply trying to get to the next hand. They’ll know you could be playing them for a great pot, but the fact that you could also be bluffing will be reason enough for them to check-raise and follow you in.
Check-Raising: Check-raising is checking to your opponent with the goal of luring him to bet so that you can raise him back. Basically, you are hoping to lull your opponent into a false sense of safety so you can raise him and increase the pot. After all, if you opponent has already committed to one bet, he is more likely to commit to a second. You, on the other hand, are only drawing him further and further into your spider web.
The Opener: This is a reckless move often made by players who are bad bluffers. An “opener” is when the first person to act raises, making the other players call two bets at once. The intention of the opener is to limit the number of players, essentially admitting that the player isn’t secure in his hand. In most cases, the opener will have the desired effect and many players will fold. However, the remaining players will either be equally aggressive or will have truly great hands. So the moral of the story is to use this one: a.) When you have a good hand and want to make people think you don’t or B.) When you want to purposely get caught bluffing to keep your opponents guessing.
Squeezing: Note: This strategy should only be used in a short-handed game. “Squeezing” is when you have a good hand and, suspecting your opponents are on a draw, raise the pot to stick them between a rock and a hard place. For example, say you have a pair of Queens and a good kicker like a suited king or ace: Naturally, the outs odds are that your opponents won’t make their draws, so essentially you’re limiting their pot odds. Even the best players are likely to fold if they have to pay more than their hands are worth to stay in—even if they’ve been bluffing the whole game. Again, this only works in a short-handed game because if there are more players the out odds are that one of them will pick up the draw.