Important Concepts in Limit Holdem Part II

By Anthony Bee (a.k.a. ‘Tony’ on the Low Limit Poker Forum).

In my previous article I discussed the concepts of ‘domination’ and ‘pot equity’.  This article will discuss another very important concept and is again aimed at newer players hoping to improve their understanding of the game. 

Betting or Raising for Value

The concept of the ‘value bet’ is extremely important in limit hold’em.  It is particularly valuable in loose, low-limit games which are this site’s main emphasis.

This concept can be applicable both preflop and postflop, and is useful when considered with your pot equity to decide whether to bet or raise.  (If you don’t understand the meaning of the term ‘pot equity’, read this article first.)

A ‘value bet’ is a bet which will make money when your opponents call.  Effectively it’s the opposite of a bluff, which makes money when your opponents fold.

Before the flop

As an application of this concept before the flop, let’s assume you are under the gun in a ten-handed limit cash game.  You are dealt a nice looking hand, a pair of Jacks.  Woohoo!  You’re sitting in a game with a number of loose players who are happy to see the flop with hands such as any ace, any two suited cards, any two face cards and any connector, for any number of bets.  You know if you raise you’re likely to get at least four or five callers holding these kind of hands.  (This scenario is not that uncommon in low limit and even middle limit games, by the way).

Many players reason that they should just call rather than raise before the flop in this kind of game because the flop will often bring a couple of overcards and they will probably have to fold, losing two small bets.  They argue that raising will not limit the field, which means their pair will lose more often than it would if they could keep the pot short-handed on the flop.  This is true.

They also argue that players as loose as this will chase with many weak hands, and making the pot larger will only encourage this.  This is also true.

But in fact you should definitely raise, and the decision isn’t even close.  In this scenario you’re not raising to limit the field.  You WANT your opponents to call.  You are raising for value.

Against 9 random hands, JJ has a pot equity of approximately 19%.  (Here is a table of pot equity values for various hands if you’re interested.)  This is significantly higher than the expected preflop pot equity of an average hand, which in a ten-handed game would be 1/10, or 10%.

Another way of saying this is that JJ has a preflop pot equity edge of 9%.  It is significantly better than your opponents’ hands if they are willing to enter the pot with average or below average hands.

When this is the case you make money on every additional bet that goes into the pot. Not necessarily on this particular hand of course, but in the long run if you consistently raise when you have a big edge.  Let’s look at this example in more detail.

It is true that JJ played to a showdown will win significantly more often heads-up, for example, than it will in a ten-handed pot.  In fact it turns out that heads-up JJ will win about 78% of the time.  But this isn't a problem, since winning lots of pots isn't what the game is about.  It's about winning lots of MONEY.

Let's do a little arithmetic.  Imagine for a moment that every time you hold JJ the pot happens to be heads-up. In this case you will win about 78% of the time it goes to a showdown.  In other words, you will net 78 cents for every dollar you contribute to the pot (since you have only one opponent and a 78% chance of winning).  For every dollar you spend, you make 78 cents profit.

Therefore if you raise preflop (or someone else raises), you make 85 cents on every additional dollar that goes into the pot as a result of raising.  You'll feel great about playing your pair of jacks because winning pots is fun, and you'll feel less frustrated because the bad beats and the occasions that you are forced to fold will be few and far between.  But the bottom line is that you'll only make slightly less than double your investment in the long run.

Now consider the other extreme.  In this case you are in the loosest game possible against the worst players possible.  They play anything for any number of bets.  In this case for every dollar you contribute to the pot, 9 other players also contribute a dollar.  So if you were to win every time you had a pair of jacks, then for a $1 investment you would receive a $9 return.  Unfortunately against this many opponents you'll only win about 19% of the time.  Fortunately, this still amounts to a $1.71 return (that’s 19% of $9) on a $1 investment.

So which would you prefer, 85 cents profit or $1.71 profit?  When put like this you can see it really is a no-brainer.  You should get as many bets in as possible with your premium hands (meaning your big pairs, big aces and big suited cards) before the flop, and you should HOPE that poor players with weaker hands call you.  The more the better.

The fact you'll win far fewer pots is actually irrelevant with regard to maximising the amount of money you’ll win.  Multiway pots are hugely more profitable in the long run than shorthanded pots where premium hands are concerned.  It’s not about winning the most pots.  It’s about winning the most money.

After the Flop

Now let’s look at some examples of value betting after the flop.  In the first, assume you are holding AK heads-up on the turn facing a two-suited board of K972.  A player raised from middle position and you made it three bets before the flop and bet the flop, and the pot now contains 4 big bets (I know that’s not accurate but I’m trying to keep the numbers simple, so bear with me).

You think your passive opponent is on a flush draw since he just called your flop bet.  It turns out that your pot equity in this case is about 70%.

In other words, you can ‘expect’ to win 2.8 big bets (70% of 4) on average.  If you bet the turn (costing 1 big bet) and your opponent calls, there will be 6 big bets in the pot, of which you can expect to win 4.2 big bets (70% of 6).

You have put 1 big bet into the pot and as a result have increased your pot equity by 1.4 big bets (4.2 - 2.8 = 1.4).  You have made money on the bet, so the bet had ‘value’.  This is why if you have a strong made hand and you think you have a pot equity edge you should usually bet, particularly if you are heads-up and you think your opponent has a weaker made hand or is on a draw.

Of course the river card may bring your opponent’s flush, in which case you will lose, or it may bring a blank in which case you will win.  But on average when you’ve played several thousand hands in this situation your bet will make you money.  That’s what value betting is all about.

If a fishy player also decided to come along for the ride with 87 offsuit, you’re in even better shape.  Although your pot equity will be lower with an additional opponent (around 60%) the pot will also be larger, and your bet will gain even more value as a result.  This ‘dead money’ which weak players contribute to the pot with almost no chance of winning is a major reason why loose games are so profitable.

Now let’s look at another scenario.

This time you’re on the flop and you are the one with the flush draw.  You have four opponents, no one showed any aggression before the flop and it’s checked to you on the button.

In this case you should usually bet.  Why?  Well, a flush draw is about 2:1 against improving to a flush by the river, and therefore in a multiway pot you will usually have a significant pot equity edge.  In fact in loose games where most pots are contested by many players, the player with the strongest draw, not necessarily the strongest made hand, will often have the most equity in the pot.

In this case, since you have a pot equity edge you should bet if you think your opponents will call.  With a flush draw you will make your flush around one third of the time by the river, so provided two (or even better, three) players call your bet, your bet gains value.

In this situation if someone check raises and two opponents call, you can even reraise if you think everyone will match your bet.  You can do this safe in the knowledge that these raises are value bets, so whether or not you make your flush on this particular occasion you’ll make a profit from them in the long run.

Notice that the natural corollary from this is that if you have a good but not great made hand (such as top pair) in a multiway pot and the flop is coordinated, you should be cautious about playing it aggressively on the flop. 

This is because as the game conditions become looser, what constitutes the ‘best’ hand changes.  In fact the hand with the biggest pot equity edge may be the strongest draw, not the strongest made hand.  Your overpair or top pair with top kicker may not have a pot equity edge even though it may be the best hand on the flop, so raising may LOSE value.  Many players, including those who consider themselves good players, don’t realise this and will ALWAYS raise with top pair on the flop regardless of the specific conditions.

For example, if the pot is four-handed with the following hands in play:

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 Player 3
King of Hearts Queen of Hearts
Hole Cards
Ace of Spades Jack of Spades
Hole Cards
Ten of Clubs Ten of Spades
Hole Cards
Eight of Clubs Six of Clubs
Hole Cards

and the flop is

Nine of Hearts Seven of Hearts Two of Clubs

it may surprise you to learn that the only hand with a pot equity edge is the big flush draw, Kh Qh.  Its pot equity is about 53%, even though the pair of tens is currently the best poker hand.  In fact, the pot equity of the TT hand is a little over 20%, and certainly not enough to bet for value (it would need to be above 25% against three opponents to do so.  The only hand that benefits from a bet in this scenario is the KQ hand.

Of course, the player holding TT can’t know for certain that he’s up against a big draw, but an experienced player will be aware that this is often the case in multiway pots when the flop is coordinated, and will play cautiously until he sees the turn card.  For example, raising in this kind of situation will often be a mistake.

If the turn card completes a draw or brings an overcard and there’s any action in front of him, he can fold with a clear conscience having saved a few bets.  Recognising that this is the kind of situation where a single pair is unlikely to be enough to win the pot is very important, particularly if you regularly play in loose games. 

On the River

Finally, let’s discuss value betting on the river.  This is an area that new players often get wrong, and it costs them dearly in the long run.

The basic idea is this.  If you are playing against opponents who play weak hands before the flop and go too far with them after the flop, and you have been betting a decent made hand all the way, then BET THE RIVER.

Even if the river brings a scary card that completes a possible draw or two, you should usually continue to bet. This is because fishy players such as these will call you down with some VERY dodgy hands.  Often any pair, or even just ace high will be enough.  When this is the case, then failing to bet the river is a mistake.  Even if this occasionally backfires and it turns out he DOES have that flush, more often than not he will turn over second pair no kicker or overcards.  In the long run you will win that extra bet more often than you will lose it, so you should bet for value.  The idea is the same; you make money when your opponent calls.

Also don’t fall into the trap of being ‘satisfied’ with the current size of the pot.  No pot is too large to stop you from value betting the river if the situation warrants it.

Obviously you have to be sensible, and in some situations the board will be SO scary that common sense will tell you that a check is probably the best move.  For example if the board contains four cards to a flush or straight.

Also if the pot is contested by many opponents or you are against a strong player who you know wouldn’t chase with a weak draw, then you should be less inclined to bet.

But if the pot is shorthanded, the board is not super scary and you’ve been betting into a calling station all the way, don’t stop now.  Squeeze your fishy friend for every cent.

Who said poker was a friendly game?