Poker is an exciting game that brings together luck and human psychology. Most players don't rely solely on the absolute value of their hand because it's more important to understand how to leverage the relative value against your opponents' hands. How do we know our opponents' hands? We watch them play and make hypotheses based on their behavior. To understand this, let us now introduce betting strategy.

Betting Strategy

As they say, you need to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. In Hold Em, there are a total of 4 betting rounds (preflop, flop, turn, and river). Anytime that you bet strong (relative to the size of the pot), it's an indicator to your opponents that you might have a strong hand. Conversely, when you bet small, or don't bet at all, it's an indicator that you have a weak hand. In other words, it's not what you have, but how you use it. Most players will take advantage of these indicators, in addition to other tells, when choosing whether to bet, check, or fold.

By itself, any one bet doesn't indicate much. As you progress into the later betting rounds, you'll have a much better idea of what their hole cards could be, because you'll be watching their response to various new revealed cards. For example, if they bet strong in the beginning, but dial it back when a flush opens up, it's a good indicator they feel their initially strong hand became weaker and is bested by a flush. In this example, even if you didn't land the flush, it might be a good opportunity to try to scare them out of the pot! Using our free Interactive Texas Hold Em, you can see that the odds for different hands can change drastically during any single game.

Best Poker Tells

The advantage of playing poker in person and not online is that you can obtain better "reads" on other players, by watching their behavior as they play. Do they start to fidget when they're nervous? How many times do they look at their hole cards during an average play? Do they exhibit an autoimmune response to strong cards (such as a small reflexive smile)? Try to understand your opponent's perspective and imagine what kind of cards they have. Although checking is free, it's a generally a good sign of weakness. If a player persistently bets strong, they're either bluffing to the moon or are legitimately confident they have the best possible hand on the table.

How to Bluff

One of my favorite exercises while playing poker for low or no stakes in Alaska is the following. When you are dealt your pocket cards, if at all possible (ie your opponents aren't watching), don't look at your cards or ignore what they are completely. This is a good way to realize that it doesn't matter what cards you have, it's more about you trying to:

  • Minimize the number of competitive players by scaring them out of the pot earlier than later

  • Maximize the size of the pot, to a degree

The big exception to this exercise is to remember that your opponent might actually have the cards you're trying to suggest you have. So when you bluff, you still need to be careful to realize when you stand no chance of scaring the other playing out of the pot. With that said, however, bluffing takes commitment. You need to be ready to go down to the river if playing against skilled players.

When you get strong pocket cards, you should be careful to bet appropriately for the number and type of players in your game. If you bet weak, you'll have too many players in on the pot and greater chances of someone landing something bigger by capitalizing on a serendipitous flop. If you bet too strong, you'll only collect the ante and waste a great hand. There's nothing more frustrating that landing pocket Aces and having everyone on the table fold!

Going Further

Not to confuse you, but most players already have a good sense of how to bet appropriately. The best players will never be scared by an enormous bet, and sometimes you'll have a worse player beat you with sheer luck because they don't understand what they [were] up against. So with that said, be wary of throwing your money out there when you're up against players who are not too receptive of your betting strategy.

The advice above represents expected play from rational players. However, knowing this, if you have a monster hand and have a good feel for the table dynamics, you can do well by tricking other players into the pot by refraining from strong bets where you normally would.