by Barbara Connors
The continuation bet is one of the most powerful plays in poker, because defending against it is so difficult. Any player who is failing to defend against a continuation bet is letting his opponents run all over him. But there are two sides to every coin, and defending too often is tantamount to throwing chips out the window. When you consider that a sizable portion of continuation bets that come your way will inevitably be continuation bluffs, the ability to find that middle balance and sniff out at least some of the counterfeit c-bets is critical.
Because it tells a consistent story—the same player is representing strength both before and on the flop—the c-bet provides perfect camouflage for a bluff. Consider all those times when the raiser bumps it up with A-K or A-Q, only to whiff on the flop. More often than not, anyone who raises with two big, unpaired cards, is going to miss the flop, and having missed, is going to c-bet the flop anyway. So how do you determine when to push back and when to get out of the way? Unless you have an excellent read on this particular opponent, attempting a bluff of your own with a garbage hand is a dicey proposition at best. But if you have a moderate-strength hand, something like second pair, the question of whether or not to defend gets a lot trickier.
First and foremost, know thine enemy. How aggressive is this player in general? How often does he c-bet after raising before the flop? Is it a rare occurrence, or an automatic, knee-jerk response to three cards falling on the felt? The more frequently he follows up with a c-bet, the less likely it becomes that he really has the goods this time. Consider everything you know about this adversary and his style of play, and then put that together with the particulars of the situation—his position, the size of his c-bet, and the number of opponents he is c-betting into. Taking all that into account, you should be able to put the c-bettor on a range of hands.
You must also consider the texture of the flop. Any player is going to miss the flop about two-thirds of the time. But if an ace falls, that gives the c-bettor an easy out. He can represent a pair of aces—regardless of whether or not the bullet actually hit him. Of course he also knows, or he should, that an ace on the flop could help his opponents, since everybody and their dog loves to call before the flop with just about any ace. The big difference is, he represented strength before the flop, and you didn’t. So unless you have an ace in your hand, or you have a very good reason to believe he doesn’t, it’s probably best to get out of the way. If the flop contains a king or a queen, it’s just a slightly different verse of the same song. The c-bettor will be representing a big pair, and it’s your job to figure out whether or not he’s lying. As a general rule, the best flops for defending against the c-bet are flops that are either very ragged, or very coordinated. In the first case, you know, and he knows you know, that a ragged flop is unlikely to have helped the supposedly-big cards he raised with before the flop. And in the second case, the coordinated flop raises the specter of drawing hands or even made draws that could now be out against him.
Precisely because continuation bets have become so routine in poker, so de rigueur, knowing when and how to defend against them is more important than ever. Even a slight miscalculation in terms of defending too often, or defending too seldom, can cost a player dearly over the long run.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.