by Russ Fox
I was playing in a $2-$5 blinds, no limit hold’em game at the Aria yesterday. After I folded my junk hand from under-the-gun, the solid recreational player on my left raised to $20. Three players called: a loose recreational player, a solid pro, and the big blind.
On the flop of J♣ 8♥ 2♣, the big blind checked, the pre-flop raiser made a continuation bet of $35, and was immediately raised to $95 by the loose player. The pro re-raised to $200, the big blind and the pre-flop raiser folded, and the action was back on the loose player. He instantly said, “All-in for $560 more.” He was quickly called by the pro. The board completed with the 6♥ and A♥. The loose player showed 9♦ 3♠; the pro had 10♣ 9♣ to take down the pot.
That hopeless bluff wasn’t the worst mistake made by the loose player at the table. When he raised small, he had a big hand; when he raised big, he didn’t have a big hand. And this brings me to the classic argument in poker: Should you vary your raise sizing? I’m a strong believer in not varying my raises based on my holdings. If I do the same thing every time I hold a hand, there’s no way you can know if I’m raising with AA or garbage. I may choose to play a hand based on my holding, but my betting will be based on the actions so far in the hand. I’ve done this for as long as I’ve been playing poker; it’s based on a concept I learned from Fred Karpin.
Mr. Karpin, who passed away in 1986, was a bridge columnist for the Washington Post, and the author of several books on the game; my favorite is The Art of Card Reading at Bridge. Mr. Karpin was an advocate of forcing your opponents to guess, and always doing the same thing (so your opponents cannot draw an inference from your play or bidding). This is a sound strategy in both bridge and poker.
Varying your raise sizing can work if there is no pattern to it. Let’s assume you’re playing in a $2-$5 blinds no-limit hold’em game and you are first to raise. Let’s say you raise to $15, $20, $25, and $30 based on some random event (e.g. the seconds on your watch). Assuming the event is truly random, then there is no pattern.
The problem for most of us is that we’re human beings. While both methods can work, it’s far easier to not vary your raise sizing. All I have to remember is that my pre-flop raise when I’m first is always to, say, $20. There is no pattern for the opponents to pick up. KISS works far easier than any other method. When we vary raise sizing it’s easy to forget what we’re supposed to do in the heat of battle.
Even advocates of varying your raise sizing would agree that always raising small when you have a big hand, and big when you have a bad hand, is not a good idea. While the loose player lost $800 on the hand described above, he lost about $1200 from his other raises.
The contrary style, raising big with big hands, and small with bad hands, has a lot more to argue for it. If you’re playing against unaware opponents, then playing exploitable in this manner has the potential for a much larger financial reward. After all, don’t we want to increase the pot size when we have a better chance of winning the pot?
Russell Fox is the co-author of “Mastering No-Limit Hold’em,” “Why You Lose at Poker,” and “Winning Strategies for No-Limit Hold’em.” He’s a federally licensed tax preparer specializing in gambling, with a blog at taxabletalk.com.
E-mail Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org